Father Bassano joyfully accepts challenges of  service in South Sudan

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

Where Father Michael Bassano, MM, serves in South Sudan, the palm branches for Palm Sunday are easy to obtain — a quick visit to the east side of the White Nile River.

“Just go and cut them and bring them all inside,” he said, adding that they certainly have enough palm.

Binghamton native Father Bassano, a Maryknoll missionary, called the Sun recently while walking to his church in the United Nations Protection of Civilians (POC) camp outside the town of Malakal in South Sudan, a country that was hit by civil war in December 2013. Catholic News Service reported April 18 that a fragile peace exists in the world’s newest nation. “We’ll see how it works,” Father Bassano said of the new transitional government.

“We wish everybody a good Easter season,” said Father Bassano, the Catholic chaplain for the camp, which has a population of about 30,000, including 15,000 children between the ages of five and 17. More people are coming into the camp, he said, looking for food and protection.

Father Bassano planned to wave the palm branches with the people as they walked on the dusty roads singing songs with the youth group and the Legion of Mary. He said he wanted to show the POC camp that his parish members are “followers of Jesus committed to peace and unity for all of South Sudan. That’s the emphasis — to bring everybody together.”

Watching the “procession of enjoyment and enthusiasm” on Palm Sundays, Father Bassano said, are the people who come out of their tents and little houses. “Quite the event,” he said.

Recent participation in his church included choir practice, the liturgy committee, and election of a parish council, which organizes activities for youth and liturgical celebrations and makes decisions on whatever finances the church has. “It’s good to see the young people taking leadership roles,” Father Bassano said.

As his congregation got ready to celebrate Holy Week and the Easter season, he said, “This gives our people a lot of hope; they hope for new life and peace to come.” He said soldiers from England have a barracks only half a kilometer away from the POC camp. On Easter Sunday, Father Bassano said, the soldiers planned to provide goodies for his parish’s children after Mass. “Minimum 300 to 400 children that we’ll need sweets for,” he said — a “nice party” on Easter afternoon.

After the opening prayer of Mass, Father Bassano gives all the children a blessing and then sends them out to an area with plastic sheeting where the kids learn about Jesus and the Scriptures. “We want to let little children know how important they are as well,” he said. The children come back into the church for the end of Mass.

They all sweat a little bit in church, Father Bassano said — “it’s really been hot, over 100 degrees, every day. … We were in the hottest part of the year until the rainy season begins in May; then it cools down a little bit.”

Despite the heat, he said, “We still give thanks to God for the gift of life. Then some good drinks of water afterward.”

The missionary priest also experienced a first: In February he addressed the South Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Meeting in Juba, the capital; he told them about the situation in the POC camp and in the nearby town of Malakal.

“My prayer was, Lord, help me talk about your people I have been with all these years,” Father Bassano recalled.

The people in his camp, he said, “still have hope we can still live together as one family of God.”

He finished his address with a story about a boy who said “‘we are meant to live as one family.’”

In a Pastoral Message flowing from their meeting, the bishops cited the signing last September of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

“Very powerful letter,” Father Bassano said.

He interprets the Pastoral Message as saying that the peace agreement “is not enough to bring lasting peace; that the government leaders must be committed to peace not by words but by actions.”

The bishops, he said, talked about keeping the military out of villages; issues of land that was taken over by the government; hunger; and how to rebuild people’s homes.

Asked for his Easter message for the people of the Syracuse Diocese, Father Bassano said:

“That in the risen Jesus may we all find a way to see each other as sister or brother in this world and to truly live in peace and unity; especially for the people of South Sudan that a new time will come in their lives.

“The message of Easter is hope. We hope for always better things to come and not accept things as they are now; that we find a way to live in more respect and with more dignity for one another”; and that also we become aware of the needs of our brothers and sisters in the world who are suffering.

He expressed his hope that the Catholic Church be “one with all people … where everyone has enough food, good education, and a chance at a better life. Amen.”

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