Binghamton native Father Bassano draws praise in South Sudan

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

Amid the conflict and uncertainties of South Sudan, Father Michael Bassano has stayed with the people, and the bishop-elect of his diocese has noticed.

Father Bassano, a Binghamton native, called the Sun on June 25 from South Sudan, where he is the Catholic chaplain in the United Nations Protection of Civilians (POC) camp with a population of about 37,000 people outside the town of Malakal. Up to about 3,000 of them are members of his parish.

Diocese of Malakal Bishop-elect

Stephen Nyodho Ador Mojwok visited the POC camp in June. After Communion and before his final blessing at Mass in Father Bassano’s “big tin box” of a church, the bishop-elect said this:

“‘I want to thank you, Father Michael, that you have been with the people here, the Catholic people, during this time of war and conflict, that you have been with them.’”

The bishop-elect added that many native priests had to flee the fighting and stay in the capital, Juba, “‘but you came up to be with our people, you stayed with them. … You came all the way from New York, far away, to be here in this POC camp.”

Then he said this, which “really touched” Father Bassano: “‘You have been the true shepherd of the people. You have been the second bishop.’ …

“Can you believe that? … I didn’t know what to do. I almost cried. I put my hands over my face. Wasn’t looking for that compliment.”

Just being with the people is enough for Father Bassano. He was in Malakal in October 2013 before the conflict broke out in December of that year, but then he was evacuated out with Solidarity with South Sudan, which says on its website that it “aims to create self-sustainable educational, health, and pastoral institutions and programs that will help to empower South Sudanese people to build a just and peaceful society.”

Then he came back to the POC camp in November 2014 and he has been there since. In a Travel Advisory dated April 9 this year, the U.S. State Department’s website says: “Do not travel to South Sudan due to crime, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” Catholic News Service reported April 18 that a fragile peace existed in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation.

A peace agreement that was signed last September said a transitional government had to start in April or May of this year, Father Bassano said, but now that has been extended to November. Issues that remain, he said, include working on the boundaries for ethnic groups and getting the military out of the villages and into their barracks. Father Bassano hopes that a transitional government will allow the people in his camp to return to their homes.

Amid the conflict, Malakal hasn’t had a bishop in 10 years. The new bishop-elect, 46, who was born there, will be Malakal’s third bishop. His motto is “To love one another as I have loved you,” based on a saying of Jesus from the Gospel of John. The bishop-elect brought this message, Father Bassano said: “‘We will find the way to peace and reconciliation.’”

“I think he’ll be a very unifying person to bring people together,” Father Bassano said of the bishop-elect, who will be ordained July 28.

When he visited the POC camp, the people gave the bishop-elect a garland and white traditional attire, started singing, and walked with him to the tin church, which used to be covered by plastic sheeting. Instead of a handshake, the bishop-elect encouraged the people to give one another a hug for the sign of peace during the Mass.

Father Bassano said the bishop-elect was amazed by the reception and noted the situation the people are living in. The congested camp’s pathways are dusty and people live in tents. They line up twice a day to get water in yellow cans. They get food that they hope will last a month. There is a Doctors without Borders hospital and an International Medical Corps clinic that does operations.

Efforts are being made to contain the Ebola outbreak in two countries that border South Sudan: the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, Father Bassano said. If the illness came to the POC camp, he said, “it would be devastating because people live so close together.”

It is the rainy season now where Father Bassano ministers to the people. When he called at about 5 p.m. local time, seven hours ahead of Eastern Time, the rain had just stopped and it was about 65 to 70 degrees. When there is no rain, the temperature hits 100.

Father Bassano was going to put his boots on and walk through the sticky mud to the camp.

He was very pleased about those comments from the bishop-elect:

“I’ll never forget that moment. It is not something you expect to hear. … It was a grace-filled moment, believe me.”

2 stories from the camp

On July 8, the Sun received these brief dispatches from Father Bassano, who also supplied the titles for the vignettes:

The triplets

While I was visiting the Doctors Without Borders hospital in our UN camp for displaced people in Malakal, there was a woman who gave birth to triplets. The mother named Margaret then asked me to give names to her three beautiful girls just recently born. It was an honor for me and we named the girls Mariam, Estella, and Bakhita. It was the first time in our camp that a woman gave birth to triplets. What a gift that the mother gave me the privilege to name her children to show that we are all part of the one family of God.

‘I am very happy’

Sometimes it is important to realize the value of our presence in others’ lives. I was visiting a five-year-old boy who was at a medical clinic with his mother. The boy had a painful ear infection that needed medical treatment. On passing by to visit other patients, I noticed him sitting on a bench waiting for the doctor to come. We said hello to each and shook hands, and then I gave a blessing and prayer, touching his head.

Later, that day as I was going to the church, the father of the boy came up and wanted to talk to me. He asked me if I had been to the church earlier in the day to meet his son accompanied by his mother. I told him yes and he then told me what his son said to him. The boy told his father: “I am very happy today.” When the father asked why, he said because “that priest came to visit me today.” The father of the boy thanked me and then I walked to the church amazed at what he had said.

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