The cardinal celebrated Mass in the field in the northern part of the country, where over 140,000 people are gathered, more than half of them children. The meeting with the UNHCR representatives and with the members of the local government, but above all the hug to the people who gave the Foreign Minister an indescribable welcome: “Pray that the Pope will come among you”
Salvatore Cernuzio – Sent to Bentiu
Three of them are playing inside the carcass of a boeing that crashed on one of the vast expanses of red earth. The others are barefoot or directly naked, bathing in the Nile or rinsing their thin legs in one of the puddles, which depending on the amount of waste inside are green or orange. Wearing pink tulle dresses or Inter and Milan T-shirts in two sizes larger, they graze cows and goats on the mounds created to stem the floods. Children, many children, are the protagonists of Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s visit on his second day in Juba in Bentiu, an area in the north of the country where the homophobic camp is located. The world heard about the last year for cases of hepatitis and cholera, generally it is mentioned for the very poor water and sanitation conditions. In this face of white tents and plate huts, of sticks with curtains over those used as homes, the Secretary of State today celebrated Mass, reminding God that he listens to the cries of those who suffer from injustice, abuse and persecution.
Arrival by a UN plane
Starting this morning at dawn with a fifteen-seat UN plane, after flying over rivers and forests for almost two hours, Parolin arrives in this desert area, where the only gust of wind that provides relief from the heat of almost 41 degrees lifts scarlet dust by to stick it on clothes and smartphones. To welcome the cardinal, there are groups of women who greet him with a white tunic and flower wreaths. Behind them, still children. A group of teenagers with big hats and big skirts show up in front of the cardinal: “Welcome my Emincence”, says the eldest, and after a bow she begins to move her shoulders and pelvis in a tribal dance, followed by her companions. Together, they immediately climb into the open trunk of a jeep. There will be about ten. Too few compared to other cars that can transport up to 25-30 people. They escort the cardinal’s car to the center of Bentiu, where an agreement with the members of the local government takes place. An informal meeting to exchange greetings and reaffirm the desire for peace and development.
The entrance to the village
The road is a continuous slalom between huge puddles, donkeys lying on the ground and chariots of soldiers with Kalashnikovs, “the most common weapon in these regions”. After about twenty minutes, the cardinal enters through the gates of the village. Hundreds of them stream out onto the streets and come out of theirs tukul, the typical houses of straw and woven wood, covered with dried mud. Children, children and many more children join the two rows that create a corridor for the cardinal; the men play canvas drums, the women spread blankets on the ground, over the mud. Many have probably not even explained the meaning of the event that takes place between their cabins, but everyone joins the party, the applause, the choirs of Hallelujah in harmony on your knees and with your eyes closed, under the sun beating your forehead.
The cardinal tries to shake hands with the front rows, but just by stretching the arm out, there is a risk that a crowd will start. For children, getting simple attention such as high fives seems to be a source of immense joy. They chase the passers-by and shout “Brother, brother!”, With a thumbs up or a greeting with their fists. They are dying after re-entering the quadrants of cameras and cell phones. The same goes for the women who are the first to line up for the barricade behind the foreign minister, smiling with crooked smiles and the drops of sweat gliding on the scarifications, the trunk scars arranged as rows of dots. For the local culture, they are a symbol of beauty.
The blessing in the parish
In the midst of this crowd, Parolin enters St. Martine de Porres parish. Not a church, but a giant semi-dark hut, lit by two rows of small altar servers with a green light. They sing for the cardinal, from whom three elderly women throw themselves, evade security, and bring him white linen slippers, as a sign of hospitality. Parolin is almost moved as he speaks into the microphone: “I did not come by myself, but to bring you Pope Francis’ devotion. I come to prepare for his arrival as John the Baptist. The pope wants to come to South Sudan, he is planning a trip to Juba, but the visit is intended for the whole country, to meet all people ”. Translated into the local language now is from a priest, the cardinal then asks to pray for the pope and adds: “I am glad to be here, to share your faith, your joy. You are really good Christians, good Catholics ”.
Meeting with UNHCR representatives
The next stop is in the containers at the UNHCR headquarters, where the cardinal meets the head of the mission Paul Ebweko and assures that “the Holy See appreciates what is being done for the people of the camp”. Still in the car, the cardinal returns north to enter the camp and celebrate Mass. It is frustrating that there are no appropriate words to describe the welcome to the secretary, who immediately got into the jeep, on his feet. He starts to say hello and does not stop in all the approximately ten kilometers leading to the barbed wire gate that marks the entrance to the camp. He greets the more than 140,000 residents of the center, who sing, wave flags, show pictures of Santa Giuseppina Bakhita, chase the car. Some try to approach, but are repulsed by volunteers with wooden poles. Many are barefoot, have dusty legs and hands and fly all over their bodies. In some places the smell is nauseating due to animal excrement and stagnant water. Still, one cannot help but be happy with those who appear before the guests, happy.
Lots in the camp for displaced people
The fair takes place in the field square, where a hut is decorated with awnings and festoons. The little girls with big hats are back, now with girls dressed in white, performing in a rhythmic dance with the sound of the piano, in a row as in a procession. Parolin in the sermon, all in English, begins: “We are in this difficult country, yet loved by God”. He then speaks of hope, that of the gospel, which “is not an incorporeal hope, separate from suffering, ignorant of human tragedy” or “which does not take into account the very difficult reality of the people of Bentiu”. On the contrary. “Our history makes us cry out to the Lord, makes us put before the altar the injustices, abuses, persecutions that still far too many of us suffer; but we know that this cry is heard by God and redeemed, a cry which he himself will turn into a song of joy, if we know how to ask forgiveness for our persecutors and pray for those who harm us. “A song of joy actually explodes at the end of the Mass, where the Cardinal goes for a while and tries to press as many hands as possible to make plastic into the Pope’s devotion, which is the real goal of this trip to Africa.