By Fr. Christian Carlassare MCCJ
During the Christmas holidays of December 1992 I visited the town of Assisi (Italy) with the youth of my home parish. We were passionate about the figure of St Francis of Assisi. While visiting the small hermitage of St Damiano we heard that the Crucifix spoke to St Francis there and told him: “Build My house”. Those words resounded also inside my heart as I was a student in a technical institute for building constructions. I had already clear in my mind that I should seek in life something more than merely building houses. Moreover, I also realized that relationships will be fruitful when built on love for God.
I had still the vivid memory of the funeral mass of my uncle who passed away in Ecuador on July 27th, 1991. He was the brother of my grandmother and served in Ecuador as a missionary. I grew up with him as a model and I had a great admiration for his witness of life. At the funeral mass I was upset because I lost the chance to see him and seek his advice concerning my desire to follow in his footsteps. In that occasion though, I found consolation in keeping my eyes fixed at the tabernacle with the confidence that He would show me the way. In those years I found much happiness in my parish commitments. I was active in the parish youth group and I felt a kind of call to pay more attention to those youths that were marginalized by the group. I was a lector during Sunday celebrations: I was very motivated to proclaim the Word of God as I felt its transforming power. I was also an altar server since my childhood and, as I was now among the oldest, I had more responsibility during the liturgies: this experience brought me to live some liturgies very deeply, especially the Easter Tridum.
Encounter with the Comboni Missionaries
During springtime 1993 a schoolmate asked me to accompany him to attend a youth meeting held by a Comboni Missionary at their house in a nearby town. I accepted eagerly as I knew the Missionaries through their publications. I had come to know also about some missionaries such as Fr. Egidio Ferracin, martyr in Uganda. His sister lived in my neighbourhood and his nephew was my best football teammate.
However, the name Comboni sounded to me still quite exotic: all I knew was that they were missionaries in Africa. At that meeting I came to know more about them, especially about St Daniel Comboni and his vision for the mission in Africa. I wondered whether the Lord was calling me for this vocation. I remember that I prayed God, but I did not hear his voice nor perceived any answer to my question.
After a month I went back to the Comboni community to meet the vocation director. I asked him to accompany me in the discernment as I got more determined to face my fears and find out my vocation. I was inspired by a poster that portrayed a youth at the foot of the Cross saying to Jesus: “Many people do not know you. Here I am, send me”. The self-confidence of that youth encouraged me. After each talk with the vocation director, I found new motivations and experienced great joy and liberation. At a certain point I felt confirmed when he told me that he saw in me a genuine vocation. He encouraged me to also share with my parents. I was scared to disappoint them but I took courage and told them about my desire to join the seminary. I was surprised to discover that it was not a surprise for them. They had expected it as they noticed a change in me. It was not easy for them but they approved and blessed my decision. During all this year my parents accompanied me in many ways. I witnessed that the Lord, by calling me, called also them to deepen their faith and strengthen their missionary spirit.
I joined the seminary in September 1994 and through all stages I was helped to deepen my vocational motivations, to grow as a person with a sound spiritual life and knowledge. During the time of formation, I natured more interest and concern for the mission, Church and people of Africa. I rejoiced when I was assigned by my superiors to South Sudan. I was ordained not by chance but providentially by a Franciscan Bishop on September 4th, 2004. I just felt grateful to the Lord for how he led my life. Everything had a purpose.
Encounter with the People
I arrived in South Sudan soon after the comprehensive peace agreement was signed: indeed 2005 was a year of great hope. I was sent to the mission of Old Fangak to accompany an experienced confrere, Fr Antonio La Braca, and Bro Raniero Iacomella. The confreres welcomed me warmly and the people were also happy to have a new young priest among them. However, the first period was not easy. I had to put much effort to get on with the people in their very poor set up. It was difficult to find also my place and understand what kind of contribution I could offer. It was clear that I had to start with learning their language. And so, I did as best as I could. Then, I learnt to be patient. People were asking me more about being their priest than accomplishing duties, doing things with them as they do rather than doing things by myself on my way. I learnt many things from them, both the missionaries and the Christians as well.
During the first years, Fr. Antonio La Braca introduced me into the pastoral work. He started by taking me around on foot to visit all chapels and centres of the parish. We visited about sixty Christian communities. Some of them were very far and we had to get through bushes and swamps. It took almost one year to complete the visits. Each chapel was organized as a small Christian community ministered by the catechist: in most places the priest could reach only once or twice a year. During this visits we were accompanied by catechists, women and youth. We visited people house to house and inviting them for the afternoon celebration and the sacraments. There were occasions of catechesis to different groups and long meetings with the leaders to organize the life of the community. At the same time, I joined my hands with Bro Raniero who was mostly concerned to build the structures of the new mission. We opted to build them in semi-permanent material. We did it counting on the volunteer work of the Christians who were very participative. It was a great experience of communal work.
However, as soon as I got confident with the language, I could put hand to another building: the spiritual building of the Christian communities that needed much coordination, encouragement and leadership. Christian communities were in fact there before the arrival of the missionaries, but they were facing many challenges. Chapels and Centres were very disconnected among themselves and we had to work much to bring them together. We offered spiritual and catechetical formation to the pastoral agents who are those that still covey the message and actually leads the communities. We gave special attention to the youth that represent the large majority of the assemblies. Gradually we had also to rediscover the leadership role of women within the Christian community. We had to set a comprehensive pastoral plan and a calendar of activities.
As I look back to these ten years of pastoral work, I can witness that relationship is actually the key for a fruitful mission rather than our material work and enterprises. We must be close to the people and their daily struggles. We must also promote a spirit of communion among the Christians so that the Church can visibly be seen as a family where people have a sense of belonging that goes beyond their clan and tribe. As I look at what I have done, I actually did not build many visible structures, but we built together Christian communities that are more mature in faith and concern for each other. This I believe is the House we had to build, the Church as the family of Jesus. I am grateful to the Lord that invited me to be part of his family here among his people of South Sudan.
Since the end of October 2016, I am now the animator of the community of Pre-postulants in Juba. It is nice to encourage youth to join their hands into the work of building His house.
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