Like most profound ideas, it was a simple one.
Sister Cathy Arata and her colleagues in Solidarity with Southern Sudan wanted the referendum on independence for southern Sudan to be peaceful. How to achieve that? Through negotiations, certainly. Through international pressure, perhaps. Through hard work on the ground, without a doubt. And through one other very important method—prayer.
Not just her prayers and those of her colleagues here in southern Sudan, but the prayers of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, throughout Sudan and around the world.
And not just on one day, but on the 101 days that stretch from the United Nations' International Day of Peace on September 21 to January 1, the Church's World Peace Day when the Pope traditionally issues his message of peace for the coming year. The referendum is scheduled for just over a week later, January 9.
Sister Cathy's face is at once kind and serious. She has a calm demeanor that seems to cover a will of steel. She is not an old Sudan hand—she has lived here for only two years. But she has taken on the cause of the Sudanese with the same quiet fervor that she brought to other callings since she entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1959.
Visit Inspired Action
A native of New Jersey whose high school years were spent in southern Maryland, Sister Cathy spent a decade working with battered women in Oakland, Maryland, and another ten years with the poor and oppressed of El Salvador. In 1999, she went to Rome as the School Sisters of Notre Dame's Justice and Peace Coordinator, serving as its representative on the Vatican's Network for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.
In late 2004, Bishop Joseph Gasi of the southern Sudanese diocese of Tombura-Yambio visited Rome and spoke to that group. At the urging of Sister Cathy and others, they took up his invitation to visit and in early 2006 sent a six-person delegation that spent four weeks traveling throughout southern Sudan. Sister Cathy was on that trip.
The delegation reported back. It was clear that it was not enough to issue a statement expressing concern. Action was needed. The result was Solidarity with Southern Sudan, a group of religious from various orders who moved to this war-torn land whose people were hanging onto a fragile peace, their only hope for emerging from decades of poverty and neglect.
Sister Cathy, who is now 69, was one of the first to arrive, giving up the comforts of Rome for the rigors of Juba, the capital of southern Sudan that has turned into something of a boom town during her time here. Southern Sudan's fledgling government—created by the 2005 peace accord—the United Nations and various humanitarian organizations have moved in, too. Juba has some of the only paved roads in southern Sudan and certainly its only traffic jams.
Hard Work and Prayer
Over 100 religious orders have signed on to support Solidarity with Southern Sudan and there are now 24 representatives from many different orders who have come from around the world.
The program director, Father Callistus Joseph, a Claretian priest, is from Sri Lanka. Others are from Ireland, Chile, Spain, Australia, Vietnam and Texas. They are spread throughout the region, working in tough conditions, training teachers and health workers as they build better schools and clinics. They are improving a network of Catholic radio stations that many in southern Sudan depend on for information. They support pastoral efforts, particularly those aimed at building and supporting peace. And they pray.
Solidarity with Southern Sudan's headquarters in Juba is next door to Catholic Relief Services' offices.
"CRS has been with us since we got here," says Sister Cathy. "They have been very supportive. There have been so many people involved right from the beginning who have made Solidarity with Southern Sudan a reality."
Solidarity with Southern Sudan is not a conventional group of religious. They come from many different orders, men and women, living and working together as they serve the Sudanese in this time of their desperate but hopeful need.
As Sister Cathy once wrote of the group, "Something new is being born, calling forth the best in all of us. There is no precedent to follow. Rather, we are searching together, challenging and trusting one another, and risking in faith for a more just and human world."
Longing for Peace
As the referendum drew nearer, and preparation lagged, Sister Cathy sensed the rising tension that only seemed to further complicate any progress. She noted the number of days between September 21 and January 1 and how that matched the run-up to the referendum. The idea for 101 Days of Prayer was hatched. The Sudanese bishops quickly adopted and endorsed it.
"We wanted to create a space for the preparation for the referendum to take place," Sister Cathy says. "Prayer was the way to do that."
On the September 21 kickoff day, celebrations and Masses were held throughout southern Sudan, people praying for a peace that has been so elusive. Posters were plastered across the country. Prayer cards were distributed. Imams and other representatives of the Muslim community joined in.
As a man named Taban told Jill Rauh, outreach coordinator for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, on her recent visit to Juba, "If you ask me what peace is, I cannot answer. I do not know what peace is like. But I long to know it."
That's what they are praying for in southern Sudan, led by this soft-spoken nun from New Jersey and her fellow members of Solidarity with Southern Sudan.
Michael Hill is CRS senior writer. He recently traveled to southern Sudan to report on Church peacebuilding efforts.