The President of the Conference of Religious of England and Wales, Fr Paul Smyth, who is also President of the project ‘Solidarity with South Sudan’ - which has communities based in South Sudan made up of members from 19 different Congregations - has called on religious communities in the UK to copy this model of collaboration, in the face of emerging problems.
Fr Paul, a Claretian missionary, speaking just after returning from a two week visit to South Sudan, said the sharing of resources and personnel has allowed institutes and responses to be created that no single congregation would be in a position to provide – which can benefit those most in need and enhance the work of religious communities in alleviating suffering. He’s been involved in the South Sudan initiative since 2009. It was set up in response to an invitation from the Catholic Bishops of Southern Sudan and inspired by the 2004 Rome Congress on Consecrated Life, ‘Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity.’
‘Solidarity with South Sudan’ has the objective of helping this country established in 2011, to rebuild after years of civil war. Its mission is empowerment and sustainability. It trains local people to become teachers, nurses & midwives as well as pastoral workers and catechists to support those traumatised by the conflict. In addition, there’s an agricultural project to produce food and re-introduce farming skills that have been lost due to people being displaced from their land and homes.
Thirty-two members of Religious Congregations from 18 countries and a diverse range of cultures live and work together: “The project is a sign of the work all religious are being called upon to do – to work together to respond to new needs coming up in our world and to share our resources” said Fr Paul. “It’s about allowing the differences we have to strengthen us. That should be a feature of all of us. For instance in the big multicultural parish I run in London we have to see how the mix can enrich us. The South Sudan project is one aspect of a pattern of other parts of my life.” He draws a parallel with the Conference of Religious, which draws together the Major Superiors of more than four hundred Congregations in England and Wales: “COR acts to foster collaboration amongst a large range of individuals and to encourage networking and shared responses.”
This approach is exemplified in the existence of the Medaille Trust, which was formed out of a conversation some 12 years ago at the annual general meeting of the Conference of Religious. Provincial Sr. Jane Maltby whose Congregation the Society of the Sacred Heart has gifted a large house in west London to the Medaille Trust recalls the origins: “Congregations came together over their concern about women and men who have been trafficked to England, and how to support them after they have been released. The Medaille Trust was a direct outcome of this and is supported financially by a large number of Congregations, some of whom have gifted a property to the Trust. The Medaille is now one of the single biggest providers of care for individuals who have been trafficked into the UK.”
Fr Paul adds: “Because of the Trust’s inclusivity of people of all or no faith, many whose lives are touched by its work may well be unaware of its origins. As a religious myself and the President of the Conference of Religious, the fruits of that meeting all those years ago is a living parable. A parable of what can happen when people of faith take the time to come together and support each other in looking at issues whose complexity tends to leave us individually feeling overwhelmed.”
The building of bridges is exemplified, he says, in the two Institutes that are being developed in South Sudan, for education and healthcare; a governance structure is being developed that builds on differences: “Both Institutes have people from the different states and tribes studying together. One of the country’s problems is the lack of social cohesion so the fact that we can show people working together is a sign of hope. People have expressed gratitude for that.”