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Catholic Ministry Initiated by Salesians for Refugees in Uganda Spreads to Locals

Credit: Fr. Lazar Arasu

A Catholic ministry, which members of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) initiated about five years ago in Uganda’s Gulu Archdiocese to serve South Sudanese refugees in the East African nation has spread to local people who had stayed for long without pastoral care.

Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Chaplain for refugees in the Archdiocese of Gulu says that the Salesian ministry in Palabek is located in the part of Uganda where the Faithful had not seen a Priest “since the Lord's Resistance Army conflict ended in early 2000s.”

In a report shared with ACI Africa Monday, February 7, Fr. Arasu who served as the Director of the Don Bosco Refugee Services, noted that the ministry that was started in 2017 under a tree has grown, providing pastoral services to thousands of refugees and locals spread across over a dozen chapel centres. 

“Salesians have been in Palabek for close to five years. The numbers of chapels have grown to at least 16. Some of them are located within the host community where the local Uganda Catholics too were not having pastoral assistance for many years,” Fr. Arasu says.

He adds, “It is not an exaggeration to say that some chapels have not had Priests since the Lord's Resistance Army conflict ended in early 2000s. It is really a pity. Hence Salesians reach out to them as well.”

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The Indian-born Priest who has ministered in Uganda for close to two decades, most of them in the country’s education sector, says that the Palabek Refugee Settlement occupies three sub-counties, namely, Palabek Ogili, Palabek Kal, and Palabek Gem.

Fr. Arasu says that the SDB ministry also serves about 10,000 refugees who have settled in Uganda’s Ogili sub-county.

He says that for the lengthy absence of pastoral care, some Catholics had gone to other churches and that they happily came back at the arrival of SDB Priests and the construction of chapels.

“A majority of the refugees and the host population are Catholic, though many might have given up practicing Catholic faith due to lack of pastoral care,” he says in his report shared with ACI Africa. 

He adds, “Now having many chapels which are often a bit too much for the Salesian Priests to handle, surely they are encouraging the Catholic community to come back to faith and receive sacraments.”

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Fr. Arasu says that the Salesians who had a humble beginning in Palabek ended up providing the greatest consolation that the refugees who had fled from war in South Sudan needed.

“Salesians began their refugee ministry in Palabek with a simple impromptu Eucharistic Celebration on a Sunday in June 2017. Refugees were pouring in week after week. They also missed pastoral care in their home country, South Sudan, that has been ravaged by war for many years,” the Salesian Priest says.

He adds, “Attending a Holy Mass and receiving the Sacraments was a great consolation to the refugees. Ministry that began without much thought-out plan began to take root. Salesian work flourished as we celebrated Eucharist week after week.”

The SDB member says that as more and more refugees began pouring in, more zones and blocks were set up to accommodate more refugees.

“Salesians too began to open more chapels to offer pastoral care close to their little huts made of plastic sheets and mud. Of course, all the first chapels of Palabek Refugee Settlement were under the trees and in the slope of the rocks and hills. But it was a joy to come together and pray in unison,” he says.

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The refugees’ Chaplain in Uganda’s Gulu Archdiocese notes that in the beginning years to 2019, Salesians administered Sacraments of Initiation, especially Baptism, to hundreds. 

“People came to receive sacraments, as they missed them for several years,” he says, and adds, “The Archbishop recognized our mission, and as a full-fledged chaplaincy, we are permitted to celebrate all the sacraments with due authority and to keep records. This is a big recognition for our ministry.”

Fr. Arasu says that the Catholic Archbishop of Gulu last administered the Sacrament of Confirmation at the Palabek Refugee Services in 2019, adding, “We need to organize for another as we have failed to do it during Corona years.”

“Several hundreds of children and teenagers were given First Holy Communion and a few couples were helped to receive matrimony. Anointing of the Sick and other sacraments are in regular practice,” he says.

Describing the suffering that came with COVID-19, especially among Uganda’s vulnerable populations, Fr. Arasu says, “People suffered due to hunger and lack of other basic services… Closure of schools for nearly two years created untold miseries among children and the youth. People suffered stress and many went through trauma, which also led to suicides in large numbers.”

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He says that while most Non-Governmental Organizations left Palabek Refugee Settlement, SDB members stayed among the refugees and resorted to Home-Eucharist, Rosary recitations, and Celebration of the Word of God in the homes and small groups.

“For every celebration, at least 15 people gathered and the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and Word of God was very intense. People picked interest in these celebrations and they were proud to host them in their courtyard,” Fr. Arasu says.

“The Home-Eucharist celebrations helped to bring back many adults who left the Church a long time ago and it was a moment of re-evangelization and discovering of the beauty of Sacraments in a face-to-face experience” he says in his report shared with ACI Africa February 7.

The Salesian Priest adds in reference to Home-Eucharist celebrations, “We have celebrated not less than 50 such Masses. Often, they were also accompanied by Marian devotion, house blessing and prayer for the sick. They were beautiful moments of offering psychosocial support.”