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Salesians at Ugandan Settlement Training Catechists to Bridge Gap among Refugees

Fr. Lazar Arasu, Director of Don Bosco Refugee Services, Palabek in Uganda during a talk with the youth at the refugee camp. Credit: Fr. Lazar Arasu

Members of the Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) in Uganda have embarked on fresh training of Catechists among refugees in the country’s Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu to fill the gap that was left by Pastoral caregivers who went back to their homes in South Sudan.

Fr. Lazar Arasu, the Chaplain for refugees at Palabek Refugee Services in Uganda, says that a significant number of Catechists that the Salesians trained when they started their ministry at the refugee settlement abandoned the apostolate when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Church activities in the East African nation. 

“The Corona lockdown put everything in disarray. Restrictions in Church gatherings scattered many Catechists. At least 13 of them left their services; most of them returned to South Sudan and others engaged in other activities,” Fr. Arasu says in a message he shared with ACI Africa.

He says that with the pandemic, Catechists’ training centers too were closed, and adds, “Now the only solution is to train Catechists locally.”

The Indian-born Priest highlights challenges that the Salesians’ ministry in Uganda is facing, among them the constant moving of people, especially the leaders and the trained Catechists.

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He notes that in Africa, Catechists are indispensable in the process of evangelization. 

“Success of most Missions and Parishes in Africa often depend on Catechists, who are pastoral and spiritual warriors, especially in the rural and hard to reach areas. The so-called ‘hard-to-reach-areas’ can be difficult pastoral situations for lack of Priests and presence of many languages,” he says.

Other challenges include hard-to-comprehend cultures, geographical remoteness, and limited resources, Fr. Arasu says.

Some of the challenges can be solved only by Catechists, he further notes, and adds, “But they need to be trained, supported, encouraged and given due recognition.”

Fr. Arasu says that from the time SDB members began their ministry in Palabek in 2017, they began to train Catechists among committed young people who were “very eager to serve.”

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“Some of them are naturally gifted with leadership and language skills,” he says of those who signed up to be trained as Catechists, and adds, “Salesians took them to the Catechists Training Centers belonging to the local Dioceses. Over 10 of them were well sufficiently trained and helped the community with dedication.”

The Priest who has higher education in Pastoral Theology says he started training another cluster of Catechists once COVID-19 disrupted Church activities and forced those who had been trained to abandon the practice.

With the help of senior Catechists, Fr. Arasu enrolled 22 lay people for Catechetical within the Refugee Settlement.

The trainees were given classes in Sacraments, Scripture, Homily Preparation, Liturgy and Christian Leadership Skills.

In his message shared with ACI Africa, Fr. Arasu explains that the classes for the training of Catechists ran from September to December 2021.

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“The classes were conducted for three days and they were supervised on Weekends in their Practical Services. On February 9 they were given credentials to serve and we hope to resume further training in the coming weeks,” Fr. Arasu says, and adds, “We are very grateful to them for their generosity and we are greatly impressed by their eagerness to learn.”

Among the challenges that the Salesians are facing at the Palabek Refugee Services include the presence of many languages, lack of liturgical books and Bibles in the native languages, and lack of records for the Catholics in the refugee settlement, he says.

There is also a constant influx of new refugees, which Fr. Arasu says hinders planning for Pastoral care at the refugee settlement.

Other challenges, the Chaplain for refugees at Palabek Refugee Services in Uganda says, arise from cultures and traditional practices, which he says are new to the pastoral agents.

“Every part of the Church has pastoral challenges. Often, they are unique and greatly differ from each other,” he says, and explains that the challenges that refugees face arise from their constant need to move from one place to another in search of safety and better living conditions.

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“It is certain that refugees, migrants and people on the move have more challenges than those living in stable conditions. Church that is on the move for safety – physically and spiritually – has enormous challenges. War scatters them; morally and spiritually wounds them; leaving them broken in spirit,” he says.

He adds in reference to refugees, migrants, and people on the move, “Before reaching a Refugee Camp they have already suffered lack of pastoral care in the war-torn areas. The situation only gets worse in a migrant camp. If they happen to receive some pastoral care they are really blessed.”

The Salesian Priest says that out of 60,000 refugees, at least 40,000 are Catholics “or they have been Catholics and are now non-practicing.”

“We are regularly in touch with about 2,000 people and another 500 occasionally attend prayers. But most wish to receive baptism and they are proud to call themselves Catholics. It is just an ‘external identity’. It is a big pastoral challenge to reach the ‘unchurched’. As Pastors we are not discouraged,” he says, and adds, “We push ahead with the Word of God and Sacraments.”