As head of Mother of Mercy hospital in the Nuba Mountains, Dr. Tom Catena relies on God every single day.
The sheer numbers of his practice are staggering: The Nuba mountains are home to more than 750,000 people, and Catena is the only doctor permanently based there. He’s on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some days, he sees as many as 400 patients.
Most humanitarian organizations left the Nuba mountains when the fighting broke out in 2007, but Catena bravely elected to stay. He was one of the few medical workers with an international aid organization that stayed behind after the Sudanese Civil War broke out in the region. Since the conflict began in 2011, at least 50,000 people have been killed and an estimated quarter of Sudan’s population has been displaced, according to figures from the United Nations.
A report released by Amnesty International in September 2018 showed that during the war, Sudan’s military forces systematically raped women, murdered civilians and carried out large-scale looting. (BUSM)
Now the world is sitting up and taking notice of Catena’s courageous service in the face of danger. There’s been a documentary made about his life called The Heart of Nuba. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of 2015, and in 2017 he received the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, a global humanitarian award established to recognize modern day heroes.
Catena’s work has become a light to the world—which is deeply fitting, given that he’s a devout Catholic whose faith guides and strengthens him.
“We really have to rely on God every single day,” Catena said, “Not only in hairy situations but in the day-to-day things. Our duty is to remain faithful.”
Certainly the day-to-day things include a discouraging number of practical challenges.
“There are a lot of frustrations that come up several times a day,” Catena said. “We have very few trained health professionals, although we’re getting more. One of our biggest problems is logistics. Getting things we need out to our location can take a month during the rainy season. We also have to get everything sent by plane from Kenya, which is very expensive. There are several months of the year that we are completely cut off from the outside world and we have to just make do with what we have.”
Living in a war-torn region amid such severe restrictions would be enough to turn anybody toward despair, but in the crucible of suffering, Catena has learned to draw his strength from God, and in Him finds perseverance and courage.
“When life is easy and things are going well, you may feel that you don’t need to rely on God for your needs,” Catena said. “But when you’re faced with not being sure you’re going to survive these times, when there are sad things happening all around you, faith is the only thing left to rely on. It’s my faith that keeps me there.”
If there’s one thing Catena wants his supporters and fellow Christians to know, it’s that you don’t need to travel to a far-off country to serve God and others. You can take part in Catena’s mission, right where you are—because it’s not just his mission, but Christ’s.
“The biblical imperatives Christ gave us are real. When he says take care of the least of these, he means that,” Catena said.
The work Catena does may sound almost superhuman, and in a way, it is: Supernatural grace sustains him when human means fall short.
“We are really fortunate that we are a mission hospital, and the church is 100 feet away. We have a priest there who offers Mass every day. That’s really indispensable,” Catena said. “Without all that I don’t think I could keep doing this.”
Besides the Eucharist, Catena is is sustained through the intercession of the saints. He looks to them for inspiration, particularly the Sudanese saints Josephine Bakhita and Daniele Comboni. “We have a tremendous Catholic history here,” he said. Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi, who both cared for the sick, are also patrons and role models for Catena.
“I think of St. Francis of Assisi and his approach, and I try to imitate that.” He mentioned the moment when St. Francis embraced a leper, as leprosy is very common in the Nuba mountains where Catena works. He has found that St. Francis’s life has particular relevance for the Church today.
“St. Francis lived at a time with a lot of scandals among the clergy, and I think there are a lot of parallels with our own time,” Catena said. Modern-day Catholics can see in St. Francis a model of faithfulness, even in a time of crisis. “He didn’t leave the Church, but stayed and worked quietly and humbly to change it from within.”
Now, more than ever, the Church needs the laity to roll up their sleeves and take an active part in service, education, and ministry.
“Traditionally the church has relied on priests, sisters, and brothers to do this kind of work. But now there aren’t enough of them. We can’t sit back and expect them to do everything,” Catena said. “We as laity need to get involved.”
While most may not be called to move to Africa to do mission work, every Catholic can take stock of their time, talents, and gifts and figure out how best to serve.
“I think everybody can do something,” Catena said. “Take it as something personal. Really try to own your faith.”
These are hard times, without a doubt, but there is reason for hope, if you look for it.
“What I see the Church doing in Africa is incredible,” he said. “Don’t lose hope in your faith. I can promise you the Church is doing a lot of good.”
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