The saint of Sudan

Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic missionary who works as the only physician at a small hospital that serves a population of 500,000 people living in the war-ravaged Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, Sudan, has won the annual $1 million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. The Aurora Prize, granted by the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, was announced at a ceremony in Yerevan, Armenia, in May. He was selected as the 2017 Aurora Prize Laureate from more than 550 nominations submitted from 66 countries. 

Catena and his small hospital staff are the only available medical care that remains in the 19,000 square-mile region, roughly the combined size of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Patients walk as long as seven days to reach his 435-bed Mother of Mercy Hospital for treatment of wounds and disease — health care considered routine here in America. He and his small staff treat upwards of 400 people a day, and he performs some 1,000 surgeries a year, often relying on outdated instruments, technologies and methods. Electricity and running water can be intermittent.

A civil war rages between the Sudan government and rebels. Their homes and the humble hospital are targets of bombing from Sudan government military craft and shelling from army artillery. Foxholes are dug in the area around the hospital to serve as cover during air attacks.

Catena earned a degree in mechanical engineering before enrolling at Duke University School of Medicine with a U.S. Navy scholarship after he determined that an engineering degree had limited usefulness for his chosen career as a missionary. He has worked in Sudan for nine years. When the government, engaged in a civil war, told relief agencies to leave the country, Catena, a few nuns and other workers stayed behind.

He and his wife are Catholic, and while he models his life on the example of St. Francis, the Nuba people have compared him to Christ himself.

In 2015, writer Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times wrote about a Muslim chief in the region who observed that this Catholic missionary doctor heals those most in need. Jesus healed the same, and that is what Dr. Tom does every day, the chief told Kristoff: “He’s Jesus Christ.”

Our Sunday Visitor submitted questions by email to Catena. Here are excerpts from his responses.

Our Sunday Visitor: How long will you continue this work? How will you spend the $1 million prize in Nuba?

Dr. Tom Catena: I plan to be here for the foreseeable future. Our work now is to try and train people here to be able to provide these services themselves. The challenge has been to instill in them the values they will need to truly lead a life of service to their people. We are making slow progress on all fronts, but this will be more of a marathon than a sprint, and we’re here for the long haul to help make things happen. I’ve designated three organizations to split the $1 million Aurora Prize — they are the Catholic Medical Mission Board, African Mission Healthcare Foundation and Aktion Canchanabury. These very efficient organizations are involved in different aspects of health care in the developing world, and I am sure they will use the money wisely to help their ongoing programs.

OSV: Who are your inspirations in undertaking your work?

Catena: As far as inspiration, I’ve certainly had the examples of centuries of great missionary saints whom I wanted to emulate. I chose to go into medicine as it seemed a good fit for a life in the missions. I always wanted to do mission work and think that was my first vocation. I’m a Third Order Franciscan, and St. Francis has been my primary role model. He was able to abandon his attachments to all worldly possessions to follow Jesus in an unencumbered manner. I will never approach his level of holiness, but it is something to shoot for.

OSV: You have said that you credit your Catholic faith in providing the strength to undertake this. Can you tell us about that? What does your prayer life consist of? Do priests come to Nuba?

Catena: I like to say the Rosary with my wife every morning on the way to Mass. This is how we start our day and prepare ourselves for the many challenges before us. I also feel called to service here and believe that our good Lord gives me the strength to carry on with the work. We are fortunate that we have two Apostles of Jesus priests with us in our parish, and they are a great blessing to us here.

OSV: Why do you stay in Nuba? Do you fear for the safety of your patients and your nurses?

Catena: The decision to stay in Nuba was an easy one. When you are here and see there is so much need and so few health professionals, then one feels compelled to stay and contribute. As a missionary, I feel that we are most needed by the people during times of crisis, when others have left. What kind of missionary witness would I give if I abandoned the people when times got tough? So even when things became dangerous, I knew that this is where I was called to be and that it was my duty to serve in any way we can. Of course we fear for the safety of our patients and nurses when we are bombed, or there are rumors of a new offensive. However, the overall feeling is that we’re in this together and that we’re here to support each other during the difficult times.

OSV: Do you get worn out, frustrated, tired? Does the work bring you to tears? When do you laugh?

Catena: I definitely feel frustration and exhaustion through my work at times. The most difficult part is having to watch your patients die. When three or four people die every day, when a woman comes in with a shattered leg because she stepped on a landmine, when you watch a child die of third-degree burns from an incendiary bomb, and when you have to explain it to the family, you sometimes question your resolve. I don’t cry, because that would take too much energy! At that point, all this sadness and grief are sitting on top of your head. But then an old man asks you to stay, somebody you didn’t think would do well survives, a child comes up to you asking to play, and you get your sense back. These events keep me going when the work gets especially hard.

OSV: You call the people of Nuba “brave and hospitable people.” They walk miles for days to reach your hospital. Are you amazed by them, and what can they teach those of us who live in freedom and bounty?

Catena: Thousands of Nuba have been displaced from their homes, yet they’ll walk for hours just to come for a vaccination or an ultrasound of their baby. ... I think we can learn so much from them, and I have in my time here. Their resilience in the face of hardship, and physical and mental toughness are amazing. Living here makes one question our materialistic society driven by a rampant consumerism. People seem to have everything, yet they’re miserable. I think people in the U.S. would feel better if they unburdened themselves of the bulk of their possessions and strove to live a more simple life. No one here has a retirement plan, and they’re not very stressed about that.

OSV: How do we help you to help Nuba?

Catena: There are several ways. One of course is financial; financial contributions are extremely helpful and extremely appreciated by us and other organizations working in these environments. The second is the inclination to become politically involved — to make others aware of the situation here, to write to their representative in government and try to speak on behalf of the marginalized people of the world. ... There also needs to be more awareness of Nuba by the international community, more action and more steps taken to address it. The last thing international governments, especially the U.S., should be doing is considering cuts to foreign aid. Ahead of the U.S. government’s decision whether to lift sanctions on Sudan, the answer is less about lifting sanctions and more about ensuring that vital aid meant for the people of Sudan actually reaches its intended destination and that those in need of crucial medicines and food receive those benefits. 

OSV: I was struck by a scene in one of the documentaries about your work to see you wrestling, tickling and playing with the people, particularly the children. You said it is important to touch the people. Can you tell us more about that?

Catena: For the people here to feel as though they can come to you for their health problems, they have to trust you. And for that, you have to be willing to be with them, to treat them as a fellow human being and not to be afraid of them. To truly fulfill my calling here — to help — I have to be willing to treat all my patients in the same manner regardless of what brings them to me. ... These people need to feel the love of Christ and need to be welcomed back into the family of man.

OSV: All humanitarian aid is cut off and somehow you save lives. You said in a documentary that you get up at 5:30 a.m., make rounds for up to 400 patients, and the most difficult part is the deaths. How do you continue to follow Jesus through this hell on earth?

Catena: I start every morning with a prayer and intentionally seeking time to be with Jesus. Throughout the day, the people of Nuba inspire me to grow closer to him and to continue work here. I have faith that the Lord led me here and it is my calling to be here, so I faithfully follow what his plans are for me. I take comfort in the belief that we are not called to perfection but are called to simply be present to the suffering people.

OSV: “The Heart of Nuba” (a documentary by filmmaker Ken Carlson about Catena’s work) showed you and the people listening for the sounds of planes to distinguish engine types in order to know when to jump into the foxholes. Will the population overcome these traumas when peace finally comes?

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Catena: The people of Nuba are the strongest that I have ever met. Just as they have fought to overcome fear and the dangers they face daily, my hope is that they will overcome the trauma of it all.

There is pain and suffering in their faces each day, but they never complain. They just want to be left in peace to cultivate their farms and raise their children in an environment free of persecution and discrimination. The hope that they carry with them makes me optimistic they will overcome the adversity they are facing when peace finally comes. I think they’ll do just fine.

Joseph R. LaPlante writes from Rhode Island.