This past November, Cardinal Ravasi posed in New Statesman as the Vatican’s impresario of contemporary art. At the same time, a continent away, Bishop Johnson Mutek Akio of South Sudan stood with his people under genocidal assault by the al-Bashir regime. The cardinal’s ambition to get the Church back into the contemporary art business was hailed as “a bold move.” Silence greeted the bishop’s valor in risking his life to sustain a persecuted diocese. Heroic endurance in the face of Islamic terror does not conform to the sensibility—or insensibility—that understands culture as a kind of sauce poured like hollandaise over daily living, over thought and action. And it does not make bouncy copy.
There is a two-year wait to book “the cardinal of culture” for speaking engagements. He blogs, tweets, tells jokes, quotes Nietzche, and endorses Darwinian theory. The operative word is theory, but New Statesman failed to notice. It was too charmed by what it took for maverick behavior. “An undeniably intriguing clergyman,” it chirped.
No conference planners have been waiting to book Bishop Akio, survivor of nine assassination attempts. When he died last week of kidney failure at fifty-five, the press took no notice. Googling for an obituary, I found only a line in WikiDeaths 2013 with a link back to a hastily inserted two-line identifying note. That, and the same scant comment on the website of the Diocese of Torit, South Sudan. Hardly more than what appears on the toe tag of a body in the morgue.
Posted on Torit’s website is a brief article about the bishop’s mission, written nine years ago by David Alton of Jubilee Campaign. Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Torit, the bishop and his people are intimate with aerial bombardment, famine, massacre, and mutilation. In one two-week period in 2004, seventy two bombs reduced the bishop’s residence to ash. His compound housed a primary and secondary school that served more than two hundred children. It was obliterated. Alton wrote:
Early years’ education for South Sudan‘s children involves learning the difference between the engines of UN relief planes and the bombers—and then running for your life. One of Bishop Akio’s priests told me: “People are living like foxes in holes, just to survive.”
Torit has been forcibly Islamised; the Koran imposed; the road signs changed to Arabic and water and medicine only given to people who have changed their identities to Islamic names. One group of 180 children had been taken to Khartoum and radically indoctrinated, encouraging a hatred of their parents, and turning them into child soldiers.
At heart, the New Evangelization is no different from the old. Sanctity and courage are the dual engine of it. Art counts for far less than is thought. While it remains the lifeblood of those who make it, art is less important to the true meaning of culture—something distinct from the culture trade—than Cardinal Ravasi and the Pontifical Council for Culture believe. W.H. Auden had it about right:
The artist, the man who makes, is less important to mankind, for good and evil, than the apostle. . . . However much the arts may mean to us, it is possible to imagine our lives without them.
Bishop Akio was such an apostle. May God welcome him home and comfort his afflicted people.
Note: My thanks to Mike Walsh of Maryknoll for bringing Bishop Akio to our attention in his comment on the previous post. And we can hope, with Archbishop Chaput, that Pope Francis will keep the Church’s eyes directed toward suffering Christians in the Middle East.