By Monsignor Mario León, OMI, (Apostolic Prefect of Western Sahara)

These have not been easy times even for the Christian family in Dakhla, formerly Villacisneros, where we Missionary Oblates have a mission. I say “even” because no doubt many can say the same thing. Here in Dakhla, our parishioners have certainly lived through difficult times… as if it were a long “Passion”. Here too, the economic crisis has hit hard, with the closure of hotels, restaurants, factories and fish processing plants… Our parishioners – our brothers and sisters in Christ – are migrants, who have come to work, to save money and to leave… if possible for the Canary Islands. With the increase in the number of COVID19 cases, the economy has suffered terribly, and the first to be hit has been the weakest link: the poorest of the poor, the migrants.

Last year for Easter, we Oblates were unable to be present with them. We were confined to Laayoune, 535 km away. We suffered because we could not be with them. And they certainly suffered for not being able to meet and celebrate their faith with us in church. In Dakhla, Christians live as one family. Once again, many may say… “but so are we”. Of course, and praise the Lord! But here in Dakhla, our brothers and sisters are alone. Their families are thousands of kilometres away. They live “overcrowded” in their houses, with hardly any privacy, three, four… seven in the same room… It’s terrible… not feeling “at home” where you live! However, they feel at home in the church. Isn’t it so wonderful? That is one of our purposes: that they feel the church (building) as their home and the church (community) as their family.

So, the months of confinement have been for them a time of real and hard isolation. On the one hand, they were without work… and as they live from day to day, a day without work is a day without money… how to pay the “rent” for their part of the room, food, etc.? At the beginning they were forbidden to go out in the street… impossible! How long can you keep 15-20 people within just 60 square meters? Even praying is difficult for them… how do you find calm and silence in the midst of so much noise? We tried to make up for the distances and the “absence” like everyone else… with our prayer, our messages of encouragement and hope.

This year, thanks be to God, we have been able to be present. It is true that there is still a confinement from 9 p.m. onwards (on Holy Wednesday, it was brought forward to 20:00 because of the appearance of the dreaded “UK variant” of COVID-19) and we still have the usual restrictions on capacity, distancing, the use of gels and masks… but we have been able to celebrate Holy Week! Moreover, the family has grown!

In a “pastoral juggling act” we try to offer formation and preparation for the sacraments of Christian initiation for some of our parishioners who ask us to do so.

Normally this would take 2-3 years. But here we try to do it in less than a year, since only few of our parishioners remain in Dakhla for more than a year. And this Easter Sunday the Lord has given us two new sisters: Juliette, the younger of the two, was baptised, confirmed and given her first holy communion. Petula, baptised in an evangelical church, was admitted to full communion in the Catholic Church and then she received confirmation and her first communion. A gift of the Spirit! The family is growing!

The joy was indescribable. They could hardly stand still in their places… they needed to sing, to celebrate, to pray, to praise… the “rigidity” of the measures imposed by the COVID19 did not please any of us… even though we bore it with patience and joy. But from time to time, like the cork that pops out of the bottle of wine, our joy simply overflows…

Amen! Hallelujah! Today we have experienced a great joy, this is the day the Lord has made! Let it be our joy and our gladness! No, one can never confine the Holy Spirit, not even in times of pandemic.