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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 109 (Suppl.), April 2009



The Experience of Priestly Formation in the IDP context at THE Uganda Martyrs National Major Seminary, Alokolum, Gulu, Uganda[1]


Rev. Fr. Cosmas ALULE

Rector of the Seminary in Alokolum

Archdiocese of Gulu, Uganda


Uganda Martyrs National Major Seminary Alokolum is situated about 7 Km outside Gulu Town in Northern Uganda, off the Gulu-Juba Road on Gulu-Alero Road. Alokolum Major Seminary offers Philosophy and Social Sciences in six semesters (3 years). It is one of the four National Major Seminaries under Uganda Episcopal Conference. It was founded in 1973, situated in Gulu Archdiocese. Like all the other National Major Seminaries in Uganda, Alokolum admits candidates for priestly formation from all the 19 Dioceses of Uganda and also from Southern Sudan, especially from the Diocese of Torit. Currently there are 137 seminarians and 11 staff members. Alokolum is dedicated to the patronage of the Holy Uganda Martyrs. 

General Background

Situated in Gulu in Northern Uganda, Alokolum Major Seminary has gone through a peculiar experience, not known to the other Major Seminaries in Uganda because of the over 21 years of war between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels of Joseph Kony. The war, which started in 1986, has caused unparalleled suffering, destruction and displacement of the population in the northern and eastern parts of Uganda not known before in the history of Uganda.

At the beginning, not much was reported in the International Media about the war. However, around the mod 1990s reports and stories of horrifying and brutal abductions especially of children and youth and their conscription into the rebel ranks as porters, fighters or sex slaves (wives), indiscriminate killing of civilians, mutilation of body parts, rape and sexual violence, night commuters, etc. began to make their way and frequent the headlines of the International Media and the International Community began to show increasing concern, thanks to the advocacy of the “Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative” (ARLPI) which was founded in 1986. The ARLPI is a trans-religious body made up of the religious leaders of the Catholics, Protestants and Muslims and the traditional cultural leaders which believes in the peaceful resolution of the war. Since 1999 His Grace John Baptist Odama, the Archbishop of Gulu, a tireless proponent and symbol of the peaceful resolution of the conflict, has been its chairman.

In 1996 Uganda Government created what is now known as “Internally Displaced Peoples/Persons” (IDP) camps, principally to cut off the LRA food supply and collaboration from the civilian population, but officially to offer better security for the civilian population. Up to about the year 2000 there were actually only about 500,000 such displaced persons. However, in 2002 the situation deteriorated dramatically because the Uganda Government, which believed in a military resolution of the war, launched a military offensive into Southern Sudan called “Operation Iron Fist” with the objective of persuing and destroying the LRA and its bases in Southern Sudan. The LRA retaliated with the most severe violence the northern and eastern parts of Uganda has ever seen since the start of this devastating war. The LRA mysteriously returned to Northern Uganda, leaving the Uganda Government Army (The Uganda Peoples Defense Forces - UPDF) behind in Southern Sudan, resuming fierce attacks on civilians and abducting greater numbers of children and young people. The UPDF then took to forcing everyone to IDP camps, even without planning and preparing such camps.

This escalation of the conflict caused a drastic increase in the number of displaced persons. It simply became a humanitarian crisis. In 2004 the number of IDPs shot to about 1.8 million. By 2006, around the time efforts to a peaceful resolution of the conflict were again beginning to gain momentum, there were about 1.6 million people living in IDP camps. All this also lead to a rapid creation and growth of IDP camps. The Archdiocese of Gulu, which covers exactly the Acholi sub-region, had 104 such camps. Northern Uganda had 162 IDP camps. It was also in 2003 that the IDP camp of Alokolum was created and rapidly grew to a population of about 14,000 persons. That meant that Gulu Archdiocese or the Acholi sub-region had now bout 90% of the its population of about 1,090,000 living in the IDP camps.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP) 80% of the IDP camp population is women and children living without adequate food, protection, shelter, water and sanitation facilities, health care and school education. According to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) LRA has abducted up to about 25,000 children since the war begun and about 66,000 go unaccounted. Up to 35,000 primary school going children became night commuters, many times with the adults, travelling each evening; from their vulnerable communities to spent the night in perceived safety or urban and Church mission centres and institutions to escape abduction, rape and/or attacks by the LRA.

The IDP camps are commonly characterised by lack of food security and wide spread malnutrition; lack of clean water and poor sanitation; poor health services; concentration and congestion of people; poor and inadequate accommodation; high mortality rate; redundancy and idleness; poor social services and school education; high risky sexual behaviour; rich environment for the spread of communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB, Cholera, Meningitis, etc. The situation in the IDPs is simply pathetic, which is why some people called them “Death Traps”, “Death Camps” or “Concentration Camps”.

This is exactly what Alokolum National Major Seminary has gone through. Even two times (1987 to 1992 and 2003 to 2005 which were the pick of the war violence) Alokolum Seminary itself was displaced by the escalating war. The seminarians and the priests on the staff were temporarily moved to and housed in Bukalasa in Masaka Diocese in Southern Uganda. During these times, Alokolum Seminary premises were occupied and used by the used by the IDPs of Alokolum and the surrounding area. In 1987 these IDPs even accidentally caused a fire which burnt down the seminary library block. The priestly formation in Alokolum Major Seminary in the context of the IDPs has, therefore, been first and foremost a question of a life experience of the war, displacement and the IDP camp.

Some Aspects of Seminary Formation for a better Pastoral Care of the IDPs at Alokolum

(i) Solidarity Pastoral Presence

Over and above any specific pastoral or material intervention or action, seminary formation for a better pastoral care of the IDPs at Alokolum Seminary is centred on the concept of the pastoral presence in solidarity with the population affected by the war in Gulu and Northern Uganda. When the war started in 1986, there was a clear division of opinion on whether the National Major Seminary should be maintained at Alokolum or should be transferred to a perceived safer place or part of Uganda. The temptation to close down Alokolum as a Major Seminary and establish the seminary in a more secure place was very high. However, the question was, which pastoral message and sign such an action would give to the suffering people of the war if the priests and seminarians of Alokolum Seminary abandoned the war region! Would it not mean or be interpreted that the pastors and future pastors of the people have actually abandoned their sheep who are suffering, like the image of the “hired shepherd” (cf. Jn. 10:10-15) who runs away immediately at seeing a wolf or a wild animal approaching to destroy the sheep? On the basis of such serious pastoral reflection, Uganda Episcopal Conference took a bold decision that the National Major Seminary at Alokolum in Gulu must be maintained as a sign of pastoral solidarity of the Catholic Church and her pastors in Uganda with and care for the people suffering because of the war. This was, however, not always easy in practice. In fact, a number of priests and candidates, who hailed from more secure parts of Uganda, who were requested or admitted to come to Alokolum Major Seminary found it very hard to accept. However, most of them also took courage and came to Alokolum. Alokolum Major Seminary in Gulu thus became a strong sign of the love and pastoral concern of the Catholic Church and her pastors in Uganda for the war affected population of Gulu and Northern Uganda.

Some factors even made this solidarity pastoral presence more concrete. Alokolum Major Seminary was not only occupied by the IDPs when the seminary was temporarily transferred to Bukalasa in Masaka Diocese in 1987-1992 and 2003-2005 but also even when the staff and seminarians returned to Alokolum. The seminary continued to live side by side with the IDPs and offer accommodation for the night commuters who used the assembly hall and the classrooms to pass their nights until 2006. Alokolum IDP camp was officially created in 2003, making Alokolum Major Seminary officially part of the IDP camp. The seminary became the base for UNHCR and WFP for their welfare programmes for Alokolum IDP camp and its surrounding. Other seminary facilities like the sports grounds and the water supply have continued to be shared with the IDPs up to today. The founding of the Foster Parents Association of Alokolum Seminary in 1992 made the pastoral relationship even more intimate and went beyond the IDP camp of Alokolum. This is the practice where good Catholic families in and around Alokolum and Gulu Cathedral adopt each seminarian and priest of Alokolum as their “foster son” to help him to discern and live his priestly vocation and the priests and seminarians in turn help their “foster families” to live their Christian lives to the full. The population affected by the war in Gulu and Northern Uganda now very much appreciate the pastoral presence of Alokolum Major Seminary in Gulu Archdiocese, a symbol of solidarity in love.

(ii) Advocacy for Peace, Reconciliation and the Plight of the IDPs

The pastoral presence and experience of the war and the IDPs’ camp life by Alokolum Major Seminary opened a whole new insight and serious reflection into the reasons for the cause and the continuation of the conflict; the questions of justice, peace and reconciliation; and the dehumanizing conditions and plight of the IDP camps. Inspired partly by the ARLPI, Alokolum seminarians and priests became proponents and advocates for an immediate and peaceful resolution of the conflict. Questions about justice, peace, reconciliation and the plight of the IDPs permeated every aspect of the seminary life. Alokolum Seminary hosted some seminars and workshops on such topics organised by the District or some NGOs. The consciousness for justice, peace and reconciliation became very strong in the candidates and priests who have lived in Alokolum Major Seminary during these times of the war. This consciousness became the most firm foundation for a better pastoral care of the displaced persons. Since the candidates and priests of Alokolum come from all parts of Uganda, they also advocated for these values and the plight of the IDPs in all parts of Uganda where they came from. This is probably one of the factors that moved the whole of Uganda to pray and work for peace for Northern Uganda.

(iii) Pastoral Work in the IDP Camps

The seminarians and priests of Alokolum Major Seminary got involved in actual pastoral work among the displaced people. Individuals and groups of seminarians and priests undertook certain specific pastoral activities in the IDP camp such as eucharistic celebrations, special prayer sessions for peace, catechesis, funeral services, counselling and sometimes even the distribution of material gifts to the displaced people. Some of the material gifts were donations from schools and institutions from other parts of Uganda which were entrusted to Alokolum Seminary for administration for the benefit of the IDPs. These concrete pastoral activities were undertaken mostly in the IDP camp of Alokolum. Some of them took place even within the compound of the seminary or in the seminary church. The IDPs, suffering under the destructive weight of the war, have a great religious and spiritual need which needs to be satisfied. In the dark circumstances of the war which would have driven people to total desperation, religious faith remained the unwavering pillar of hope and light. When everything seemed to he against them, God remained as their refuge and rock. This is the realization when one gets involved in pastoral activities with the IDPs.

(iv) Counselling as a Course Unit in the Academic Curriculum

To prepare the seminarians and priests of Alokolum for an effective pastoral work among the displaced people, a course unit in Counselling was also introduced in the syllabus. The overall objective of the course was to prepare the seminarians and priests of Alokolum to be able to provide pastoral therapeutic counselling activities to facilitate the recovery of people traumatised by the war and HIV/AIDS through appropriate interventions and approaches, so that they may be able to live in peace of mind, peace of heart and a conducive peaceful environment.

According to the Caritas Gulu Archdiocesan 2006 report, about 85% of the IDPs and population in the war region (especially Gulu or the Acholi Sub-region) suffer from severe trauma and depression, what is now termed as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorders” (PTSD). In the face of the relentless culture of death and destruction and personal humiliations and abuse caused by the over 21 years of a brutal war, and a high rate of HIV/AIDS (officially at over 12%), there are unprecedented levels of trauma problems leading to conflicts, domestic violence, gender inequalities, alcohol and drug abuse, irrational anger and irritability and rage. theft, destruction of cultural and moral values, suicidal tendencies, etc. The pastoral agent has to handle these challenging conditions which he meets in his pastoral contacts with the IDPs. It was for this reason that a course unit in counselling was introduced at Alokolum Major Seminary, conducted by the Directress of Caritas Gulu Archdiocese Counselling Centre, Rev. Sr. Margaret Aceng. This course in Counselling gave the much needed counselling skills to the seminarians and priests of Alokolum and indeed became a good tool for a better pastoral care of the IDPs. 


In the face of unending wars and a growing number of refugees, immigrants and IDPs in or from Africa in this third millennium, the Church in Africa has to reflect more deeply than before on the causes of the conflicts and the questions of justice, peace and reconciliation in the political, cultural and religious, economic and social life of the African peoples. This is paramount and timely, now that Africa is preparing for her second Synod of Bishops, the Second Special Assembly for Africa, which treats exactly this theme of “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace”.[2] Pastors of souls and other pastoral agents have to be adequately prepared for a better pastoral care of immigrants, refugees and IDPs, and such a preparation should possibly start in the Seminaries and others houses of formation of the pastoral agents. Above all, the Catholic Church in Africa and her pastors and other pastoral agents have to learn and be prepared to play their prophetic role in the face a relentless growing culture of wars and conflicts by propagating justice, peace and reconciliation on the foundation of our Christian faith and the positive values of the African culture.

[1] This is not an academic paper but the sharing of a pastoral experience. Some of the statistical data and information has been taken from the Caritas Gulu 2006 Report and Sr. Margaret Aceng, The Catholic Church and Social Services Delivery with focus on Caritas Gulu Archdiocese, Gulu, 2007.

[2] Cf. Synod of Bishops, II Special Assembly for Africa. Lineamenta: The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace, Paulines Publications Africa, Kolbe Press Limuru, 2006.