.- Catholics in South Sudan are mourning the loss of Bishop Caesar Mazzolari of Rumbek, who died at the age of 74 while concelebrating Mass on July 16.
The Rumbek diocese said local faithful are “shocked and deeply saddened” by the Italian bishop's death, and expressed its “heartfelt appreciation of his dedicated service and lifelong faithful witness to the Gospel among the people of South Sudan.”
Bishop Mazzolari had a seizure at an early morning Mass on Saturday. Witnesses say he stumbled back onto a chair during the consecration and grabbed his chest while gasping for air.
After being taken to the State Hospital in Rumbek, he was pronounced dead at 8 a.m.
Bishop Mazzolari was known for his outspoken stance against warfare and for championing the rights of Sudan's poor and marginalized. The bishop also advocated for increased education and health care and was seen as pivotal in promoting dialogue and reconciliation across the 10 states of South Sudan.
“Evangelization was at the heart of his ministry which was nourished by his commitment to a deep life of prayer,” read the July 16 diocesan statement.
“Like St Paul, Bishop Mazzolari spent his life at the service of the Gospel,” the diocese added. “His fatherly care and compassion, generosity and selflessness were sources of hope and comfort to all those he encountered.”
The bishop was born in 1937 in the Italian city of Brescia, later joined the Comboni Missionaries and was ordained a priest in 1962.
He first arrived in Sudan in 1981 and worked in the Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, then the south-central Archdiocese of Juba. In 1990, he became apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Rumbek in South Sudan and that same year, helped free 150 child slaves.
Well acquainted with dangers of his work, Bishop Mazzolari was captured and held hostage for 24 hours by guerrillas from the Sudan People's Liberation Army in 1994.
In 1999 he was ordained a bishop by Pope John Paul II.
According to Vatican Radio, Bishop Mazzolari constantly appealed to the global community “not to forget that the people of South Sudan need a just peace in respect of human rights.”
Messages of condolence have been sent to the diocese by Pope Benedict XVI as well as local leaders.
Governor of Lakes state Chol Tong Mayay mourned Bishop Mazzolari's death, saying that the bishop was expected to help lead in the shaping of South Sudan after its July 9 independence.
The community expressed grief over the bishop's passing as the new nation struggles to overcome recent political violence.
In 2011 alone, 2,000 people have been killed and over 300,000 displaced due to the conflict, the U.N. reported.
Northern forces based in Khartoum have been accused of ethnically cleansing the Nuba people, a mostly Christian minority that fought alongside the south during the decades-long independence struggle. The situation has been described by some as a “new Darfur.”