Infinite Love for Jesus Christ

Author: Stefania Falasca


Stefania Falasca

All I have in my heart is the good of the Church and I would lay down a hundred lives if I had them for the conversion of my dear Africans". So wrote Daniele Comboni at the end of a life cut short, by fatigue and the crosses he bore, on the evening of October 10, 1881 in Khartoum, Sudan. He had devoted his entire life to the mission in Africa. In eight exhausting journeys, he was one of the first to penetrate the unexplored heart of black Africa announcing Jesus Christ to its populations. And he was the first to found permanent mission stations in those remote and difficult territories. He became known as the "apostle of Africa", the Francis Xavier of the Dark Continent. There is no doubt that he was one of the greatest missionaries in recent Church history and he is soon to be beatified.

He was born in Limone del Garda, North Italy, on March 15, 1831. His parents were farmers and he was the only one of eight children to live. He attended Verona's diocesan seminary at first and then the Verona institute founded by Father Nicola Mazza, a priest of far-ranging vision and exemplary faith. With the support of Propaganda Fide, he welcomed and taught a group of young Africans, encouraging missionary expeditions to Central Africa. It was in this context that Comboni developed his vocation for the mission. On December 31, 1854—the month when the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed—the young seminarian was ordained priest by Bishop of Trento Giovanni Nepomuceno de Tshiderer. Three years later, on September 4 1857, he was one of five priests who left on Mazza's most important missionary expedition yet in Africa. The elderly priest had chosen his favorites for this dangerous mission. Comboni was the youngest at 26 and what the venerable priest told the little group ready to set off remained indelibly engraved on the young Comboni's soul. Mazza laid his hands on their heads and, blessing them, said: "Lord make these sons ever Yours and let them be faithful to You until death". He embraced them and told them: "Go, then, in the name of God. And remember that it is to His work you are consecrated. Work only for Him; love and help each other, be united in all things, promote the glory of God, promote only the glory of God, and know that everything else is always vanity". They set off from the port of Trieste, docked in Alexandria, Egypt and before embarking on their journey through the continent they went in pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Then from Cairo they sailed up the Nile, crossed the Nubia desert and reached Khartoum. They then sailed down the White Nile southwards for about 930 miles. For a year they travailed until they reached Holy Cross, a locality between the Nile and the impenetrable forest. It was given this name by a group of German missionaries only one of whom had survived. The risks, the shortage of food and water, the murderous climate and fevers so high that they brought their victims to breaking point in just a few hours soon left three of the five priests dead. Comboni's letters, a precious testimony to the faith of those young men exposed to a thousand dangers in hostile environments—"with no resource but infinite love for Jesus Christ" remain to document this missionary expedition. Comboni would remember the martyrdom of his companions his whole life long. But this mission was also considered a failure and the survivors were ordered to return. Propaganda Fide successively entrusted these missions to the Apostolic Vicariat of Egypt pending the dismantling of their structures.

Pius IX and the "Comboni Plan"

The beatification of Margherita Maria Alacoque was being celebrated on September 15, 1864 in Saint Peter's Basilica. Father Daniele went in to pray at the tomb of the apostle. Afterwards, he quickly drew up an apostolic plan destined to revolutionize the current approach to the mission in Africa. In view of the African reality and environmental conditions, the plan highlighted the need to open missions on the coast where "the African lives and is not changed and the European works and does not succumb". Hinterland expeditions were to set off from these major mission stations. For the first time, according to Comboni's plan, women would also be engaged. For, he had seen that the female missionary presence was vital for the evangelization of these peoples. Learning of Comboni's plan, Pope Pius IX had the intuition that here was the answer to the problems of Christianizing Africa and, summoning the young priest, he told him: "I give you my blessing. <Labora, sicut bonus miles Christi">.

However when Father Mazza died in August 1865, the bishop of Verona decreed that the institute was no longer authorized to have its own seminarians or priests. This was a bitter blow for Comboni and the circumstances were aggravated by the general political context in the newly-born Italian State. Verona had become "Italian" that same year. The government was anti-clerical so it was difficult for new religious institutes considering that even existing foundations were being swept away and deprived of their livelihoods. But unexpected help would come, directly from the Pope. Encouraged by Propaganda Fide Prefect, Cardinal Barnabo who was also a great friend of Comboni's, the Pope allowed a new institute to be founded in Verona for the "Missioni della Nigrizia". Thus in 1867 was born the Combonian missionary institute and by the end of that year having dealt with the matter of a priest who tried to appoint two visionary nuns to accompany him as the first missionary sisters to Africa. Comboni was on his way to Egypt with three Camillian Fathers, three French sisters and 16 African girls who had been educated in Europe. Their aim was to found one of the first institutes along the lines of Comboni's plan, in Cairo.

Saint Joseph and Temporal Favors

Comboni returned to Italy from Cairo in search of assistance and, especially, funds. He toured Europe—Paris, London, Cologne and Vienna—in search of material support. In his letters he writes of his amusement at the idea of all the dining he had to do with European aristocracy and of the "brass neck" he had to develop to move in such circles. But he did not forget the convents, either, where he would go to ask for the support of their prayers. He consecrated Africa to Our Lady of Salette in France and he entrusted his work to Saint Joseph. "Good St. Joseph", he later said, "you have always stopped me from going bankrupt, and never denied me any temporal favors. In 1872 again in Verona, he founded the "Pie Madri della Nigrizia" institute. But his tour of Europe also served to boost the ranks of the detractors of his work. For, coming as it did in the wake of slave trading, the African mission clashed with the interests of European potentates. Comboni was kidnapped one night in Paris by Freemasons, as he would reveal to his friends long after the incident. The Masons had sworn to him that if he ever spoke a single word of what happened, their daggers would reach him even in the heart of Africa. Nor was he lacking in enemies in ecclesiastical circles. In one letter to a Verona priest, he writes: "They are waging a bitter war against me in Rome, of secret plots, presence, trickery, lies and allegations ... We must suffer great things for the love of Jesus Christ, fight potentates, Turks, atheists, Freemasons, barbarians, the elements and priests ... But all our trust is placed in Him who died and who rose again for us and he chooses the weakest instruments to do his work".

"One suffers for Christ. That's all there is to it"

In recognition, however, of his unconditioned devotion to the missionary cause, Propaganda Fide promoted him to the episcopate on August 12, 1877. In December that year, he left for Africa again, this time as a bishop accompanying a group of missionaries, including the first five sisters to be trained at the institute he founded in Verona. The journey to Khartoum, headquarters of Central Africa's Apostolic Vicariat, lasted nearly a year. In Sudan, too, Comboni had shown political ability in establishing contacts within the Kordofan government. These contacts were vital in a Moslem land, lacerated as it was by continuous strife, if the missionary work was to be guaranteed survival. Now, 20 years after that first journey to Africa in 1857, he could see the fruits of his companions' martyrdom. The Cairo mission was now a flourishing community and other missions were at work south of Khartoum in Delen, Gondkoro, Gebel Nuba, Holy Cross, El Obeid. And in spite of his increasing ill health brought on by the inhuman fatigue he had endured, he set his sights on territories further south, towards the border with the region now known as Uganda. Providence reserved a further four intense years of labor for the bishop, marked by sacrifices, persecution, desertions, deaths and the continuing obstacles which continued to be erected by Church circles. During those dramatic years, he wrote to a priest from the El Obeid mission: "The extreme, suffocating heat of El Obeid is so taxing to me physically that I can neither sleep nor eat. One suffers for Christ—that's all there is to it. But I can no longer keep up with all my duties. I have had to swallow so many injustices and other bitter pills at the hands of these blessed madmen that it's a miracle I've survived. I work as hard as I can for the glory of God and for the poor souls. I just go on, and concern myself with nothing else in the certainty that all the crosses I have to bear are the will of God and so they will be increasingly dear to me".

He died saying: "I am happy"

On that exhausting journey back from El Obeid, in July 1881, he was caught in a violent thunderstorm and was forced to sleep on a soaking mattress for over five hours. This was the last straw for his already compromised health. There had been serious drought, then the rains came bringing fevers. This time it was black fever and, once back in Khartoum, his dearest assistants died within a short time, cut down by the malignant disease.

Compounding this were his pain at all the allegations against him, the defections in some quarters and his concern for the political scenario threatening to destroy the entire missionary effort. Islam's new prophet, Mohammed Ahmed el Mahdi, was preparing what would prove to be one of the most dramatic revolutions in Sudanese history. Comboni summarized the state of affairs thus for the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda Fide: "All these crosses are bearing down terribly on my heart, but they increase my strength and courage in fighting the Lord's battles so that the works of the Lord may be born and grow continually ... Today, our lay brother, Paolo Scandi, of Rome gave his beautiful soul to God. He helped in the mission as an ironmonger. He was little more than a boy and he died saying: 'I am happy' ... How sweet is that <fiat> that says everything, incorporates everything, embraces everything". Despite his fever, Comboni continued to monitor and note in his diary all those who were being won for the faith and he would go to comfort the brothers who were sick with fever and aggrieved by the deaths, one after the other, of their companions. On October 10, he realized he had reached the end of his life and called his followers to him. Thanking them, he asked their forgiveness. Then came a new violent attack of fever, the last. Father Bouchard, who assisted him on his death bed, said: "Before he lost his senses he asked to embrace the Cross ... he quietly fell asleep, like a child". He was 50 years of age.

A short time before, he had written to a priest friend: "We will not stop in our tracks until we draw the last breath of our lives. Then, when we are in Paradise, we will persecute Jesus and Mary with our incessant prayers and we will pray to Him so much until, for love or by force, He will be obliged to work miracles".

The Heart of the Church

Interview: Father Pietro Tiboni, Comboni missionary, on his founder's beautification

There are currently about 3,000 male and female Comboni missionaries throughout the world. Father Pietro Tiboni is one of them. He has been in Kampala, Uganda for the past 26 years but before that, between 1957 and 1964, he served in the southern Sudan mission, the land where Comboni worked. This is a land of suffering, torn by incessant strife and guerrilla warfare. "But it is a land", said Father Tiboni, "where, through Comboni's intercession, faithfulness to Christ is strongly rooted, despite the violence of the persecutions".

Is the spirit with which Comboni launched his mission in Africa still the same today?

PIETRO TIBONI: The total love for the mission with no fear of sacrificing one's life is as present today as it was in the beginning. In all the years I've been here I have seen how total devotion to the mission on the part of so many missionaries has invested their entire lives. They share without reserve all the hopes, suffering and desire for salvation that the local people manifest.

What does the beatification of your founder mean to you at this particular time?

TIBONI: Primarily, the mission is part of my life so this act of the Holy Father's in promoting our founder to the honor of the altar denotes approval by the supreme authority of all that is dearest to me. And this holds not only for myself but also for everyone who pursues the Combonian missionary vocation. But most of all this act is an indication of the importance of the mission which is, so to speak the very heart of the Church. It proves that the evangelization begun last century in these lands is being recognized as a great work of the Lord, a real event that is still happening here and now. The beatification of our Father Comboni means the approval by the Holy See of the charism which is characteristic of his missionary work.

What are the most urgent problems that must be addressed in Africa today?

TIBONI: Today, as then, black Africa in its unhappiness has a great need to encounter the fullness of life. It has a great need to encounter Jesus Christ.

This article was taken from the No. 2, 1996 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321-2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.