Daniel Comboni: the son of poor gardeners who became the first Catholic Bishop of Central Africa, and one of the great missionaries in the Church’s history.
It is a fact. When God decides to take a hand and select a generous and open-hearted individual, things happen: great, new things.
An “only child” – with holy parents
Daniel Comboni is born at Limone sul Garda (Brescia – Italy) on 15th, March 1831, into a family of cultivators employed by one of the rich local proprietors. Luigi and Domenica, the parents, are very attached to Daniel: he is the fourth of eight children, but the only survivor: all the others die young, six of them in their infancy. So, they form a very close unit, rich in faith and human values, but poor in material things. It is this poverty that forces Daniel to go away to school in Verona, in the Institute founded by Father Nicola Mazza. During the years spent in Verona, Daniel discovers his calling to the priesthood, completes his studies of Philosophy and Theology and, above all, is entranced by the mission of Central Africa, drawn by the descriptions of the missionaries who return from there to the Mazza Institute. Comboni is ordained in 1854, and three years later leaves for Africa himself, along with five other missionaries of the Mazza Institute and with the blessing of his mother Domenica, who finally tells him: “Go, Daniel, and may the Lord bless you”.
Into the heart of Africa – with Africa in his heart
After a journey of four months the missionary expedition that includes Comboni reaches Khartoum, capital of the Sudan. The impact of this first face-to-face encounter with Africa is tremendous, Daniel is immediately made aware of the multiple difficulties that are part of his new mission. But labours, unbearable climate, sickness, the deaths of several of his young fellow-missionaries, the poverty and dereliction of the population, only serve to drive him forward, never dreaming of giving up what he has taken on with such great enthusiasm. From the mission of Holy Cross he writes to his parents: “We will have to labour hard, to sweat, to die: but the thought that one sweats and dies for love of Jesus Christ and the salvation of the most abandoned souls in the world, is far too sweet for us to desist from this great enterprise”.
After withessing at the death of one of his missionary companions, Comboni, far from being discouraged, feels an interior confirmation of his decision to carry on in the mission: “O Nigrizia o morte!” – Africa, or death.
It is still Africa and its peoples that drive Comboni, when he returns to Italy, to work out a fresh missionary strategy. In 1864, while praying at the Tomb of St Peter in Rome, Daniel is struck by a brilliant inspiration that leads to the drawing up of his famous Plan for the Rebirth of Africa, a missionary project that can be summed up in an expression which is itself the indication of his boundless trust in the human and religious capacities of the African peoples: “Save Africa through Africa”.
An original missionary Bishop
In spite of all the problems and misunderstandings he has to face, Daniel Comboni strives to drive home his intuition: that all European society and the Church are called to become much more concerned with the mission of Central Africa. He undertakes a tireless round of missionary animation all over Europe, begging for spiritual and material aid for the African missions from Kings and Queens. Bishops and nobles, as well as from the poor, simple people. As a tool for missionary animation he launches a missionary magazine, the first in Italy.
His unshakeable faith in the Lord and trust for Africa lead him to found, in 1867 and 1872 respectively, two missionary Institutes of men and of women: these become known more widely as the Comboni Missionaries and the Comboni Missionary Sisters (Verona Fathers and Sisters).
He takes part in the first Vatican Council as the theologian of the Bishop of Verona, and gets 70 Bishops to sign a petition for the evangelisation of Central Africa (Postulatum pro Nigris Africæ Centralis).
On 2nd, July 1877, Comboni is named Vicar Apostolic of Central Africa, and ordained Bishop a month later: it is confirmation that his ideas and his activities considered by some to be foolhardy, if not crazy are recognised as truly effective means for the proclamation of the God News and the liberation of the African continent.
In 1877 and 1878 he and all his missionaries are tormented in body and spirit by the tragedy of a drought followed by starvation without precedent. The local populations are halved, and the missionary personnel and their activities reduced almost to nothing.
The cross as friend and spouse
In 1880, with unflagging determination, Bishop Comboni travels to Africa for the eighth and last time, to stand alongside his missionaries: intent, also, on continuing the struggle against the pernicious Slave Trade, and on consolidating the missionary activity carried out by Africans themselves. Just one year later, overwhelmed by his labours, by many deaths in quick succession among his collaborators, by a wave of calumnies and accusations that are a bitter burden, the great missionary falls sick himself. On 10th, October 1881, only 50 years old, marked by the Cross which, like a faithful and loving bride, has never let him, he dies in Khartoum, among his people. But he is aware that his missionary work will not end with him: “I am dying”, he says, “but my work will not die”.
He was right. His work did not die. Indeed, like all great projects “which are born at the foot of the Cross”, it continues to live through the giving of their lives by many women and men who have chosen to follow Comboni along the path of his arduous yet exhilarating mission among peoples who are the poorest as regards the Gospel, and the most abandoned as regards human solidarity.
The prophetic gift of Daniel Comboni can be understood from different but complementary perspectives:
Witness by his word and works he showed the loving mercy of the God who, in Christ, saves all people.
Precursor Comboni was not just one of the pioneers of the mission to Central Africa of his time, his global vision of mission is relevant even today
In his body and spirit he was mystically nailed, like the Lord, to the cross; he fell into the soil of Africa like a grain of wheat. His martyrdom makes him a master of missionary spirituality.