How is my charming and dear Erminia? What sweet and tender memories the dear thought of her I treasure in my heart awakens in me! Give her a hundred kisses and a thousand more from me, and tell her that the great distance that divides me from her has not at all diminished the fervent affection l have for her; tell her that i am not at all displeased at having included her for years among those for whom I have a special affection, that l in no way regret having loved her, but rather that I quite enjoy, even from a distance, letting her know that I keep her in my heart. (St. Daniel Comboni’s Writings no. 194). The above paragraph is taken from a letter, which Daniel Comboni wrote to his cousin Eustachio Comboni from Khartoum on 12th January 1858.
The entire letter overflows with manifestations of affection that reveal the unique capacity for genuine interpersonal relationships that particularly characterized Comboni for the whole of his life. And yet, if we really want to understand the depth of his truly larger than life missionary heart, we need to dig into his appreciation and understanding of the presence, and of the role of women not just ’in and for mission’ but also ‘in and for’ his personal and holistic human growth and development as a man, as a priest, as a founder of local Churches and of missionary congregations. Erminia Carattoni was the wife of Eustachio, and, in various letters to his cousin, Comboni mentions his deep affection for her, and how much she means for him.
From these few lines, we can begin to appreciate the depth of Comboni’s affectionate heart and the deep internal freedom he enjoyed, a freedom that enabled him to express his profound sentiments, and appreciation for the many women he held as dear friends and with whom he was able to share his deepest anxieties, and in whom he deeply trusted. No matter the cost. All this at a time and in a society and Church, highly suspicious of any type of interpersonal relationships leave alone friendship between women and men.
A man forged by many encounters
Queens and empresses, abbesses, duchesses, presidents of missionary organizations, lay and religious volunteers, religious women living in monasteries and religious women serving the impoverished of their day; women who were the sisters of, or family members of, medical officers he knew, wives of government officials he met in many parts of the world; women from the Nuba Mountains and women from France, from Germany and from Lebanon, from Austria and from Syria; women living in distant Armenia and as near as Bosco chiesanuova, just outside Verona. Each of these women welcomed him and offered him their precious help. His missionary zeal was like a burning fire, which compelled them even to go out of their way to win favor for his cause.
At the same time, Comboni knew how to listen to them, to become close to their difficulties and to give room to their hopes for themselves and for their loved ones. One just needs to go through his letters addressed to women to see the shepherd’s benevolent heart at work. At any latitude, in season and out of season. His was a heart forged on a personality open to the beauty of encounters. To the joy of self-revelation to another human being, and the reciprocity that may then flow as a shared gift. In fact, from these women, Comboni would receive enormous support, closeness, solidarity and dedication. At the school of these women, he learned how to perceive life the way women do.
This journey of encounters with women brought Comboni to state in a letter, written in 1865 to his dear friend, Father Francesco Bricolo, that ’The catholic woman is everything”. In this same letter, he states that he will ”bear eternal friendship” towards ”some of my ladies” as these made possible for him to meet with the founder of the French-based Pious Association of the Propagation of the Faith. From the great esteem he had for women and drawing from the profound spiritual life that sustained his apostolic dedication, Comboni was able to draw the parallel between the women disciples at the time of Jesus, and the women disciples who were welcoming the call to make Jesus known in the Vicariate of Central Africa. He would name them and us Women of the Gospel.
Indeed, this is the ongoing call and the ongoing best title for every woman disciple that embraces the ministry of sharing the Good News, who is Jesus himself. And so, once the famous year 1867 dawned, Comboni, a little over 35 years old then, and now sure of God’s plan in his life, finally returned to his beloved Africa never gain to be separated from her. Travelling with him were the first group composed of lay and consecrated women He knew in his heart and with them at his side that the Gospel would have full of promise in the heart of the African Continent which as mother of Humanity.
Women of, and for, the Gospel
Which relationship did Comboni see between “the omnipotent ministry of the woman of the Gospel” and the women who said yes to ministry in Africa? Of the women of the Gospel, we know that they yearned to express their interior freedom by making themselves available, without any reservations, to following Jesus. With an audacity that often time leaves the most seasoned scholars of the law speechless. The call for the freedom of the Spirit empowers them to confront the century-old barriers that kept them at the margin of religion and of society. It made them truly capable of embracing the liberating agenda of the young prophet from Nazareth and enabled them to invest all their energies as artisans of the kingdom which Comboni used to say, was already present in their midst.
These women would in very unique and compelling ways, be present wherever Jesus summoned them even on Calvary Hill, and, for sure, at the very dawn of Easter Sunday. Their courage gave the Risen Jesus the green light to empower them with the mandate to go and announce the good news of his resurrection. The women disciples of Jesus understood the importance of being close to him in his various hours. The women who embraced Comboni’s call made their own the various hours facing the Nigricans margarita. They did this with a passion and a dedication second to none.
The Comboni Missionary Sisters
The legacy of the women of the Gospel is the same legacy that Comboni passed on to the group of women he gathered together and who today are known as Comboni Missionary Sisters, a name they (we) took on the 100th anniversary of their foundation (1872 1972). ln order to better understand what Comboni really thought when he founded this congregation, it might be useful to delve into the name that he first gave them, ’Pie Madri della Nigrizia’. Nigrizia referred to the immense region comprising Black Africa. Madri meant Mothers. Pie identified the ’Mystery of Pietas’, which these women were called to share with the people their spiritual children entrusted to their care.
As a modern St. Paul, Comboni was familiar with the implications related to the ’mystery of pietas’ about which the Apostle of the Gentiles writes in the First Letter to Timothy (cfr. I Tim 3:16). These women have been called to first live in themselves, and then share with others, the immense benefits of God’s compassionate heart. And they have done it and still strive at doing it today hand in hand with the people who open the doors of their homes and of their hearts to them. In Africa, as in Europe; in Asia as in America.
Of the women of the Gospel, we know that they yearned to express their interior freedom by making themselves available, without any reservations, to following Jesus. With an audacity that often time leaves the most seasoned scholars of the law speechless. The call for the freedom of the Spirit empowers them to confront the century-old barriers that kept them at the margin of religion and of society.
During their recent General Chapter (September 2016) the Congregation of the Comboni Missionary Sisters embraced the commitment to be ”women of the Gospel” by searching for renewed ways to let encounters happen in the 21st century at all levels. Be it through advocacy where vital world decisions are made, or with migrants in search of hospitality. With the formation of leaders, or by sustaining life through the paths of care and education and always supporting the Gospel values of justice and reconciliation, solidarity and peace.
On the footsteps of the holy man who saw in them the ”shield, strength and guarantee of the Missionary’s ministry” and in creative faithfulness to his legacy, the Comboni Missionary Sisters, alongside all the members of the great Comboni Family, are now spread out in four continents and know that life, life in abundance, is still the promise that awaits those who trust and risk the beauty of making encounters happen and grow into genuine interpersonal and affirming life-giving relationships.