Daniele Comboni. Wikimedia Commons

Father, Shepherd, and Friend of Africa

At the age of 26, he left for the Sudan, in Central Africa, where he began his missionary work. He used to say often, “Africa can find its true dignity and freedom only in the reality of the Church.”
Fidel Gonzalez

Daniele Comboni showed himself to be a true precursor and prophet of what Africa should be and is becoming.” These are the words of the Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, postulator of the Cause of Canonization of Fr Comboni.

Born in Limone sul Garda, in the province of Brescia, Italy, on March 15, 1831, he moved to Verona, the city to which he was intimately tied. His intense friendships were not limited to Italy; from 1857, when he left for Africa, and from 1862, when he consecrated himself to the work of redeeming slaves on the east coasts of Africa and the fight against slavery, his attachments extended to the rest of Europe as well–from France to England, from Belgium and Germany to all the countries of central Europe. Comboni was a de facto point of union for the European missionary movement and the many people who were beginning to look at the reality of the African peoples with Christian eyes.

Encounter with Fr Mazza and vocation
Comboni was the spiritual son of one of the leading figures of the missionary movement of that time, Fr Nicola Mazza of Verona. His encounter with and sequela of Mazza and his contact with the drama of African slavery (he became friends with a Sudanese slave bought in a slave market in Egypt, brought to Verona, and educated by Mazza) opened him up to the missionary vocation. On January 6, 1849, at the age of 18, he swore in front of Fr Mazza to “consecrate his life to Christ in favor of the African peoples even unto martyrdom.” His entire life should be read in the light of that encounter and that oath, which he always remembered in full detail. In 1854, he was ordained a priest in Trent by Archbishop Blessed Giovanni Nepomuceno Tschiderer. He was one of the pioneers of the missions to Central Africa, leaving for the Dark Continent in 1857 at the age of only 26 and arriving at his destination in Sudan a good six months later, in the midst of indescribable obstacles, enormous hardships, and the sickness and death of some of his companions. He opened the path of missionary work to diocesan priests and laypersons. He wanted women missionaries, whether consecrated (he called them “virgins of charity”) or married. He himself was the first to lead these women into the heart of Africa. As early as 1867, he took fifteen young Africans to be missionaries in Africa, many of them former slaves who had been bought back and had become Christians (instructed in the faith by Fr Comboni himself).

The roots of a missionary vocation
Comboni learned from Mazza to keep his “eyes fixed on Jesus Christ”, to view the world of Africa “not through philanthropy or the interests of the explorers, politicians, and economists,” but through the Mystery of Jesus Christ on the cross, as he wrote in the introduction to his Plan for the Regeneration of Africa (1864).

After being named Bishop of Central Africa and returning to Africa amid countless difficulties, he said to his few faithful: “I left my heart among you… and today I finally get it back by returning in your midst. I return among you, never to cease being yours…. Night and day, sunshine and rain will find me equally ready for your spiritual needs.” He was clearly conscious of the fact that a missionary had to be Christ’s tangible embrace for the peoples of Africa.

Comboni’s missionary plan
At the time, Africa’s land was being traversed by explorers, merchants, and traders. The path of the missionary rebirth of the nineteenth century is intertwined with these other paths. Thanks to the missionary movement, the mission of Central Africa was set up. In the beginning, the mission soon unraveled in failure and the death of almost a hundred of its first missionaries.

In this context, an extraordinary event of grace took place in Fr Comboni’s life. It was September 15, 1864. While he was praying at St Peter’s tomb in the Vatican, divine grace came down on him “like a stroke of lightning,” as he wrote almost immediately, recalling that moment. This was the birth of the “missionary plan” for the regeneration of Africa with the grace of Christ. He presented it to the Holy See three days later, on September 18, 1864. Pius IX said to him at that time, “Work like a good soldier of Christ!” He obeyed until death. For him, the mission was obedience and passion for the Church.

He used every means to communicate his great missionary passion; during his life, he wrote for more than 150 newspapers and European magazines in favor of the African mission, and met people from every walk of life without ever discriminating against anyone. An indomitable fighter against the Eastern slave trade, he lamented both the politics of colonial exploitation and the ambiguity of certain attitudes assumed by politicians and ecclesiastics of the time toward the mission. Famines and pestilence, a fundamentalist Islamic war, opposition from certain European circles (even religious ones), hostility from political figures, and the incomprehension of old friends weighed heavily on the last years of his life.

These were years of untold suffering. “I feel in my heart the weight of the Cross…” he wrote eight days before he died. The Lord had refined him spiritually through the mystery of the Cross. On the model of the saints, he welcomed it with increasing conviction as the arcane guarantee of ecclesial fecundity. “The Cross has the strength to transform Africa into a land of blessing and health…. I do not care about anything. What matters to me is the conversion of all black people,” he wrote shortly before his death. He never tired of saying that “Africa can find its true dignity and freedom only in the reality of the Church, the Body of Christ.” For Africans, he saw only one possible way to achieve their full dignity: faith in Christ, as he had already written to the Bishops of Vatican Council I. Shortly before dying, he had his missionaries renew their oath of faithfulness to their vocation even unto death. Some of his missionaries and sisters died almost immediately, in the prime of their youth; others were enslaved by the Islamic fundamentalists during the Mahdist domination of the Sudan (1882-1899), and yet others died in prison.

On the night of October 10, 1881, the time came for him to meet his Lord, right in the heart of the Africa he had loved with such passion. “All Africans weep for their Bishop–Mutran es Sudan–and call to him addressing him as father, shepherd, and friend…” wrote a Canadian Combonian missionary who was by his side at his death.

The source of his consecration
In the liturgy of the day of his beatification in St Peter’s, March 17, 1996, we find written: “Daniele Comboni: a son of poor gardeners and peasants who became the first Catholic Bishop of Central Africa and one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Church…. It is really true: when the Lord decides to intervene and finds a generous and willing person, new and great things are seen.”

Comboni knew how to be a faithful son of all the holiest men and women in the Church of his time. He kept up friendships and contacts with almost twenty saints who have since been canonized, from whom he wanted “continually to learn Christ.” Among them, we mention Blessed Pius IX, St John Bosco, St Arnold Janssen (founder of the Missionary Institute of the Verbites), Blessed Ludovico da Caloria, and many others.

Comboni wrote in the Rules for his missionaries (1871) that only a missionary who has “eyes fixed continually on Christ” can be even a part of the foundations of a missionary work that is for the glory of God. Comboni’s message can be synthesized in his effective conviction that man can be reborn only from Christ’s embrace–any man, even in the most degrading and desperate situation, mistreated by history and by men. This is why Comboni speaks constantly of the uninterrupted need to “look to Christ.” As soon as Pius IX entrusted the mission of Central Africa to him (1872), he consecrated Africa to the Heart of Christ, right in the place of its greatest degradation: the emporium of slavery that was the city of El Obeid (Sudan). Here he founded a mission and built a church dedicated to Our Lady, Queen of Africa. Immediately afterward, in that same place, he entrusted Africa to Mary. He intended in this way for the place of degradation and sin to become the point of departure for a true liberation and promotion of the person, bringing into focus the substance of every missionary action: Christ donated to us through Mary. A large mosaic covers the apse of today’s Cathedral of El Obeid: Our Lady offering her Son to Africa and, kneeling at her feet, Daniele Comboni and the redeemed former slave of that land and St Josephine Bakhita, who together intercede for Africa. On this same spot, Comboni’s first disciples would also die martyrs to the faith: five of his missionaries, just two years after his death.

Sons and daughters of Comboni
The African Cardinal Francis Arinze, postulator of his Cause of Canonization, commented, “In Comboni’s time, many thought of Africa as an object of exploration, occupation, partition, or dominion. Others dreamed of an Africa to help, civilize, or educate. But they always looked at Africa as an object, not as a subject. But Comboni thought otherwise.” He wanted an Africa where the Face of Christ shone in full splendor. In the words of his direct successor in Sudan, the Archbishop of Khartoum Gabriel Zubeir, “We African Christians are the sons and daughters of Daniele Comboni. Without him, today there would be no bishops, priests, deacons, brothers, sisters, Christians…. But his missionary impulse was not born of a simply external project; it was the fruit of his ecclesial obedience to the grace of the Holy Spirit.” This is why, in the moment of supreme trial, he was able to say to his missionaries, “I am dying, but this work [the African mission] will not die…. God’s works are born at the foot of the Cross.”