SAINT DANIEL COMBONI:
TRAITS OF MISSIONARY SPIRITUALITY
As I was asked to present the missionary spirituality of Saint Daniel Comboni, I thought of dealing first of all, even though briefly, with the reality which, I believe, constitutes the foundation of that spirituality, that is the Eucharistic Celebration. Afterwards, in concrete terms, we will consider some of the most important aspects of that spirituality, with the inspirations and challenges they have for us.
Without any doubt Saint Daniel Comboni was a eucharistic person. Writing to his father at Khartoum on the 6th of September 1881, he spoke of the Eucharistic Celebration in these terms:
“Dearest Father, I celebrated Mass in my room this morning at about 3:00. I get almost no sleep at all, and in the morning I haven’t the strength to celebrate Mass nor to attend it, so I celebrate it sometimes after midnight when I can breathe better” (MDC No. 39).
Comboni must have had a great esteem of the Eucharist to celebrate Mass during the night in order not to omit it.
The two aspects of the Eucharistic Celebration which were felt deeply by Saint Daniel Comboni are : sacrifice and banquet.
Regarding the aspects of sacrifice, Comboni called the Eucharistic Celebration “The most acceptable of sacrifices to the most High God.” (MDC 201.) He was aware that the Holy Mass is not only the sacrifice of Christ, but also the sacrifice of the Church, the sacrifice of each one of Christ’s followers who shares in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we have what we may call the martyrdom of the heart, that is a life offered to God and spent for His glory and for the building-up of His Kingdom. This martyrdom was lived by Comboni in an eminent way. He lived and died as a martyr. Today he reminds us that every time we celebrate the Eucharist with a true spirit of faith and mission we too offered ourselves to the Father in sacrifice together with Jesus. We say: “Father we do not belong to ourselves, we belong to You. Our desire is to spend our existence not for plans of our own, but for your plan of salvation for all.”
Regarding the aspect of banquet, St. Daniel Comboni wrote: “The Eucharistic Jesus is my strength” (Writing 6044). He felt that Jesus nourished him not only for his own benefit, but also to enable him to be of nourishment to others. Taking the Eucharist seriously means for us to become like living bread offered to God, taken by Him, broken and shared for all to be sustained and nourished. Also this aspect of the Eucharist celebration was lived by Comboni in depth as he nourished the people to whom God sent him giving Jesus and in Jesus, himself! Listening to the following quotation, we can understand how much he gave of himself. The passage is from the homily Comboni gave at Khartoum on 11 of May 1873, upon his returned there, after having been named Pro-Vicar Apostolic of Central Africa.
“Unfortunate Africa was the first love of my youth. I left behind everything that was dearest to me in the world, and came to these lands sixteen years ago, to offer my work for the relief of its centuries-old misfortunes. Later, obedience called me home, because of my bad health, but I left my heart among you.
Today I return to you at last, and I regain my heart, to open it to the sublime and religious feeling of my spiritual fatherhood, with which God wished to invest me through the supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius IX.
Yes, I am already your father and you are my children and, as such, I embrace you and press you to my heart. I am grateful for the enthusiastic welcome you have given me; it shows your love as children, and convinces me that you wish to be always my joy and my crown, as you are my portion and my inheritance. I return among you, never again to cease to be yours, and entirely consecrated to your greater good. Day and night, sun and rain will find me equally ready to help your spiritual needs: rich and poor, healthy and sick, old and young, master and servant, shall always have equal access to my heart. I shall make common cause with each one of you, and the happiest of my days will be the one on which I shall be able to give my life for you.” (Writings No. 3156- 3159)
As I have said earlier, I see these two aspects of the Eucharistic Celebration, sacrifice and banquet, as the two foundations of Saint Daniel Comboni’s missionary spirituality.
If we go now to the level of operation, of action, these are the points that I would stress in the missionary spirituality of our Saint. They are of so much inspiration to us.
(1) A strong sense of determination of faith. Not just determination, but determination of faith because it was based first of all not upon human elements, but upon what God could do and actually was doing for the salvation of Nigritia and of all people :
“The hour of grace decreed by the Providence – we read in Comboni’s writings – is here calling all these peoples to take refuge in the peaceful shade of Christ’s fold.” (MDC111).
Today Saint Daniel Comboni presents this determination to us against the spirit of timidity afflicting many missionary Institutes. I hear him saying to us: “Get out of your isolation and go to work in the vineyard of the Lord. Sisters, Brothers, Priests be daring in your commitment and translate your missionary spirit, if it is there, into action.” I would like to throw there a question which could be considered as coming from St. Daniel Comboni himself: “Aren’t there many religious who are prisoners of the walls of their houses, with energies waiting to be spent for the building up of the kingdom and so, for mission? I do not know the answer exactly, but probably it is Yes.
(2) Total dedication as a consequence of the determination of faith we have just considered, against the consideration of self fulfillment seen as the top priority in life.
I have the impression that this consideration is so common today. Saint Daniel Comboni tells us that what really counts and God wants from us is total dedication in love. Self fulfillment is a gift that God gives. It is a consequence of total dedication and it cannot be considered a condition for dedication. Let us listen to Comboni himself:
“I am a missionary to work for the glory of God and to spend my life for the good of souls.” (MDC No. 4)
“I am ready to give-up everything and to suffer the hardiest fatigue and discomfort. Indeed, it would be easy and sweet to sacrifice my blood ad my life to cooperate in the accomplishment in this holy work.”(MDC No. 6)
“We are united in one thought, ready and longing to sacrifice our live for the love of God, of the Church and of unfortunate Africa. We are all ready, your Eminence, to die martyrs for the faith; but we want to die wisely, indeed with the highest wisdom; that is, working wisely for the salvation of the most abandoned souls on earth, and exposing ourselves on their behalf to the greatest dangers of this life with the prudence, good sense and self-forgetfulness, which are becoming the true apostles and martyrs of Jesus Christ.” (MDC No. 55)
“Our life is in God’s hands; he does what he wants; by an irrevocable gift we have sacrificed our lives to him. Blessed be He. Here, from evening to morning, people are dying. Here there is no time to prepare oneself for death: you have always to be ready. In just a few hours a fever can reduce you to the very last of your strength, bring you to the threshold of the grave. So pray for us that we may be always ready to die in the grace of God at any moment.” (MDC No. 217)
(3) The mystery of the Cross as the privileged source of energy for generous commitment in mission.
During the time of Jesus and of Saint Paul the Cross was considered an obstacle in life; it was considered foolishness. Jesus said :
“ If anyone wants to be follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24)
“While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greek, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:22-24).
Accepting the Cross was difficult also during the time of Comboni, so many people were rejecting it for the sake of an easy life but St. Daniel Comboni was convinced that the Gospel could make headway in Africa, in the Church and all over the world only through the mystery of the Cross. Let us listen to him:
“The Cross and very great tribulations are necessary for the safe-keeping, the establishment and the progress of the works of God, which must always be born, grow and flourish at the foot of Calvary.” (MDC NO. 198)
“I already see and understand that the Cross is such a friend to me and always so near to me that I have for some time now chosen her as my eternal and indivisible Bride. So the Cross will be my Beloved “bride” and my wise and prudent “teacher” (MDC No. 224)
“It is a constant law of God’s Providence that his works are marked by the Cross. So it is no small comfort to my spirit, despite its own great weakness, to see myself burdened by very heavy crosses.” (MDC No. 230)
As for our world these days, many people formally reject the Cross considering it a sign of heavenly rage or as something which is disturbing many people, especially children, psychologically. In mission it is important to counter act this mentality presenting the cross as the revelation of absolute love.
Besides the three expressions of Comboni I have quoted as presenting the mystery of the Cross in a vivid way, we have so many others in his writings, in a context of great sufferings and passionate commitment to mission. Some are rendered in a language we can considered too militaristic. Well, we have to remember that it is the language of Comboni’s time. An example of this is the “Hymn to the Cross” that Comboni wrote in 1877 at the end of a particularly painful period in his life.
“ The Saviour of the world
marvelously conquered souls
by the strength of this Cross,
which destroyed paganism,
razed the idolatrous temples,
vanquished the powers of hell,
and became the altar, not of one single temple,
but of the whole world.
This Cross which came forth from the summit of Golgotha
and then filled the universe with its power,
this Cross was adored in the temples,
and in the royal cities received the highest veneration;
it was reverenced on the standards of armies
and invoked on the mainmasts of ships.
By the Cross priests were consecrated
and monarchs enthroned with sacred rites.
Carried on their breasts by heroes it brought courage to all.
Earth, sea and sky recognize the power of the Cross
and everywhere it is honoured.
It was in the midst of troubles and thorns
that the work of our redemption was born and grew:
its development is wonderful
and its future is surely consoling and happy.
The Cross has the strength to transform Central Africa
into a land of blessing and salvation.
From the Cross there issues a strength,
which is gentle and does not kill,
which comes down on souls and renews them
like a refreshing dew;
from the Cross there issues great power,
because the Nazarene, raised up on the tree of the Cross,
stretched out one arm to the East and the other to the West,
and gathered his elect from the whole world
into the embrace of the Church;
with pierced hands,
and like another Samson,
he hurled down the columns of the temple
where for so many centuries
men had adored the power of evil.
It was on these ruins that he raised up the Cross;
worker of marvels,
which attracted all things to itself:
“Si exaltatus fuero a terra,
omnia traham ad meipsum”. (MDC No. 233)
I quote part of an article entitled “A God who Suffers” by Father Paul J. Wadell, CP because, I believe, it summarizes for us what Comboni felt and could tell us about the Cross today in current language. Fr. Paul says:
“In Jesus crucified we are taken into the depths of God. It is there that we come to understand most deeply the love God has for us and the absolute lengths to which God goes to give us life, even in our moments of darkness and defeat. What we see in the passion of Jesus is a love that gathers in all the scattered, shattered pieces of our life and heals them with a tenderness that can break our hearts. What we see in the cross is a love that loses nothing that can be saved, whether that be our defeats, our brokenness, or our shame. With God all these can be points of life for us and the reason is startling: God can kiss us with a healing because God is wounded by our pain.
A God who was crucified is also a God who heals with an abundance of Easter life. This is why we as Christians are able, like St. Paul, to look at the cross and see there not shame or ruin or defeat, but the power and wisdom of God. Like Paul, we are able to look at the cross and see the love of a God who absorbs into himself all the accumulated evil and hatred and waste and suffering of the ages, and somehow transforms them into life.
In his First letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that in the crucified Christ evil is allowed to do its worst to God, and God overcomes it with love. We are not ashamed to pledge our loyalty to a crucified God because for us the cross is not a place of loss, but salvation.
God in Jesus suffers. Confronted with the sorrow and exhaustion of life, God does not turn away; rather, God opens his heart and the world moves in. God embraces, enters into, and becomes one with our pain. What we see happening time and time again in the Gospels is God in Christ being drawn into somebody’s suffering, and when this happens God does not flee the suffering, but makes the suffering his own.
The passion of Jesus begins not on the cross, but in the world’s passion and suffering. Jesus’ passion starts when he looks upon us in our suffering and is stirred in the very depths of his being. In grasping this truth we come to know that we never suffer alone. Our pain is always the pain of God; our afflictions are God’s too. Our suffering is shared by God because when we suffer God opens his heart to receive it.”
In this spirit which is the spirit of Daniel Comboni we can say that the cross defines mission and every good method in mission. Together with Fr. Frazier, quoted by Fr. Kroeger in his article “ Naming the Conversion we seek”, we must say that the Cross is not only a symbol of mission, but a handbook on how to carry it out.
(4) Prayer. The theme of prayer especially in its missionary dimension, is so important in the spirituality of St. Daniel Comboni. Some expressions of our Saint are real jewels of spirituality. The documents of the Church on mission have been presenting prayer as a most eminent means for accomplishing mission. Also for this, we get inspiration from St. Daniel Comboni:
“Prayer is the surest and infallible means to succeed in doing the works of God, even when they are at their most difficult and challenging point, and so I have with great insistence asked many Bishops and the most respected Institutes in all parts of the world to pray fervently everyday to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and to the illustrious Patron of the Universal Church for the conversion of Africa.
In this important matter we are dealing with a true gentleman, God, who keeps his word and will stand by it forever. To the “petite” and “querite” of the holiest souls in the world there must, therefore, correspond the certain and unfailing “accipietis et invenietis” of our loving Lord, who died for poor Africans too. It is because of this that I am sure of the happy outcome of our holy work, of the special aid of God for me in my weakness, and of his help for all those who humbly work for the Gospel, those men and women he has given and will continue to give me for the arduous and important African mission.” (MDC No. 184)
A relevant note regarding the prayer of Comboni is this: it was based upon the word of God with its three most basic qualities: it is alive as it is God speaking to us, it is effective and it is disturbing.
(5) A welcoming heart in an atmosphere of respect for all people and of even of deep friendship.
St. Daniel Comboni had so many friends whom he touched with his missionary zeal. Among them a young man from Africa, a Sudanese, BACKIT KAENDA. Comboni met him in Verona in 1848. This is what he wrote:
“Since 1848, (at the age of 17), in Verona, I had made acquitance with the good African youth Backit Kaenda of the noble family of count Miniscalchi. He belonged to the tribe of Gebel Nuba and was well known to the people of Propaganda. For long years I cultivated deep friendship and intimate relationship with this fervent African catholic.
Together with the Bishop of Verona I had to admire the distinct piety of this Nuba, his solid faith and his impressive maturity of character. Without realizing it, I thus conceived a great esteem for the Nuba. A thousand times I told good Backit that I would not be happy until I had planted the Cross of Jesus Christ in his motherland. (Writings 4098)”
It is interesting to notice here that in a letter to Cardinal A. Franchi written in Delen, October 1875, Comboni gives the theological motivation for this determination and commitment: “Also this group of people are sharers in the redemptive death of Christ.”
Another great expression of the welcoming heart of St. Daniel Comboni is his love story with the Nuba people as a whole. Backit Kaenda was one of them.
“ (In my eagerness to befriend the Nuba), I took care to gather correct information about this neigbouring tribe and I tried to establish a link with a police officer of the Kordofan post, a certain Maximos. Among his wives he had a relative of the overall chief of the Nuba and was therefore in a very good relationship with that chief. Providence did not delay in offering me a good opportunity.
One day a Nuba chief from Dilling, a certain Said Aga, came to El Obeid. The above mentioned police officer Maximos introduced me to him at the mission in the morning of 16 July 1874. The day is consecrated to our Lady of Mount Carmel.
I welcomed the Nuba chief with great respect and I showed him around the workshops and the little school for boys and girls. In the church, I plaid the harmonium for him and I showed him the main altar with all its cloths, the statue of our Lady, etc… Seeing how happy and pleased Said Aga was, I revealed to him my desire to make acquaintance with the great chief of all the Nuba and I let him understand that I was not far from establishing a Mission among the Nuba ( Writings 4100)
Some other beautiful expressions of friendships are the following: In a letter to Count Guy of Carpegna (Verona, February 9, 1962) Comboni wrote:
“ My spirits are raised when I look through my album and gaze fondly at your portraits, the portraits of the dearest friends of my heart. It is an inexpressible joy for me to say a prayer for you in the Memento at morning Mass. It seems to me that in those blessed moments my spirit is aglow with the most fervent devotion, because I see in God the point of union between you and me. Yes, you are far from me physically, but we are one in religion, in faith and in our hearts. (MDC No. 41)
In another letter to Countess Ludmilla of Carpegna (Verona, 1 June 1862) we read:
“ Most noble Countess!… I see that you and your family remember me with affection… Always, sans cesse, I carry you in my heart, I remember you all. Sometimes, without realizing it, I speak about you with those who are with me. I find real comfort and sweet consolation in remembering you to God in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, a thing I do every morning when I go up to the altar. Yes, the God of peace and of mercies will not be slow in imparting to your noble family the healing unction of joy and concord. He will disperse the clouds that the enemy of human happiness spreads over the delights of a family that merits the special regard both of God and society.” (MDC No. 43)
In a letter to Fr. Francis Bricolo from Holy Cross (3rd December 1858) we read:
“ My friendship towards the people I love is strong and eternal. It cannot be cooled by even the greatest sacrifices.”
(6) A great sense of the demands of inculturation with a consequent behavior.
In the writings of Daniel Comboni we do not have any formal expression about inculturation. During his time, it was not a topic of consideration as yet. But without any doubt Saint Daniel Comboni lived the reality of inculturation with the desire of enabling the Gospel values to make their way into the cultures he encountered, and to flourish among the people. He did as Jesus did: he went among the people to be like them, to live with them, to love them, and to remain with them. Comboni identified the challenges and the tasks of inculturation, and he had a great capacity to respond to the different aspects of the cultures he encountered.
In an article about the demands of inculturation, Bro. Joel Giallanza, a Holy Cross Brother who has written much about inculturation, presents three challenges and tasks of inculturation for every missionary: Discovery, Detachment and Dying to self.
When I read the article, especially about these three points, I said to myself; “In this article I see the description of Comboni”
As for discovery Bro. Joel says:
“I must acknowledge the world around me, and I must accept and affirm that it is larger than my personal world. I need to become an adventurer and an explorer in this culture, receptive to new discoveries: new ways of expressing myself, doing what needs to be done, seeing and interpreting the reality around me, determining and deciding what is valuable and what is not. This acknowledgement, acceptance, and affirmation are the beginnings of embracing the culture that surrounds me.”
Comboni responded effectively to the world around him, and he received new perspectives with which he discovered yet more.
As for detachment,
“For the process of discovery to be effective, to be true, there will and must be some letting go and some taking up; there must be detachment. I let go of some possessions (material goods as well as behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives) so that I will have the freedom and space to take up some other such possessions that may be more valuable and important in my life… Detachment is not an arbitrary exercise of assigning value to certain realities and stripping it from others. Detachment demands much more; it involves the process of prioritizing realities that are all good and valuable. I prioritize on the basis of what will enhance the quality of my life and my ministry to continue Jesus’ mission within a particular culture. Priorities based solely on expediency are insufficient and ineffective.”
Regarding Dying to self Bro. Joel says:
“Discovery, detachment, and the entire process of inculturation place me deep within the truth and the experience of the Paschal Mystery. There will be dying to do as I accept the responsibilities, challenges, and tasks of inculturation. If I disdain all this, I run from the power of the cross and from the hope and promise of new life.
The alternative to dying to self is making the personal choice to live in a self-contained way. But if I do that, I situate myself as the center, source, and sustenance of my world, and I do not acknowledge my need for any resources other than my own. This is nothing less than hardheartedness- a pride that allows no room for new life.
The core challenge here is articulated eloquently by Jesus himself: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies. It remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24). The task is to believe that whatever dying I need to do in the process and experience of inculturation is truly the seed of new life taking root within me- and to live out that belief.”
St. Daniel Comboni lived the diversity of cultures within the communities of people among whom he lived, always sharing his heart with them; he learned the cultures learning several languages, and learning also the meaning of gestures, attitudes, perspective and interpretations.
Comboni was a great lover of people, and love is at the heart of inculturation.
Bro. Joel says:
“Loving the people is the highest priority task of those who minister in a particular culture. Without love there can be no truly Christian inculturation and no prophetic presentation of the gospel. Without love there can be no continuation of Jesus’ mission. Living the diversity among us and learning the culture around us-vitally important components of incultutration- are avenues that lead us to a more effective love for the people.
The basic challenge of loving the people is to be among them and to embrace them as the means of our salvation, not as the objects of our ministry. Loving God is key to our salvation, and Jesus teaches us that it is inseparable from loving others. The task is to allow our life together as religious to overflow into building community among and with the people. We must live the truth that God’s reign is within and among and around us, in this people and culture and place.”
(7) A healthy sense of Humor.
This may sound strange to some people, but Comboni lived humor as part and parcel of his life.
First of all, he was able was able to laugh at himself.
Writing to Cardinal Simeoni at El-Obeid, May 20, 1881, he said:
“The camels we have been waiting for for two weeks now, have not been brought here as yet because they are weak and exhausted for lack of water… What we suffer because of thirst and heat cannot be described. Suffering is there especially for myself because I am big and fat, and I have a big barrel (belly) which is so heavy to carry. Worse is the fact that I do not have the appetite and I sleep very very little.”
Other expressions of Comboni’s sense of humor
– Speaking of a sister with a strong character he wrote: “ She has mustaches worthy of a german army captain” (Writings 2405)
– “The one who trusts in himself, trusts in the biggest ass in the whole world” (Writings 2459)
– “When we will be in heaven, we will crucified Christ Jesus and Mary with our fervent prayer so that they will be forced to work miracles” (Writings 2459)
– “There is so much money hidden in the beard of St. Joseph, he is my only bursar. At times he is deaf and lazy.” (Writings 1513)
I would like to present other points briefly as I consider them important; but we do not have the time to develop them now:
A. The conviction that we are truly missionaries not just as mere individual persons in isolation, but as we live and act within the context of a community. Only a community which is a “Cenacle of Apostles” (The expression is of Daniel Comboni) is a community that evangelizes and is evangelized.
B. The importance of keeping alive and strong, within our minds and our hearts, our vocation from God.
St. Daniel Comboni wrote:
“What sustained my courage in remaining faithful to my post until deat, was the certainty of my vocation.” (MDC 22).
Comboni , it seems to me, tells us: “Choose, every day and with joy, to be the person you are, with all that you have: your vocation, your other gifts and your obligations; then live with a consequent behavior , that is, making choices in line with who you are and what you have.”
C. Loyalty to the Church even when challenging the Church.
I appreciated so much a conference given by a Ugandan Comboni Missionary, Fr. John Baptist Opargiu, in Rome in 1997. It was the day after the Beatification of Comboni, March 18. He presented this great missionary and saint as extremely obedient to the Church authority, but at the same time extremely challenging.
Comboni expressed these traits of his spirituality “particularly by an untiring effort to move the conscience of the Pastors of the Church concerning their missionary responsibility so that Africa’s hour might not pass in vain.” (RL 9)
“If the Pope, Propaganda and all the Bishops of the world were against me, I would keep my head down a year, and then I would present a new plan; but to give up thinking of Africa, never, never” (MDC No. 10)
D. The importance of fostering agents of evangelization, vocations to missionary life from within the people whom the missionaries serve.
“From his missionary experience Comboni developed his plan for the regeneration of Africa by Africa. He proposed that the Africans be missionaries to their own brothers and sisters, and he anticipated the time when they would also become promoters of the evangelization of other peoples” (RL 7)
E. A deep love for Christ the Good Shepherd whose heart was pierced to be open and welcome all people.
“Comboni’s unconditional love for the peoples of Africa had its origin and model in the saving love of the Good Shepherd who offered his life on the Cross for humanity.” (RL 3)
“Trusting in that most Sacred Heart… I feel more inclined to suffer… and to die for Jesus Christ and for the salvation of the unhappy peoples of Central Africa.”
F. A deep sense of joy in our heart.
We could say that a missionary who lives and goes around with a gloomy, long face is a bad missionary. Daniel Comboni was a man of great joy. Let us listen to him:
“I am happy in the Cross because when it is carried out of love for God, it leads to victory and eternal life.”(Writings 7246)
“We are the happiest people in the whole world because we are in the hands of God.” (Writings 5082)
Let us pray.
O Father, who through Saint Daniel Comboni have shown us a marvelous example of love for you and the peoples of Africa, grant that through his intercession we too may be transformed by the love which flows from the Pierced Heart of the Good Shepherd.
Grant that by imitating his holiness and his missionary zeal we may consecrate ourselves entirely, as a community of apostles, to the regeneration of our poorest and most abandoned brothers and sisters, to the praise of your glory. Amen. (A Prayer of the Comboni Families)
MDC – Daniel Comboni- The Man and His Message by
Aldo Gilli, EMI, Bologna 1977.
RL – Rule of Life of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus, Rome 1988.
Writings – (only partly published in English in MDC)
Daniele Comboni – Gli Scritti, , EMI, Bologna 1991.
Fr. John Taneburgo