St. Daniel Comboni: A missionary of mercy


(Published in Leadership magazine, Uganda – October 2016)

On 4 September 2016 Pope Francis canonized Mother Theresa of Calcutta. It became a world event that attracted believers and non-believers, Christians and non-Christians. There is something common in all the saints we venerate and honour. They had passion for doing something for God, which they believed was a special call from God. Not all of them are exordinary in gifts and talents. They worked within their own limitations, weakness and even sins. They are made saints not because they are perfect, but they wanted to do something perfectly and only for God. Surely all them made lasting contributions to the world in which they lived.

Daniel Comboni was born to poor gardeners at Limone sul Garda, in Brescia – Italy on 15th, March 1831 and went on to become the first Catholic Bishop of Central Africa, and one of the great missionaries in the Church’s history. When God decides to take a hand and select a generous and open-hearted individual, things happen: great, new things.

Hearing stories of missionary work in Africa Daniel was inspired to be a missionary himself. We all can agree that even today it is very challenging to work in places such as the Sudan, but it renders speechless to know that he choose to work in the Sudan over 150 years ago. His first hand encounter with Africa was tremendous. He was immediately made aware of the multiple difficulties that are part of his new mission. Plenty of work, unbearable climate, sickness of all kinds, unimaginable poverty, dehumanizing slavery and the frightening death of several of his young fellow-missionaries. But these challenges and hurdles did not discourage him even little.

In the early days of his missionary experience he would write 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”.

Once a journalist asked Mother Theresa: “Does your work and spiritual life become easier with time? …What were your plans for the future?” The fragile saintly woman would say, “…The closer we come to Jesus, the more we become the work. Because you know to whom you are doing it, with whom you are doing it and for whom you are doing it. That is very clear. That is why we need a clean heart to see God. …I just take one day. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not come. We have only today to love Jesus.

Africa was unexplored land to missionaries. As much it can be fertile it equally brings in challenges. Amidst various trials, Daniel tried to find a suitable missionary method to reach-out to people with the Word of God. Few times he went back and forth between Italy and Africa looking for missionaries and aid. And finally in 1864, while praying at the Tomb of St Peter in Rome, Daniel was 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”.

What drove him head on in his missionary endevour?  His quest for his personal holiness and the holiness of the people he evangelized, wanting to take as many souls to the Kingdom of God. Deep love for the poor he found in Africa. His heart always prompted to him to be inclusive towards the people of Africa. He wanted to integrate them to the rest of the world and the rest of Christianity in the universal Church. His inclusiveness went as far as making them missionaries to themselves as well as missionaries to the rest of the world. Daniel Comboni always believed that Africa will be welcomed into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

His spirituality was based on the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which made him to name the society Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Spirituality based on the cross of Jesus, as a sign of love and mercy and his devotion to St. Joseph who always inspired him in simplicity in service, whom he names the principal patron of his missionary society.

After his ardent service to the people of Africa, Bishop Daniel Comboni dies prematurely on 10th, October 1881 in Khartoum, due to hard work, tribulations and frequent ill health only 50 years old, marked by the Cross which, like a faithful and loving bride, that has never let him. At his death he was aware that his missionary work will not end with him: “I am dying”, he said, “but my work will not die”.

As he said, his missionary work continues to live through the giving of their lives by many women and men who have chosen to follow St. Daniel 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. May he continue to intercede for the missionary Church and the missionaries who work in challenging missions of Africa and beyond.

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