Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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July 11, 2004
Solemnity of Saint Benedict

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

On November 11, 1997, Lubna Abdel Aziz, a 38-year-old Muslim woman, entered Saint Mary of Khartoum Hospital in Sudan, run by the Comboni Sisters, in order to undergo a Cesarean section to give birth to her fifth child. A few hours after the birth, the mother was dying. To stop a serious hemorrhage, she was subjected to two operations, without effect. The doctors believed there was no hope for the patient. The Sister in charge of the maternity ward had the idea to call upon Bishop Daniel Comboni, whose reputation is great even among Muslims because he completely gave his life in service to African populations. After asking the woman and her husband for permission to pray to Bishop Comboni for her healing, all the nuns prayed for this intention. As yet another operation did not result in any improvement, they expected the patient to die, when she actually regained consciousness. A few days later, the doctors declared she was cured. Two other Muslim doctors subsequently examined this woman, and their examination was added to the acts of the canonization process. «A sudden, complete, and lasting cure, without any aftereffects whatsoever, scientifically inexplicable,» unanimously acknowledged the medical commission gathered on April 11, 2002. This cure made possible Blessed Daniel Comboni's canonization on October 5, 2003.

Daniel Comboni was born on March 15, 1831 in Limone, in Lombardy, Italy. In February 1843, he enrolled as a student at Father Mazza's Institute in Verona. He was asked, «What do you want to be when you grow up?»—«A priest.» Father Mazza founded two academic establishments for poor children. He had missionary plans for central Africa, and envisaged receiving African children in Verona to give them a solid human and Christian education.

At the age of fifteen, Daniel read the history of the martyrs of Japan with passionate interest. He also witnessed the departure of two Fathers from the Mazza Institute for the African missions. «It was in January 1849, at the age of seventeen, while I was studying philosophy,» he would write, «that I made a vow before my venerable Superior, Father Mazza, to consecrate my whole life to the apostolate in central Africa. And I never, with the grace of God, failed to keep my promise.» Ordained a priest for the Mazza Institute on December 31, 1854, he learned the Arabic language and a smattering of medicine.


At the beginning of September 1857, Father Comboni embarked for Egypt with four other missionary priests from the Institute and a lay person. They arrived at the Mission of the Holy Cross, in Sudan, on February 14, 1858, after a stop in Khartoum. On March 5, the young missionary wrote to his father: «The first effort God asks of us is to learn the language of the Dinka (a tribe in the country)... The Dinka language has never been known by the outside world, so no grammar book or dictionary or teacher exists so as to study it.» The Mission in Sudan was very difficult. Father Comboni wrote, «Out of 22 missionaries from the Mission in Khartoum, which has been in existence for 10 years, 16 are dead and almost all during the first months. We are threatened by death at every moment—because besides the climate, many die for lack of doctors and medicines. But glory be to the Lord!... Here, you can die overnight... This is why you have to always be ready.»

«The Church encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death [,] ... to ask the Mother of God to intercede for us at the hour of our death...; and to entrust ourselves to St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death. 'Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience. ... Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren't fit to face death today, it's very unlikely you will be tomorrow. ...' (The Imitation of Christ, 1, 23, 1). 'Praised are you, my Lord, for our sister bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape. Woe to those who will die in mortal sin! Blessed are they who will be found in Your most holy will, for the second death will not harm them' (Saint Francis of Assisi)» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1014).

In 1859, exhausted, the missionaries had to retreat from Khartoum and Father Comboni, his strength sapped by fever, returned to Verona. In human terms, it was a complete failure. Around him, comment was rife. He used his convalescence to teach young Africans who were staying at the Mazza Institute. On September 15, 1864, he was praying in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, when a thought came to him: to put his ideas about Africa in writing and make them known to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. He buckled down to it right away and worked uninterruptedly for more than two days. «A Catholic used to judging things by the light which comes to him from on high,» he wrote, «does not consider Africa through the sole point of view of human interests, but by the pure light of Faith. And he sees there an innumerable multitude of brothers, children of their common Father in Heaven.» He recommended a regeneration of Africa by Africans. Missionaries would establish training centers for various trades. From these centers would come the leaders of regenerated black society, and leaders for evangelization. At the same time, major associations would be formed to finance the charity.

A Catholic charity

Cardinal Barnabo, prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, to whom this plan was submitted, obtained an audience for Father Comboni with Pope Pius IX, who gave him his blessing. The Father undertook a tour of Europe and contacted missionary societies, religious orders, influential individuals, and governments interested in Africa. «This charity must be Catholic,» he affirmed, «and not specifically Spanish or French, German or Italian.» He received much approval but met also with strong opposition. On August 2, 1865, Father Mazza died. Deprived of his spiritual Father, Daniel Comboni felt very alone, but, in his eyes, trials, setbacks, and disappointments had meaning. They were a guarantee of success, for Jesus established His Church on the Cross.

After a short trip to Africa, the missionary founded the Good Shepherd Institute under the bishop's authority in Verona. The institute would have a seminary for training Europeans headed to the Missions in Africa. He then set off again for Cairo in order to set up his institute there, and was back in Europe in July 1868. While he aroused interest everywhere in his works, defamatory letters against him were sent from Egypt to Rome and Verona by one of his disgruntled associates. This Father would later retract this denunciation and beg his forgiveness, but at the time, his letters as well as other misunderstandings led to the public repudiation of Father Comboni by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. The Good Shepherd Institute was bankrupted in an unexpected manner by a decision of the Holy See. The proof that Father Comboni gave to Cardinal Barnabo and testimony in his favor from the Apostolic Vicar in Egypt allowed him to return to Rome's good graces.

At the end of February 1869, on his way back to Cairo, he had the great joy of seeing the first fruits of his plan. Students in the first two schools were studying under the direction of European instructors. The third school, a school for girls, was run by black teachers. Thus it had been proven that Africans were capable not only of learning, but also of teaching. At that time, this demonstration changed mentalities. Father Comboni would say: «I wanted to show people, by a striking example, that in keeping with the sublime spirit of the Gospel, all men, white and black, are equal before God, and that all have a right to the acquisition and benefits of the faith and Christian civilization.»

Hearing them sing...

The school where the African teachers taught was open to students of all races. Catechism, arithmetic, Arabic, French, Italian, German, Armenian, and feminine arts, from knitting to the finest gold and silk embroidery, were all taught. «Just by seeing our dear little Africans,» wrote Father Comboni, «by speaking with them or hearing them sing, many others who do not yet have the faith now wish to become Catholic... We must, however, act with caution, for there is the risk of offending the Muslim sensibility, and we must also reckon with observation by Freemasonry, which is led by three lodges.» But it was equally necessary to oppose the mentality of certain Catholics who were oblivious to the worth of blacks.

During a long stay in Vienna, Austria, Daniel Comboni wrote, in four months, more than a thousand letters to convince his friends that the Mission in Central Africa was going on in spite of the innumerable difficulties it was facing. «The presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church,» reminded Pope Paul VI. «It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people's salvation... It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life» (Evangelii nuntiandi, December 8, 1975, no. 5). In the same vein, Pope John Paul II affirms, «The proclamation of the Gospel 'is the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity' (Redemptoris missio, no. 2). These new Saints teach us that evangelization always involves an explicit proclamation of Christ in addition to contributing to human advancement that has sometimes even proven dangerous... The priority of missionary institutes is the mission 'ad gentes,' which must come before any other social or humanitarian commitment, however necessary» (October 5, 2003).

In Verona, Father Comboni created the Institute of the Pious Mothers of the Negro Country (now the Institute of Comboni Missionary Sisters), women religious headed for the Missions. He was, in fact, convinced that, for effective and lasting missionary activity, the participation of women was necessary. On June 7, 1872, he was officially named Apostolic Provicar of the Central African Vicariate. In September, he left Verona for Cairo, where he witnessed an event that filled him with joy: an African priest, a former slave whose freedom had been purchased, administered baptism to an adult African woman. It was the regeneration of Africa by Africa. He stayed in Cairo for three months, then went to Khartoum, the seat of his Provicariate, where everyone, Catholics and Muslims, formally welcomed him. A month later, he went deeper into the African continent and, on June 19, he was in El Obeid, capital of Kordofan (modern-day Sudan).

Nothing to fear

In Khartoum, as in El Obeid, the presence of nuns transformed and facilitated the work of the Mission. The natives, to whom foreigners had done much harm with their violence and double-dealing, discovered with joy that they had nothing to fear from these women. The highest Islamic authority in Sudan was won over: the Grand Mufti officially thanked Comboni for having brought the Sisters. But the Father came up against slave trafficking, which was organized by certain tribes. Each year, more than five hundred thousand slaves, raided from regions in the south, went to El Obeid or Khartoum. «I have met,» reported Father Comboni, «thousands of slaves between Khartoum and El Obeid. Most of them are women mixed with men without the least clothing. Women traveling on foot carried children under the age of three. Others were men and women in groups of eight or ten, joined to one another by the neck and attached to a yoke that weighed on their shoulders... All of them were being savagely driven with spears and sticks.» Daniel Comboni had harsh words for those who shared responsibility for such shameful activities. The government of the Sultan of Egypt had strictly forbidden the slave trade, but in practice, high officials profited from this unspeakable trade. To fight against this established fact, the Apostolic Provicar had to use a great deal of prudence. It was necessary to protect the lives of his associates, priests, coadjutors, nuns and teachers. One error on his part could be fatal to them. In a pastoral letter to his faithful, dated August 10, 1873, he recalled Christ's teaching on the universal brotherhood of mankind and threatened those who cooperated in slavery.

Daniel Comboni thought about the Mission's next steps, which had as its primary concern the region of Jebel Nuba, in central Africa. One of the Nuba chiefs came to visit the missionaries in El Obeid. There he saw blacks who could read and write, speak European languages, and who knew modern techniques for various trades. Flabbergasted, he entered into an agreement with Father Comboni to establish a Mission in his land, in Dilling, which is five days on foot from El Obeid. Father Comboni went there in September 1875. Greeted with much friendliness, he was won over by the climate of organization among the Nubas, the wise administration of justice that made resorting to force unnecessary. Everything looked promising. But a bitter disappointment reversed the situation. Epidemics of fever broke out, striking down thirteen of the fourteen members of the Mission in a matter of days. It was impossible to be treated in that location, due to a lack of medicine. It was necessary to close the Mission. The Sisters, who accompanied this painful retreat, marveled at the Father's strength of soul.

Before he had recovered from this setback, Father Comboni was once more the object of defamation. He was accused of being an incapable administrator. These accusations brought about painful divisions in the Mission. Discredited in Europe, the missionary went to Rome in the spring of 1876 in order to present his defense. He would later write, «Only on this Way of the Cross strewn with thorns will the works desired by God develop, improve, and find their ultimate success... The obstacles and hostilities against which the sublime work of regenerating black Africa has had to struggle since its first day, may be considered as an infallible guarantee of success and of a felicitous future.» Father Comboni drew his strength from prayer. He would admit, shortly before his death: «It is a sin to never meditate. But I rarely neglected it in my past life, and never, I repeat, never for a long time, not even in the desert, not even once... Likewise for my Office (the Breviary)...»

The impact of a scourge

On November 27, 1876, after having recognized the falsity of the accusations brought against him, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith decided to raise Daniel Comboni to the episcopate. At the end of 1877, he made his seventh departure for Africa. His new office earned Bishop Comboni an official and solemn welcome. In April 1878, he was in Khartoum, where he expected to spur on his Missions. But all his plans were soon disrupted. Indeed, he wrote, «Almost all my activity for the time being is devoted to holding out, as a true apostle of Jesus Christ, against the impact of a dreadful scourge.» An unusually severe drought led to the deaths of about one third of the population. The money collected in Europe was used to save the living at the price of gold. Famine led to terrible epidemics. In July, the drought ended, but gave way to torrential rains, followed by a new heat wave that opened the way to other illnesses. In September, Bishop Comboni was the only priest left in Khartoum. Relations between Egypt and Sudan became more and more limited, to the point that in Khartoum, people felt abandoned by all. Suffering from fever, the prelate returned to Italy at the beginning of 1879.

In Europe, he was the victim of another campaign of disparagement by two Fathers who worked in Africa. Another grievance was made against him—he was accused of maintaining a dubious relationship with a Syrian nun, Virginia Mansur, to whose defense he had rightly risen. When the accusations reached Rome, he needed to prove himself innocent. In November 1880, Bishop Comboni embarked for Africa once again. He met with one of his accusers, who acknowledged his error. Bishop Comboni took him on again as his confessor, as before his accusations. He would write of him: «He is a pious and holy priest... Even though he has thwarted me for five years, I think that Jesus has used him in this way out of love, for my spiritual good, for working with him and enduring him is a good occasion for me to exercise my patience, to be attentive to my conduct, to correct my great faults, my chattering and my sins...» After a stop in Cairo, where he confirmed that his accounts were up to date and fully paid, he left at the end of January 1881 for Sudan.

One of the prelate's companions would write of him: «Through example and good words, he encouraged everyone to bear the hardships that we quite often had to endure. As weak and fatigued as he could be, he told us amusing things to cheer us up... Forgetful of himself, he inquired with care after our physical and moral state, day and night, and always found new words of support and encouragement.» Bishop Comboni created a sort of Mission press office in Africa: «I must write as a correspondent for fifteen German, French, English and American newspapers.» But this labor obtained him substantial subsidies for his Missions.

In May 1881, Bishop Comboni moved towards the Nuba Mountains, where, supported by the government's army, he intensified his fight against the slave-traders. On his way back from his trip, he was able to write to Rome: «In a year or less, the total abolition of slavery among the Nubas will be accomplished. One cannot describe the joy and the enthusiasm of these populations who, since my visit, have seen stolen from them neither son, nor daughter, nor cow, nor goat. They unanimously recognize that it is the Catholic Church that has liberated them.» His expedition also had results that were of general usefulness for understanding the geography of the country and its language.

I cannot bear the thought!

Shortly thereafter, the bishop was laid low by «a deep and terrible sorrow, surpassing all the humiliations and sorrows I have borne till now.» He could not hide them behind his usual smile. The aspersions began again; his outspokenness, his impulsiveness and his vivacity had made enemies. He was once again accused of being in love with Virginia Mansur, and this slander was reported to his seventy-eight-year-old father. Bishop Comboni was embittered: «To upset and distress a saintly old man who not only gave me earthly life, but even more, spiritual life—I cannot bear the thought!» He confided to a friend, «I no longer have the courage or the strength to write. I am stupefied to see myself treated in this manner.» He sank into anguish; then, little by little, his confidence in God, so strong in his soul, won out. However, Bishop Comboni was exhausted. On October 10, 1881, he received Extreme Unction while fully conscious, and passed away peacefully, at the age of fifty, like a child who falls asleep in the arms of his mother. All the consuls of Europe as well as the Governor of Sudan were present at his funeral. Catholics, Copts, Muslims, pagans, notables and former slaves were all in attendance.

Male and female Comboni missionaries today number more than four thousand, working in Africa and other regions of the world. «How could we fail, also today, to turn our gaze with affection and concern to those beloved peoples?» said Pope John Paul II during Bishop Comboni's canonization. «Africa, a land rich in human and spiritual resources, continues to be scarred by many difficulties and problems. May the international community actively help it build a future of hope. I entrust my appeal to the intercession of Saint Daniel Comboni, an outstanding evangelizer and protector of the 'Black Continent.' » Let us pray especially for the Christians of Sudan who are in difficult living conditions and are victims of persecutions.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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