Bishop Daniel Comboni. A Heart for Africa

A missionary project that could 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”

Daniel Comboni was born at Limone on Lake Garda in Brescia on March 15, 1831, into a family of cultivators. With the passing of their other children, Daniel’s parents, Luigi and Domenica, were inordinately attached to him. 

So, they formed a very close unit, rich in faith and human values, but poor in material things. While this material poverty did not stop young Daniel or his parents from responding as generously as possible to their even poorer neighbours, it did mean that a high-quality education might have been out of reach.

In nearby Verona, Father Nicola Mazza had established a school free of charge to students of exceptional ability. The gifted Daniel had no difficulty being accepted, though the time away from his family was a hardship for him and his parents.

During his years in Verona, Daniel discerned his calling to the priesthood, completed his studies of philosophy and theology and, above all, was entranced by the mission of Central Africa, drawn by the descriptions of the missionaries who returned from there to the Mazza Institute. 

Comboni was ordained in 1854, and three years later left for Africa himself, along with five other missionaries of the Mazza Institute and with the reluctant blessing of his mother, Domenica, who, after ceaselessly praying that the Blessed Mother might tell Daniel not to go, finally relented, telling him: “Go, Daniel, and may the Lord bless you.”

After a journey of four months, the missionary expedition that included Comboni reached Khartoum, capital of the Sudan. The impact of this first face-to-face encounter with Africa was tremendous, Daniel was immediately made aware of the multiple difficulties that were part of his new mission. 

But labours, unbearable climate, sickness, the deaths of several of his young fellow missionaries, and the poverty and dereliction of the population, only served to drive him forward, never dreaming of giving up what he had taken on with such great enthusiasm. From the mission of Holy Cross, he wrote 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.”

After witnessing the death of one of his missionary companions, Comboni, far from being discouraged, felt an interior confirmation of his decision to carry on in the mission: “0 Nigrizia o morte!” Africa or death, became his rallying cry.

It was still Africa and its peoples that drove Comboni when he returned to Italy to work out a fresh missionary strategy. In 1864, while praying at the tomb of St. Peter at the basilica in Rome, Daniel was struck by a brilliant inspiration that led to the drawing up of his famous Plan for the Rebirth of Africa, a missionary project that could 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.”

In spite of all the problems and misunderstandings he had to face, Daniel Comboni strove to drive home his intuition: that all European society and the Church are called to become much more concerned with the mission of Central Africa. He undertook a tireless round of missionary animation all over Europe, begging for spiritual and material aid for the African missions from kings and queens, bishops and nobles, as well as from the poor, simple people. As a tool for missionary animation he launched a missionary magazine, the first in Italy. Daniel knew that it was essential for the growth of the mission in Africa that people in Italy, throughout Europe, and, indeed, throughout the world, were always reminded of the importance of Africa for the future of the Church and for the world.

Comboni’s unshakeable faith in the Lord and trust for Africa led him to found, in 1867 and 1872 respectively, two missionary Institutes of men and of women: these become known more widely as the Comboni Missionaries and the Comboni Missionary Sisters (Verona Fathers and Sisters). Though often called by different names (including the Sons of the Sacred Heart), they remain true to the mission set for them by their founder.

Comboni took part in the first Vatican Council as the theologian of the Bishop of Verona, and persuaded seventy bishops to sign a petition for the evangelization of Central Africa. (Postulatum pro Nigris Africæ Centralis).

On July 2, 1877, Comboni was named Vicar Apostolic of Central Africa, and ordained bishop a month later: it was confirmation that his ideas and his activities considered by some to be foolhardy, if not crazy, were recognized as truly effective means for the proclamation of the Good News and the liberation of the African continent.

In 1877 and 1878, he and all his missionaries were tormented in body and spirit by the tragedy of a drought followed by starvation without precedent. The local populations were halved, and the missionary personnel and their activities reduced almost to nothing.

In 1880, with unflagging determination, Bishop Comboni travelled to Africa for the eighth and last time, to stand alongside his missionaries: intent, also, on continuing the struggle against the pernicious slave trade, and on consolidating the missionary activity carried out by Africans themselves. Just one year later, overwhelmed by his labours, by many deaths in quick succession among his collaborators, by a wave of calumnies and accusations, the great missionary fell sick himself. 

On October 10, 1881, just 50 years old, marked by the cross, which, like a faithful and loving bride, had never left him, he died in Khartoum, among his people. But he was aware that his missionary work would not end with him: “I am dying,” he said, “but my work will not die.”

He was right. His work did not die. Indeed, like all great projects “which are born at the foot of the Cross,” it continues to live through the lives of many women and men who have chosen to follow Comboni along the path of his arduous and exhilarating mission, working among peoples who still have not heard the Gospel and still do not share in the bounty of human solidarity—the people Comboni called the poorest and most abandoned. He promised “a thousand lives for the mission,” and the work of the Comboni Missionaries was just beginning. 

On 17th, March 1996, Daniel Comboni  is beatified by John Paul II in St. Peter’s.  On 5th, October 2003, he is canonised by the Pope in St. Peter’s.

Today, there are more than 4,000 priests, brothers, sisters and laity from diverse cultures who have dedicated our lives to following Christ’s example and St. Daniel Comboni’s missionary ideal of evangelisation