It is difficult to speak of a relation with God without a habit of prayer. But this habit presupposes a sense of God, of his presence, of his nearness; while prayer nourishes one’s trust in God’s primacy.
The outline of this paper starts from the importance of a habit of prayer that requires times and forms (points 1 and 2). It is difficult to speak of a relation with God without a habit of prayer.
But this habit presupposes a sense of God, of his presence, of his nearness; while prayer nourishes one’s trust in God’s primacy (point 3).
The reflections (points 4 and 5), rather interchangeable, show how many times prayer enlightens and gives meaning to one’s life; how one prays for things that are close to the heart; how one prays for the “daily bread;” how one prays for the others, knowing that God is the true protagonist of the work of salvation.
It ends (point 6) stating that the fruits of prayer are experienced in real life situations.
1. Comboni defends himself from the accusation of not praying
At a certain point in the life of Comboni there arises a great hostility between him and Carcereri; an hostility that had been brewing for a long time. It comes out in the open in letters that Carcereri sent to Propaganda Fide, where Comboni is accused of a little bit of everything: “He does not know how to be an administrator, does not know how to govern (no one under him is sure of holding on to his place), all the missionaries and the sisters of the Vicariate are against him, he shows a preference for Sr. Anna (he allows himself to be led by her in running the Vicariate), he no longer eats or sleeps, he no longer goes to confession…”
Then he is accused of not praying, of not reciting the divine office, of not saying Mass!
Called to Rome to clarify his position, Comboni admits to having spent four very critical months (August-November 1875): physical labour to organise the mission of El Obeid; financial worries (keeping up with his benefactors in Europe; news of the death of some prominent benefactors of the mission); disappointments and sorrows from some of his co-workers; frequent fevers, constant headaches and lack of appetite. All these things had stood in the way of a regular rhythm of prayer (S. 4318-4320, 4325).
But Comboni adds: “However, three hours never go by without my praying, no matter where I am.” (S. 4320)
Later, Fr. Rolleri, Comboni’s confessor, having been prejudiced by the old gossips, will accuse him of not praying! Comboni will say: “It’s a sin never to engage in meditation. But rarely did I ever drop it in the past, and for the longest time I have never dropped it, not even in the desert, not even once, but he insists to the contrary. The same goes for the office as he says that I hardly ever recite it. Instead I never left it, never, not even when I was seriously ill or when I was in the desert for 40 days without sleeping a wink.” (S. 6474)
Comboni was a man of prayer! He wants to state so and to proclaim the truth. For him prayer is a too important activity to be taken lightly.
* MK 1,35; 6,46: Jesus had times of prayer
Am I faithful to my prayer routine? Do I have specific times? Or do I pray when I find the time, or skip it often?
2. Comboni and prayer practices
Comboni, as a student at the Mazza Institute, learned various forms of prayer from his boyhood.
Writing home during his first mission journey, as a young priest of 26, barely out of formation, he says that on the boat “we performed our religious duties in common, namely, meditation, the office, vocal prayer, spiritual lecture, examination of conscience, the rosary…” (S. 153) Paraphrasing his words, we can say: meditation = lectio divina or reflection on Sacred Scripture or another sacred text; office = liturgy of the hours; vocal prayer = prayers of the Institute; spiritual lecture = short lesson on a topic of faith (or life of the saints?); examination of conscience = a strong point of the spirituality of St. Ignatius as part of a earnest journey to conversion; the rosary = a Marian prayer of an easy and simple type.
Later on, when about to establish the Institutes in Cairo, he will set a rule for his missionaries that will incorporate all of these practices (S.1867-1868) and then add: “Each Wednesday all will hold one hour of communal adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and celebrate a Mass for the conversion of Africa.” (S. 1869)
Later on he will add: “an act of consecration of our daily labours and lives to Jesum Apostolum, to be done in common in the mornings and evenings.” (S. 2234)
He also gives a motivation for these religious practices: “Piety is the daily bread of our missionaries, being recognised as all too essential to keeping the fervour of one's vocation in these lands, where it is unfortunately very easy to forget about God and our religious duties.” (S. 1867)
In the Rule of 1871 he insists on the monthly day of recollection and the yearly retreat. (S. 2707)
He also warns: “What is important is that these religious practices must never become in time a pure formality. This is why we must come back often… especially in spiritual conferences, on the necessity of having a form of prayers which is nourishing and relevant…” (S. 2709)
* Which forms of prayer do I prefer and come to me spontaneously?
Which ones should I revive, because I think I neglected them?
3. Comboni and the sense of God
What was the purpose of these religious practices in the life of Comboni and of his missionaries?
Comboni is certain of this truth: “The life of a person who, in a radical and absolute way breaks all his ties with the world and with all that is dear according to nature, must be a life of the spirit and of faith. The missionary who does not have a strong sense of God and a lively interest in his glory and the good of souls, will be lacking in his relation to his ministries, and will end up in a vacuum of intolerable isolation.” (S. 2698)
“Woe to whoever would be drawn to this work by only a passing burst of fervor, or by a desire for useless travel, or by the urge to distinguish himself in an extraordinary career…” (S. 2703)
Comboni looks at his personal experience: he knows that the missionary, “used to judge things in the light that comes from above, looks at Africa not through the miserable prism of human interests, but through the clear ray of his faith” (S. 2742); he knows that the life of a missionary is based on God’s call and takes shape in a mission that comes from God! God is the centre of his life! Therefore, “through all the religious practices, the missionary becomes extremely familiar with and almost naturally immersed in the constant experience of God’s presence and of a filial communication with him…” (S. 2707)
And since mission starts from God and God is its true protagonist, Comboni writes: “Since the work in my hands is totally from God, it is with God in particular that we need to deal in any large or small mission endeavour: therefore it is very important that piety and the spirit of prayer be most prominent in its members.” (S. 3615)
Of great interest is a note by Comboni when a delegation from the Nuba people arrived at the mission of El Obeid to ask for the presence of some priests among them: “It entered the mission on a Wednesday morning, just as we were coming out of church after the usual practice of the hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for the conversion of Africa.” (S. 3436-3437)
When difficulties and misunderstandings arrived, Comboni would say: “We work for God, let us live it up to him and God will help. Our work is based on faith. This kind of language is not well understood even by good people, but the saints have understood it and we must only imitate them.” (S. 6933)
* John 5,19-20; 12,44-50; 17,1-8: Filial knowledge of Jesus.
Do I nourish in me this sense of God? Do I feel that I am his son, loved by him? Do I have “a heart warmed by a pure love of God?” Do I feel that I am in his presence during the day?
4. Comboni and prayer
* Prayer follows Comboni through his whole life and, at decision making times, it is prayer that gives him the strength and light of resolute pronouncements and decisions:
- The enlightenment of the “Plan” came while at prayer: “I believe that this Plan is the work of God, because it flashed through my mind on September 15 while I was doing a triduum to Blessed Alacoque” (S. 926);
- The idea to go to Vatican Council One to promote the evangelisation of Africa was born in prayer: “My spirit was hit as if by lightning by the thought of taking advantage of the blessed Ecumenical Council and introduce myself to the bishops of the Catholic world… for some time I kept this thought to myself. Then I prayed and had others pray for me… After having consulted at length with my co-workers in the missions and after mature discernment, I decided to leave for Rome” (S. 2545);
- While waiting for Propaganda to decide whether or not to give him a mission in Central Africa (they will eventually give him the entire Vicariate), Comboni prayed: “I have done nothing but reflect, ruminate in my head and imprint in my mind and heart the meditation on the “fundamental things” and on indifference by St. Ignatius” (S. 2981).
* Comboni prayed and composed prayers for the conversion of Africa:
- S. 3496-3497: Prayer for the conversion of the descendants of Cam. S. 3502: “Now that the Latin prayer, which I composed, has been enriched by the Holy Father with a plenary indulgence for all who say it…, I assure you that Central Africa will be well provided for, because such a prayer, once it has spread throughout the entire Catholic world, will produce intercessions, vocations and money, namely the three ingredients we need for the conversion of the unhappy Nigrizia.”
- S. 1638-1644: Consecration of Africa to Our Lady of La Salette
- S. 4002-4005: Consecration of Central Africa to Our Lady of the Heart of Jesus.
* Comboni, often mired in financial difficulties, was very busy in looking for benefactors and keeping in touch with them; in times of need (following the example of Mazza, his mentor), he invoked the help of divine Providence and of St. Joseph:
- S. 4171: “How could we ever doubt of Divine Providence and of that solemn treasurer that is St. Joseph, who in only eight and a half years… enabled me to found and establish in Verona, Egypt and throughout Africa this holy work for the redemption of Africa? Financial and material worries for the upkeep of the missions are the least of my worries. All we have to do is to pray.”
* Lk 3,21; 6,12; 9,18; 11,1; Mk 14,32; Mt 26,46: at the most important moments of his life and mission, Jesus prayed.
Does prayer enlighten and give meaning to my decisions? Are there things I do because God suggests them to me?
Do I place my trust in God and his will even when I do not understand and would like to do something else?
5. Comboni and the prayer of intercession
* Comboni always relied on the prayers of others for himself and for his mission; he always asked people to pray for his work!
He tells cardinal Barnabò (S. 2624): “Because prayer is the surest and infallible way to succeed in God’s Works, even the most difficult and complicated, I have warmly asked for daily and most fervent prayers from a large number of bishops and from the most respectable Institutes all over the whole world…”
Comboni also asked for the prayers of religious institutes and convents:
S. 129: the religious family of Ratisbonne; S. 972-973: Sisters’ institutes in Paris; S. 1150s: twinning with Marie Deluil Martiny; S. 1724, 1729: Lavigerie; S. 2322: twinning with the Girelli sisters and their Institute; S. 3477-3480; 5257-5259: twinning with Fr. Ramière and the Apostolate of Prayer; to an African sister in Arco he said (S.5285, 5296-5297): “You, called to serve and to achieve holiness in the sanctuary of the monastery, can be a true missionary and apostle of Africa, your own land, if you pray always, make others pray and ask other monasteries for their most fervent and frequent prayers for the conversion of the African people… Remember that I strongly desire that there be lots of prayers for the conversion of your Africa… You must be the always zealous and active apostle of Africa and raise your arms to heaven, like Moses, asking for the conversion of Africa.”
Comboni asks for prayers from everybody, not just from the “professionals” of prayer! He wrote to his own mother (S. 176): “In Verona, in Jerusalem and in many other places there are people and monasteries that pray for us and for our mission; but, to be honest, I rely more on some of your Hail Mary’s coming from a heart that has been sacrificed to the glory of God.”
Having heard that a new pastor had arrived in Limone, he wrote to his father: “since his office entails that he pray for his people… ask him to pray to God for me, a sheep of his flock, albeit a lost one” (S. 307).
Upon publishing copies of his Plan, he wrote to Bricolo: “I would like for you to give a copy to Tregnaghi and one to Martinati and also let Garbini read it. But what I really want is that there be prayers to God and to Mary for this, for its success. Therefore, send a copy to Fr. Perez, asking him to urge the Filipinos to pray; one copy goes to the Stigmatines, one to Fr. Falezza, one to the rector of La Scala, another to the pastor of St. Stephen, and others to any people who pray…” (S. 953).
He wrote to Canossa: “Remember to urge the pious clergy of Verona to raise fervent prayers for us, when they gather at the seminary for their retreat. We will do the same. The omnipotence of prayer is our strength” (S. 1969).
He told Ciurcia: “Meanwhile we insist on prayer… Prayers for our work are being said everywhere: therefore we will be happily successful in our endeavour, non obstantibus mundo et diabolo” (S. 1951).
* Comboni promised and held himself bound to pray for others!
He prayed for his parents, for friends, for benefactors…
He prayed for Fr. Zanoni, who had unjustly accused him (S.2196); he prayed for the Vicar of Rome, who had mistreated him (S. 1478); he prayed for Carcereri and Franceschini, two Camillians who plotted against him (S. 4418, 4423).
He also prayed for Fr. Losi, who wrote letters against him to Rome. Comboni admits to “praying every morning after Mass the beautiful and dear prayer of thanksgiving”, which he quotes (S. 6465).
· Paul prays for his Christians: 1 Tess 3,9-10.11-13; Rom 12,12; Ef 6,18; Phil 4,6; Col 4,2.
· Paul asks his Christians to pray for him: Rom 15,30-31; 2Cor 1,11; Ef 6,19; Phil 1,19; Col 4,3; Heb 13,18.
· Jesus prays for Peter: Lk 22,31.
Do I pray for the people entrusted to me? Do I pray for the individuals who need intercession? Do I remember the confreres and sisters who evangelize with me? Our co-workers, benefactors, friends, relatives…?
Do I entrust myself to the prayers of others, specifically offered for me?
6. Comboni and a life of prayer
Comboni was well aware of the fact that prayer must not be separated from a life of faith, hope and charity.
In the Rule of 1871 he wrote: “To discern whether it (prayer) is true or superficial, we measure piety against progress in interior self-control especially in the two virtues that are crucial to the inward and outward life, namely humility and obedience” (S. 2709).
What’s the use of a deep piety if it is paired with a life that runs on a parallel level?
- He immediately noticed this dichotomy in the Bigi brothers “who show themselves as inclined to piety... they say the rosary, abound in genuflections”, but then they can’t stand on their own feet (S. 1230); Comboni marvelled: “he had a vocation for a mere 28 days, then he lost it” (S. 1234). Comboni wrote about Casoria: “he loved prayer... is very concerned with appearances and external behaviour” (S. 1330)
- He noticed this same dichotomy in Fr. Giulianelli, procurator in Cairo: “... Giulianelli is dear to me because he is very pious, prays a lot and I like to have him in Cairo” (S. 6693), but later, at a time of financial difficulties, Comboni asked Giulianelli to get busy and trust in God; others did so, but not Giulianelli. Comboni wrote to him: “I really thought that you, of all people, would do so, since you pray so much to the Lord in words and fervent hopes. But I see that you are rather behind in your trust in God and in obedience... You acted like that baker who told my superior when I was in school: Sir, in spiritual things I trust in God, but in material things I trust in gold coins. I place you in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pray that he give you the trust you do not have and which you show more outwardly than inwardly; but make an effort and pray to Jesus, who will give you this and everything else!” (S. 6743, 6746)
- He noticed this same dichotomy also in Fr. Losi: “How wonderful! Fr. Losi lives only for God and for souls... He is always sprite and youthful when it’s a matter of praying, of conversing with God, of adoring the Blessed Sacrament and staying up at night kneeling in church… When he says the office by himself, one can see a cheerfulness on his face that is really attractive” (S. 6842). But then Fr. Losi was writing letters to Rome, slandering (falsely) Comboni. Comboni confronted him, but Losi would not retract: he was afraid to lose credibility at Propaganda Fide. Comboni encouraged him to be humble (“ama nesciri et pro nihilo reputari”), but to no avail. Comboni remarked: “How can one explain this contradiction in him, namely this weakness of personal pride in that same Losi who is so pious, who loves God so much... A man who, when with God in prayer, does not feel fevers, feebleness of body, hunger, thirst…” (S. 6852).
- Underlining the importance of trusting in God, he wrote: “Little trust in God is common to most good souls, even to those who pray a lot, who show great trust in God with their lips and their words, but hardly any when God tests them and at times deprives them of what they want… Pray, therefore, and have faith; do not pray with words, but with the fire of faith and of charity. This is how this African venture came into being” (S. 7062-7063).
- He told Sembianti, educator of future missionaries: “A mission as difficult and as laborious as ours cannot survive on outwardly appearances and with false pious people, full of selfishness and of themselves, who do not take care as they should of their own health and of the conversion of souls. We must set them afire with a charity that comes from God and the love of Christ. When one truly loves Christ, then even deprivations, sufferings and martyrdom are sweet” (S. 6656).
* Mt 7,21-23; James 1,21-25; 1Jn 1,5-6; 2,3-6; 3,17-18; 4,20-21: not to remain at the level of theory or just intellectual knowledge.
Do I know how to assess the spirituality of my life in the environment in which I live? Am I convinced that, if my life does not speak by itself, my prayer is not genuine?
Fr. Benedetto Giupponi, mccj