What does missionary heart mean in the light of Christ and of Comboni in this new era of ours?
The canonisation of the Founder is the definitive word of the Church on the quality of the missionary heart of Comboni. The Pierced Heart of the Good Shepherd has found a faithful reincarnation, so to speak, in that of Comboni in the missionary context of the nineteenth century. We thank the Lord for the docility of the Founder to the work of the Spirit in him. We, though, live now in the twenty-first century, at the beginning of the third new millennium, in a changing missionary environment very different from the one Comboni lived and worked in. We cannot but ask ourselves: What does missionary heart mean in the light of Christ and of Comboni in this new era of ours?
This is the theme of our consideration so that the holiness of Comboni may find new expressions in us, his sons and daughters of today.
To stand for the person with the compassionate feelings of Christ
Christ is for the person
Let us follow Christ in his ministry: "Then Jesus went back to the synagogue. There was a man who had a paralysed hand. Some people were there who wanted to accuse Jesus of doing wrong, so they watched him closely to see whether he would heal the man on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man, ‘come up here, to the front.’ Then he asked the people, ‘What does our Law allow us to do on the Sabbath? To help or to do harm? To save a man’s life or to destroy it?’ But they did not say a thing. Jesus was angry as he looked round at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong. Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it became well again. So the Pharisees left the synagogue and met at once with some members of Herod’s party, and they made plans to kill Jesus" (Mk 3:1-6).
Jesus, at the height of another dispute, said: "The Sabbath was made for the good of man; man was not made for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath" (Mk 2:27). It is difficult to find more incisive statements to express Jesus’ feelings and attitudes concerning people, how he intended his apostolate to be and what were his priorities. We should, perhaps, add another sentence of Matthew, addressed to his own opponents annoyed by the fact that he sat at table with sinners: "It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices. I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts" (Mt 9:13).
It is sad to see the Pharisees insensitive to people’s sufferings. To them religion was observance of the laws. They did not think of the heart of God, he who is father-mother like and, therefore, particularly vulnerable when faced by people who are suffering, outcast and downtrodden. The Pharisees remain indifferent in front of the paralytic, but their hearts beat for the law, which, in their interpretation, becomes an obstacle to the solidarity and loving care that overflow from God’s heart. How different Christ is! He not only feels free to do good and to make common cause with those in need, but he also becomes angry and feels sorry on account of the Pharisees’ stubbornness of heart.
Again, in St. Mark’s gospel, chapter 7, we see that the law, in the sense of traditions, has priority even on the duties towards one’s elderly parents. The human person is the real victim of the pharisaic religiosity, and perhaps of all religiosities, unless they are re-evaluated, transformed, converted and made anew in Christ Jesus. He is the one who, in the Cenacle (the great Comboni icon), introduces the new commandment, later on deepened with wisdom and scrupulousness by St. John in his first letter: "And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (Jn 13:34). All the Synoptic link the love of God to that of the neighbour, thus underlining the fact that the second commandment becomes the visible and true sign of the love of God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says: "All these, and any others besides, are summed up in the one commandment: love your neighbour as you love yourself. (…) To love, then, is to obey the whole Law" (Rom 13:9-10).
The scandalous behaviour of Christ reveals the heart of God who, in the parable of the prodigal son, angers the elder brother. In chapter four of the encyclical ‘Dives in Misericordia’ there is an amazing comment concerning the way of acting on the side of God: "The father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son’s humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved. Indeed, in a way it has been found again. (…) The father’s fidelity to himself is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity. This explains above all his joyous emotion at the moment of the son’s return home."
In the Apocalypse Christ is designated as the advocate who defends people, while Satan is the accuser who condemns them. Christ is the defender of the person, at all times, like in the case of the woman caught in adultery. He defends and saves her from stoning, opening her heart and mind to respond to the Father’s love by a life free from sin. Christ comes near the paralytic who, by the side of the pool of Bethzatha, had been waiting for the past 38 years for someone to notice his loneliness. Christ’s zeal is not for the observance of the law, but in creating genuine interpersonal relationships and in entering in the houses of those who receive him, to share with them a meal and life. Christ’s passion is for the people, especially the suffering and the marginalized in body or character. Indeed, it is for all those for whom God’s mercy was thought to have vanished.
Comboni is for the person
On whose/which side has Comboni been? The Plan for the Regeneration of Africa begins by mentioning the great interest Europe had for Africa or, to be more precise, for the inexhaustible natural and mineral resources of the continent. It was what the Europe of the Industrial Revolution needed. Indeed! The main interest was for the wealth of Africa, not its inhabitants. The wealth was worth more than people. On the other hand, this is happening again in 2003, with the economic liberalism interested as it is in the petrol of Iraq, at the Iraqi people’s expense.
Comboni, instead, as a missionary, has a different motive in his approach to Africa. His attention is for the African people, for whom he dreams an intense experience of liberation and redemption from all types of evil. "The Catholic, used to judge things in the light that comes from above, looked at Africa not through the miserable prism of human interests, but through the pure ray of hisfaith; and he saw there a numberless crowd of brothers belonging to his same family, with one Father of all in heaven, oppressed and weeping under the yoke of Satan, standing at the edge of the most horrible abyss. Then, moved by the strength of that charity that was lit by divine flame on the hill of Golgotha and which poured out from the side of Christ to embrace the whole of the human family, felt the throbbing of his heart beat faster; and a divine grace seemed to spurn him on to those miserable lands to hold in his arms and bestow a kiss of peace and love to those unhappy brothers of his, on whom the anathema of Cam seems to be still looming" (W 2742).
The person comes first, with the passion of Christ’s love! This is Comboni and he would show it innumerable times. The person comes before money, before appearance and honour - whether his own or of the Church, - before a career, before all other interests. Even the ministry of authority is at the service of the person, of every person, and not of an institution. The list is long: Virginia Mansur, a unique, but not unusual case concerning Catholic bishops; the controversy regarding the behaviour of the Camillian Zanoni; the long drawn out fight, with its many facets, against slavery; the empowerment through the education of boys and girls, freed from slavery, in the "Don Nicola Mazza College" in Verona and later in the three houses in Cairo.
Comboni feels strong in the trustful presence of the "Heart of Christ", by which he feels loved with unconditional love, and in the "Grace of Christ’s Heart", which transforms him in a person capable of loving unconditionally. In his missionary experience, he "feels compassion" and, on the footsteps of the Good Shepherd with the Pierced Heart, becomes himself one capable of total solidarity with his brothers and sisters in need, for each one of whom he would not hesitate "to put his mitre at stake". His deep identification with the crucified Christ makes him stand side by side with the person, even when he is accused by some of his collaborators of naivety and gullibility in always seeing the positive qualities in people.
The mystical experience of Comboni was founded on the conviction that the Heart of Christ was beating in the same way for all the people, because it had been pierced for all. Out of this conviction is born his total trust in and unconditional love for Africa, its inhabitants, and its history. In fact, one of his last expressions before dying was one of trust in God, in the work begun, in the personnel with whom he had carried on his apostolic work and in the people to whom he had vowed himself: "Africa or Death."
Our own experience of missionary life in Africa validates this conviction: his ability to be on the side of the person is what the majority of African people perceives as the "greatest and deepest" characteristic of Comboni, who knew how to make of his life "a common cause" with their destiny. As we prepare for his canonisation, such an ability becomes for us "a sign of the times" to strengthen us, once again, in our missionary vocation and in the challenges that this implies in the concrete situations we are involved.
In Comboni, the love for Africa and the trust in the African people have become entwined in a permanent bond. We, as heirs and custodians of Comboni’s charism, have to allow ourselves to be challenged by this very special aspect of his, if we wish to closely follow in his footsteps.
Is the Comboni Family for the person?
The answer is not obvious. It is important to ask what it means for us, today, to stand for the person the same way Christ and our Founder did. Let me briefly mention three aspects that may guide us in starting a reflection to help us in answering this point.
The first aspect, taken from the already mentioned encyclical ‘Dives in Misericordia’ and again in ‘Christifideles Laici’, consists in the love of neighbour, which nowadays goes increasingly through the commitment for justice, for promotion and protection of the human rights, for the theoretical and real affirmation of the dignity of the human person at individual and social levels. What are we already doing at the level of the Comboni Family to promote justice? Would it be possible for each local community, each province/delegation, each Missionary Institute, the Comboni Family in a joint way, present one or two practical suggestions to help promote justice?
The second aspect consists in the empowerment of the people, so that they may do by themselves, free from any form of dependence, though safeguarding collaboration and inter-dependence. Many a time our methodology resembles the policy followed by the well-known "donors" who, measuring out the assistance, keep entire nations hanging to their strings. To trust in people also implies the possibility of allowing them to grow and, therefore, to be able to take choices of their own. How willing are we to run the risk that people become self-sufficient so that they do not need us any longer?
The third aspect concerns the Brothers, the Sisters and the laypeople who are the missionary personnel to be more directly involved in the total human development and in organising the poor, so that they are encouraged to come out of their "Egypt-lands" and to give rise to societies and nations with civic structures that are enlightened by the social message of the Word of God and of the Social Teaching of the Church. How many of these agents are, in actual fact, involved in such ministry? A serious change in the way we make use of our personnel is urgent if we wish to imitate Christ and Comboni and stand by the person, especially the poor of today. In Comboni’s words, today’s our use of personnel, especially of the Brothers, appears more monk-like than missionary-like.
Unshakeable Faith-Hope in God and in people
To stand by the person implies also a basic attitude without which it is impossible to build the Kingdom among us. In this second section we wish to reflect on the role that faith-hope had in Christ and in Daniel Comboni, something that the today’s Comboni Family must also have.
Trust-Hope in Christ
"On the evening of that same day Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they left the crowd; the disciples got into the boat in which Jesus was already sitting, and they took him with them. Other boats were there too. Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water. Jesus was in the back of the boat, sleeping with his head on a pillow. The disciples woke him up and said, ‘Teacher, don't you care that we are about to die?’ Jesus stood up and commanded the wind, ‘Be quiet!’ and he said to the waves, ‘Be still!’ The wind died down, and there was a great calm. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Why are you Frightened? Have you still no faith?’ But they were terribly afraid and said to one another, ‘Who is this man? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’" (Mc 4:35-41).
What kind of heart has one to have to manage to be asleep in the midst of a storm? Probably the kind of heart described in Psalm 131: "As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my heart is quiet within me." This kind of trust-hope in God the father-mother will reach its highest expression on the cross when Jesus says: "Into your hands I place my spirit." In Christ becomes visible also the trust-hope that God shows towards us and which is certainly more difficult than his and our belief and hope in the Father.
Only God has taken the risk of trusting in us by making us his co-creators! Where can we find more trust than this? It is God who wanted us as his partners in building his Kingdom. Who among us would take such a risk? Christ, indeed, by calling the apostles to share in his mission, did nothing but show the kind of trust God has in us. And to think that Christ knew very well his disciples’ limits! Vulnerability, indeed, does not justify lack of trust! Christ showed his trust-hope in the apostles when they set sail on the open sea and during the storm, as he appeared to be asleep. He is with them. Neither the apostles are ever alone nor God is ever alone. The style of Collaborative Ministry is to be found first of all in the Trinity, and then in Jesus of Nazareth, and, again, it has to become the characteristic of an apostle at all times.
Trust-hope in Comboni
The history of missions in the nineteenth century is woven with events that are complex in many aspects. A keyword to understand the novelty of Comboni’s Plan concerning the Regeneration of Africa is the term "discouragement." After the social analysis of the various scientific, military and missionary expeditions, Comboni arrives at the conclusion that the final outcome shows a high disproportion between the means and the lives wasted and the modest results. No wonder even Propaganda Fide becomes discouraged, to the point that in 1862, faced by so many failed attempts, is prepared to close the Missions of Central Africa. The same feeling prevails over the Orders and Institutes that had invested personnel and resources to open those missions. They now decline to carry on: from the Franciscans to the Mazza Institute, to mention just two groups. Discouragement, in the end, among the missionaries who withdraw because they cannot hold on any longer and because everything seems to work against a successful outcome of their efforts.
There is not only discouragement due to difficulties and high expenses for such initiatives, but also distrust in the African people as partners in a possible venture in the evangelisation of Africa. The Plan, before being a strategic proposal to evangelise Africa, switching from a strategy of assault to one of siege, as Comboni says, it is above all an attempt to overcome the cancer of discouragement in the face of the hardships encountered in the missionary effort in Africa and to also overcome distrust in the ability of the African people to accept and live the Gospel and, therefore, to become partners in the evangelisation of the continent.
The distrust in the African people was linked with the racism of the time and from which not even Pius IX was free (W 1536-1537). This distrustful attitude one can gather not only by reading Comboni’s report, but above all by examining what he did from 1864, date of the first edition of the Plan, to 1872, the year of the reopening of the Vicariate, to try to restore, through events, circumstances and new personnel, the motivations, the enthusiasm and the trust, without which there can be neither mission nor missionaries.
Comboni kept saying that the kairos for the evangelisation and the liberation of the continent had come and had to be put carried out through the collaboration of Africans and Europeans: "On such an important topic we have reasoned: Wouldn’t we succeed better in the evangelisation of the peoples of unhappy Nigrizia by setting up basis of action in places where the African can live and is not changed and the European can work and does not succumb?" (W 2753). The photo of Comboni with Daniel Sorur in Rome, in the College of Propaganda Fide, is a very precious icon of his trust in the African people. It is, perhaps, the only photo of any Missionary Founder of the eighteenth century taken with an African priest-candidate!
Is there trust-hope in the Comboni Family today?
Not much or too little to be worth of Comboni! There is little trust-hope in God and even less in people, among us and with our collaborators. It seems to us that there is little creative enthusiasm to show eagerness to set off on fresh journeys and to take the risk of treading new paths. Everybody refers to our present time as an "epoch-making turning point", but what changes do we actually see taking place? Routine and, again, routine! In the service of authority we don’t see new people, but a lot of recycling. How can we call ourselves the missionaries of Comboni at the threshold of this new millennium if we do not dare for new horizons? Even in the Church, with a document following another almost every other day, it becomes apparent the desire to establish the second millennium as the stepping stone for a third one, rather than to express the joy of a new evangelisation for the new times.
We truly resemble more closely the prophet Jonah who trusted neither in God nor in the willingness of the Ninivites to be converted! How much trust-hope, instead, did the apostle Paul show towards his collaborators and pastoral agents in the places where he was founding new Christian communities! As we read in his Letters and in the Acts of the Apostles, after a short time Paul used to set off from a place leaving behind a good number of collaborators. We, on the other hand, often remain in the same place for 30, 50, 100 years and still are without successors in whom we trust! What can we say even of our trust-hope in the new generations, in the lay ministries? Paul was at pains to have autonomous communities and entrusted them to grace, to the word, and to the local ministries! We place little trust in the Spirit, less in the Word, and nothing at all or very little in the local pastoral agents.
With such an attitude, what place do we confer to God’s Spirit, the first protagonist of mission? The One who continuously renews the face of the earth? Is it perhaps that we fear the Spirit coming forth from the Heart of the Risen Lord? Can you imagine a Risen Lord who is afraid? Or is it that we become identified with the apostles locked in the Cenacle, afraid to face the challenges awaiting us outside the comfortable walls of our home? What’s worse than a slow and morphine-filled Comboni Missionary working towards his pension? Is it that we are withdrawing into ourselves, using perhaps the excuse of the community life? A closed Cenacle is extremely harmful to all and, certainly, not Comboni’s.
Missionary heart – Pierced Heart
The Heart of the Good Shepherd is a pierced heart because the fatherly- maternal heart of God is pierced. It could not be otherwise. In the winding paths of the human life love is always infinite blessedness and infinite suffering. For God, who is the Emmanuel and, therefore, involved in our history more than we are to ourselves, the transfixion had to go beyond what we can imagine. In the life of Comboni, transfixion of the heart has a hundred faces and an increasing intensity of tears, blood and moral suffering, enough to justify what many of us say: that he must have died of a broken heart more than of illness.
Suffering in our missionary life! Personal suffering, the one that comes before the word and the tears, the one that nobody but some friend knows about, perhaps! Community suffering, due to differences, difficulties in communication, tiredness, wounds that make us sad and aggressive, bitter and cynical. Suffering coming from the people we serve. Many times we are united to Christ who says: "Father, take this cup of suffering away from me." Nevertheless, we must also be willing to move on to the second part of this prayer: "Not my will, however, but your will be done" and again: "My grace is sufficient so that my power may be manifested in weakness".
To be for the person and to be full of trust-hope in God, among us and with the people means to continue through time the experience of the cross. At the school of the Good Shepherd, crucified for all, and of our saintly Founder, who desired to have more than one life to be spent for the regeneration of Africa, all we have to do is just to gather with both hands their legacy.
To have a missionary heart today means to celebrate the Memory of the Passion of the Lord not only through the sacramental signs, but also by living it anew in our missionary life with an attitude of joy and gratitude.
Francesco Pierli, mccj
Maria Teresa Ratti, smc