In Comboni it is not always easy to pinpoint where the concern for the evangelisation of Africa leaves off and the resolution to stamp out slavery, to improve the quality of life and to ensure education for the Africans begins.
In Comboni it is not always easy to pinpoint where the concern for the evangelisation of Africa leaves off and the resolution to stamp out slavery, to improve the quality of life and to ensure education for the Africans begins. All these dimensions are present in his life and in his language. One could say that they were all part and parcel of what he had learned and experienced in his youth. Don Mazza, in fact, had opened to Africa the doors of his Institute, founded for the education of poor children first and of freed slaves later, to whom some day would be given the task of teaching and practising useful trades, in order to establish in Africa small groups of evangelisers and promoters of progress.
The term "promotion" is usually found in this type of context: be it an evening in Paris with Massaia at the office of the "promotion of the Oriental Churches" or the promotion of a candidate to the subdiaconate, of a friend to the episcopate or to the order of cardinals.
It is when writing to the society of Cologne, Germany (W 5588), that he describes in what we could call a modern way his "Mission which is truly the most difficult on earth, and which aims at the promotion of the human person."
First and foremost Comboni practised this promotion of the Africans by being their spokesman. He informed Europe about the deplorable condition of the Africans who, Comboni commented, are the most abandoned, the most unhappy and the neediest of all (W 1105. 2876). He denounced situations of unjust sufferings and the interests and prejudice that perpetuate them. Yesterday as today denunciation is part of any development project. There were those who thought that Africans could not be educated (W 2525). There were those who, after having taken a trip to the continent, expressed totally negative opinions. He wrote to his father: "I think that travellers’ reports on Africa are exaggerated: Africans can be cruel with white people, but only when they are provoked" (W 296, 269, 2888). Comboni stood up for their dignity as human beings and as brothers and sisters. He believed in the importance of the 1856 Paris Treaty that abolished slavery, "forbids the shameful traffic of human flesh, a despicable trade that vilifies and degrades humankind, and turns human beings, endowed like all of us with the light of intelligence, a ray of divinity and image of the most holy Trinity, to the dismal condition of animals." (W 500, 2742). But he also thought that "the abolishing of slavery, decided upon by all the European powers, is a dead letter in Central Africa." "The slave trade is hard to kill, because it favours the government and the traders" (W 4925). "Treaties exist on paper, but here the slave trade is in full swing" (W 3309).
Values such as liberation, development, transformation, progress can be found in one word that appears 156 time in his writings: civilisation. In the outline of a lecture Comboni gave in Turin in 1880 we find a summary of the elements that make up his vision: faith is not separated from civilisation, understood as "charity, artisan skills, agriculture," which goes hand in hand with spiritual results: souls saved and helped, a slow down in the slave trade among the Nuba and in El Obeid, better morals, the farm of Malbes." (W 5993)
He wrote to the editor of Libertá Cattolica, Canon Cristoforo Milone, that Africa has been left behind by the development that took place on other continents. Africa "is a new world, which is waiting for its own civilisation through faith." (W 3642) In Europe where secular and irreligious ideas were growing, Comboni held firmly to his vision: Faith and Civilisation had never been enemies. Faith and civilisation embrace one another; and one cannot exist without the other… In faith civilisation sees its inseparable friend, teacher and mother" (W 6214) He was convinced that "only Jesus Christ and His Divine Bride are the true agents of civilisation" (W 6214). Also Libermann, the founder of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (1802-1852), wrote: "Civilisation without faith is impossible." And Comboni added: "The Africans cared for by the Comboni Institutes will move in the interior regions of Africa to plant the faith and the civilisation they have received." (W 822, 669, 5993) In his anthropologic and Christian vision, redemption always goes hand in hand with other important values such as justice (Is. 32,47) and recognition of equal rights. "In the spirit of the Gospel, all people, black or white, are equal before God and have the right to the acquisition and to the blessings of faith and Christian civilisation." In a letter to Cardinal Franchi, while praising the good intentions of the king of Belgium who "thought of an organisation for the abolition of the slave trade and for the civilisation of Central Africa," he stated that he was certain that "there will not be any positive result if this organisation is left in the hands of traders and merchants who are without faith and without morals." (W 5019) Colonialism was invading Africa and Comboni understood that philanthropic ideas could be the cover for plans of domination and of depletion of resources. There were even those who thought that enslaving Africans was a move towards civilisation. (W 4559) He feared that a purely a-religious, scientific and civilising program of development would eventually be derailed. "Slavery endures thanks to the atheism of the European powers." (W 3240) "The apostles will not bring back to Europe the spoils of the defeated, but to the defeated they will bring the treasure of faith and of civilisation. They will not subdue those people like earthly conquerors do, but they will imitate the Good Shepherd." (W 2791)
Slavery is most certainly the worst possible form of uncivil behaviour. Comboni spoke of slavery about 450 times and described its cruelty. "Blacks are seen, by Moslems and Christians alike, not as human beings and creatures endowed of reason, but as objects used for profit… Their value is only measured by how much they cost or by how profit they can provide by their services and labours" (W 2524). Even as he first set foot in Sudan – in fact, he wrote to his father from Korosko on 11.27.1857 – he had already talked about slavery 170 times. Lastly, in one of his last letters, he wrote of the "old Dinka slave" he had baptised on October 2, 1881. (W 7232). One of the declared purposes of the mission was "to forbid everywhere the shameful slave trade." (W 3344-45) He not only produced written documents, but also did something concrete (W 3268-69 4095 6729-33 6845 6896-98 6905-06 6973 7027-28 7032).
Current poverty and slavery
Just as in the days of Comboni, even today to be the voice of those who have no voice seems to be an inseparable component of the missionary vocation. Now, as much as then, private interests, silence or ignorance allow for the existence in this world of 200 millions child labourers, of countless ways of exploitation, of prostitution of tens of millions of women, of child soldiers, of the oppression of hundreds of millions "damned of the earth," "the least of the earth," in intolerable situations of survival. Unless globalisation is carefully managed, the poor will increase in number and be further cast out.
The poverty, or even worst, the destitution of so many men and women compels religious to deepen the significance and the challenge of their own consecration, especially the vow of poverty. Everything must have a social dimension. To die to our own desires, to refuse to own others and other people’s things, are constant invitations to break out of our individualism and to join the journey toward the liberation of the poor.
Comboni had known poverty from his own childhood. The plan of his departure for Africa exacerbated the problem of providing for his parents, who were "poor folks." "At present I do not have the financial means, nor do I want to find them in devious or risky ways," he wrote to a friend after having decided to leave for Africa. "Mazza’s missionaries are poor, poorer than the German missionaries." (W 208) He was personally poor (W 1772). At one point he had harsh words for those religious who "do not know where money comes from and how much sweat it costs." He never collected for himself, he gave away all that was given to him, and he was never wasteful. His poverty was always coupled to a prudent administration (W 2497 6012 6022 6511 6514).
The oblation, the gratuitous love, was the deepest root in the understanding of religious life. The dedication of Comboni to Africa was the fruit of his love for the Africans (W 222 297 809 1011 1365). He expressed his ever-growing passionate dedication in a letter to Cardinal Barnabò where he spoke of it as a "dream." His plan was "not free from utopia" (W 1012) – that the Africans would one day belong to Christ (W 2301-2), but he could not avoid the fascination that this dream had on his spirit. "Africa and the poor blacks have taken over my heart" (W 941). "Their misery weighs heavily on my heart" (W 1011). "Africans are at the core of my aspirations" (W 472). He signed himself, "the humble and useless servant of the Africans" (W 6809). In imitation of Jesus "I stand in your midst as one who serves" (Lk 22,27).
Each religious family is called to believe ever more in its role of being a model different from the prevailing one that imposes its own intolerable laws (wild globalisation). The predominance of the electronic media and globalisation fatally excludes the poor. They separate those who have access to the internet from those who do not, those who have access to drinkable water from those who do not, the educated from the illiterate, the left from the right, those who belong to different religions, North and South, Black and White…
Discrimination and unbalance cause movements, not only of individuals, but also of peoples. They are the "cracks" talked about by Bishop Pierre Claviere of Oran, killed by the GIA in Algiers on August 1, 1996. These cracks do not divide just the developed world from the underdeveloped world, Christianity and Islamic fundamentalism: these cracks cut through each country and each society.
Religious are called to offer, by word and by deed, messages that will be able to tear down the walls of divisions that are often caused by a thirst for power and for possession. Just as it was done for the slaves in olden days, today "we must recognise the right of each individual to what is necessary and to receive a share of the national wealth... Poverty is an assault at the dignity of the people in the south of the world." (John Paul II)
The Council’s document on the Church states that "just as Christ accomplished his work of redemption through poverty and persecution, so is the Church called to follow this path... She recognises in the poor and the suffering the face of her founder who was poor and suffering, she hastens to alleviate their misery, and wants to serve the Christ who is in them." (LG 4)
The two components of the religious vow of poverty appear as one in Christ: to stand with the poor (VT) and to be poor (NT).
This synthesis is difficult to achieve. It is evident in concrete situations that it is possible to specialise in the defence of the poor without being poor. The NGOs and other humanitarian organisations work to solve the problems of the poor, without taking the vow of poverty.
What Bishop Stanislas Lukumwena of Kole (CAR) wrote, will undoubtedly make us think: "Shelter, food, studies, clean clothes, a car, free time, vacations, travel – religious speak of poverty in the abstract, but in practice they live completely cut off from the majority of people, from the concrete situation of people, even in their pastoral activities."
To be present to others, to live astride the dividing lines, imply a transformation of one’s very self. The Christian community and even more a religious missionary community, cannot speak of an opening to the world without espousing the causes of today’s humanity: struggle for justice, defence and promotion of human rights, protection of the environment, respect for life, attention to the forgotten. It is the famous "preferential option for the poor," which is the surest way if we want to write a human history that is mysteriously working for the coming of the Kingdom.
The poor among us. Ex 22,20-23; Tob, 4,7-11; Am 8,4-7
The fight against poverty needs everyone’s solidarity. Dt 15,7-11; Ex 23,6
The poor according to the heart of God. So 2,3; Ps 72, 12-13; 2 Co 6,3-10
Jesus Christ made himself poor. Jn 1,11; Lc 2,7; Mt 8,20; Ph 2,5-11; 2 Co 8,9; Lc 23,46
Poverty in the life of the disciple. Mt 5,1-3; Mc 9,35; 10, 42-44; 2 Th 3,10; 2 Co 8,13-15; 1 Jn 3,17; Ac 2, 44; 4,32-34
Personal and community reflection
The vow of poverty has two dimensions: it allows us to be available and free to do mission and brings us closer to the poor. It creates in our lives a "space" for those who have nothing, for the victims of violence and of oppression and urges us to be in solidarity with them. Being in more direct contact with the poor and keeping them in our concerns, activities and community life, we may find new challenges for our Comboni missionary life.
Reflection on the individual and community practice of the vow of poverty is always a relevant topic. We may ask ourselves:
1. To which social group does our style of life, our means of transport and the way we use our free time bring us closer?
2. The challenges thrown at us by the poorest may shake up our ideas, modify our life style, push us to take a more active part in the struggle against individual and collective situations of poverty and injustice. Do the living conditions of those that live both near us and far away challenge us?
3. At whose service do we place the goods at our disposal? Where do we stand in this respect? In our work of evangelisation do we trust more in these goods or in God?
4. The triptych poverty-justice-solidarity (see VC n. 36, 39). These words come up several times in the Exhortation VC. They offer an outline that may help us to redefine the content of the vow of poverty today. Does the vow of poverty make us more attuned to the poverty described in this document? Does the vow of poverty foster in me a thirst for justice?
5. To give a voice to the voiceless: It is the famous pronouncement of the Brazilian bishops. "It is not sufficient to be the voice of those who have no voice. It is important that the people themselves speak, demand their rights and become organised in an efficient manner"(Arns E., La comunicazione, base per una nuova societá, in "Raggio" 5, 1989, p. 15). To give voice to others even within our Church and community is an unending task. How can we give voice to the voiceless? The forgotten, the poor? How can we enable those who cannot do it on their own? Both in the Church and in society? Give voice to women?
P. Neno Contran
Sr. Beth C. Imperial