The following reflections are divided into two parts: the first deals with Mary, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, as a Comboni Missionary Marian Icon; the second instead is a brief reflection on another aspect of Mary which was dear to Comboni, the Immaculate Virgin Mary as a missionary icon of regenerated humankind.
In turning the spotlight on the mystery of Mary, the Council has introduced a peculiar aspect. While in the past there was a tendency to highlight the titles of the Blessed Virgin (Mother, Immaculate, etc.) in their excellence, thus turning her into a super-creature, the Council instead places her squarely in the history of salvation, namely in the mystery of Christ the savior and redeemer and of the Church as sacrament of salvation and redemption. Chapter 8 of the LG inserts Mary in the mystery of the Church. The essential statement, which recurs very often, says: Mary is in the Church as a super-eminent member, but still a member. She holds the highest place, but within the Church (see 8.52). From the very beginning we find the balanced vision of "highest creature," but still "a creature." "Mary is endowed with the high office and dignity of the Mother of the Son of God, and therefore she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. But, being of the race of Adam, she is at the same time united to all those who need to be saved." (LG 53). Her task is to be the mother of all human beings, rather than a mediator: she takes part in the work of redemption, rather than being co-redeemer; she is united to the redeemer, mother of all, mother of grace, rather than mediator and co-redeemer. The Mother of God is the highest among the redeemed creatures, the first fruit of redemption, while remaining on our side in the ranks of the redeemed, where she holds the highest position, which makes her not only the highest sister in the mystical body, but at an even more intimate level, Mother of the total Christ, head of all the members of his mystical body.
This is my question: Does Comboni have something to say on the mystery of Mary? Is his message on Mary part of our heritage? And immediately I think that the title of this reflection will annoy someone: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the main Comboni Marian missionary icon. Is this just a devotional title, not to say a pietistic one? Perhaps an outdated title, offered as very significant or arbitrarily called the most significant, which Comboni gave us within the triptych of the Heart of Christ, St. Joseph and, in fact, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart? I want to say first of all that this choice, albeit unproven, indicates the search of a Marian icon which is not generic, but missionary in nature. On the other hand, it is not taken for granted that everything Comboni ever did in the devotional sphere necessarily takes on a missionary identity and becomes part of that spirituality.
There is only one question: "Is there a particularly full image of Mary, to whom Comboni refers, and which can become a source of inspiration for the prayer and the activity of evangelization, be it personal or as part of the task of promotion and formation?" In order to give an adequate answer I will develop three points: First of all the choice of this icon as being of particular significance to Comboni; then the search for its meaning and finally the consequences for us as objects and subjects of evangelization.
A) Our Lady of the Sacred Heart: A decisive presence in the maturing journey of Comboni
Mary was a living and constant presence throughout Comboni’s life. This is a fact that does not need to be proven, because we all know that in all his letters there is always a mention, a prayer or a reference to Mary. We could speak of a major inclusion that embraces all of them. We go from the consoling Mother of the missionary at his first experiences: "The Virgin Mary, precious comfort of missionaries, the Virgin who is the Queen of Nigrizia, Mother of consolation, could not abandon these few servants of hers, who are trying to make her known together with her Son even among these idolatrous people." (S. 261), to the Mother of Mercy who protects his work: "under the protection of the Mother of Mercy, I hope that God will give me the grace to deal appropriately with the cause of Nigrizia" (S. 7081).
But even more interesting is to pick, from among the titles given to Mary, those that are most present in Comboni’s life, especially in his more mature years, and therefore those that have more substance and a greater meaning and importance. According to the analytical index of the Scritti, the more frequent titles are Mother (S. 256, 1640, 1642, 1649, 1733, 2681, 3162, 4005), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (3373, 3992-95, 4690, 4884, 5284, 5437, 5791, 5867, 6172, 6960, 7080), Queen of the Nigrizia (S. 262, 895, 913, 1644, 2522, 3265, 3992, 5891, 6725, 6768) and Immaculate virgin (S. 472, 438, 1472, 1638, 1641, 2522, 3265, 3411, 3617, 3992, 4003, 4733). Two of them in particular appear with a greater number of variations: Mother (Good M., merciful M., my M., our M., fortunate M., divine M., of Christ, our M. near the Heart of Jesus, M. of all Africans, M. of the apostles, M. more loving than all mothers, M. of good counsel, M. of consolation, M. and queen of the Nigrizia, M. of the Vicariate of Central Africa, most pious M., Mom), and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Queen of the Sacred Heart, August Queen of the Sacred Heart, Patron of the Sacred Heart, and even Empress…). Now, the title that at a certain point in Comboni’s life stands out as having a very particular meaning, inasmuch as it sums up all the most beautiful prerogatives of Mary, among them the titles of Mother, Queen of the Nigrizia and Immaculate, is exactly the title of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, taken from Fr. Giulio Chevalier.
This title appeared for the first time in a Pastoral Letter written from Delen on October 28, 1875 (S. 3990), in preparation to the Consecration of the Vicariate to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. This consecration took place on December 8, 1875, using a text dated November 1875 (S. 4002). Comboni gave the same importance to this consecration that he had given to the consecration to the Sacred Heart, done on September 14, 1873 (S. 5182). In fact, with the consecration to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart he established a logical link (it was needed by the dynamics of redemption that took place with human cooperation) and moved to an interpretation of the title he had chosen by listing a long line of attributes of Mary (S. 3990-3991). As a very important detail, we must take note of the fact that Comboni consecrated the Vicariate to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart at a time when this particular devotion, exactly due to its title, had given rise to strong doubts, not to say hostility, in Roman circles to the point that in 1870 it was decided to delete it and to close the basilica of Issoudun.
Some brief allusions will show how Comboni considered this title to be of great importance to his work. On June 1, 1878, he wrote to Card. Giovanni Simeoni from Khartoum: "The Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, to whom the Vicariate is consecrated, will protect this work" S. 5185). Writing to the same cardinal from Kordofan on May 17, 1881, he mentioned the church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart that he was building, adding immediately: "… and I trust that Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Queen of Nigrizia and owner of the Sacred Heart of Jesus will convert these barbarians, who so far have been enveloped by the darkness of death." (S. 6727) Comboni inserted this reference in the basic triad of his spirituality, namely the Heart of Jesus and the benevolent provider, St. Joseph. In a letter to Canon Cristoforo Milone, which he wrote from Khartoum on October 24, 1878, he said: "[…] but I hold my firm hope in the Divine Heart of Jesus, that beats also for Africa, in Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, and in my dear general treasurer and administrator of Central Africa, St. Joseph, patron of the Catholic Church." (S. 5437) This triad appeared as a solid refuge and inspiration at the right time in his mission, when mission was taking up the sum total of all the human tragedies spawned by poverty, by adverse events (droughts) and by oppression (slavery).
It can be said that the title of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart had become part of himself. With enthusiasm and conviction he wrote to Fr. Chevalier to tell him how much he cared for this title of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Domina nostra a Corde Jesu and not Domina nostra Cordis Jesu) which expressed not the domination of the Mother over her Son’s Heart, but rather a type of relationship. Here are his words as they were written from Gebel Nuba on May 28, 1881: "… furthermore, in the entire mission and in all the stations the name of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is on everybody’s lips thanks to the great favors we have received through her intercession. This devotion is due to the zeal by which my provincial superior of Central Africa, Sr. Teresa, propagates it. This devotion has been dear to her since she came to know about it in Osimo, Italy." (6771).
It can be said that, among the many titles under which Comboni honored Mary during his life, this is certainly the fullest and dearest of them all. We dare to say that it is the fruit of his spiritual maturity, because this title synthesizes the most important attributes of Mary as Mother and as cooperator with Christ in the work of salvation, namely as mother of God and of all humanity, concretely the Africans who, at that time, were without doubt the most abandoned. "The most beautiful name after the name of Mother of God" (S. 3992) – he wrote in the letter of proclamation. "Now is not this title a great sign of health and grace for our Beloved Vicariate of Central Africa, a time when the great Mother of God gloriously appears in our midst?" (S. 3996).
B) Meaning of the title of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart: Mother near the Heart of her Son on our behalf
In order to understand the meaning of the title of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart we go to two fundamental texts, namely the preparatory circular letter (S 3990-4001) and the act of consecration prepared for December 8, 1875 (S. 4002-4005).
First of all, the title of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart respects the unique role of Christ as mediator, to whom she is associated: "She herself is the mystical key of the adorable Heart of her Son Jesus (S. 3992), just the same, "you are everything for us after Jesus." (S. 4004) – Comboni writes. Furthermore, Mary is inserted in the vision of the history of salvation which is extended in time and has some special moments. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is certainly a sublime creature: "… The Woman without stain… the Prodigy of the infinite love of God." (S. 3993), and a mirror of the Trinity for us: "Beloved daughter of the eternal Father, through whom the knowledge of God has reached the ends of the earth;… Abode of the Eternal Son, who was born from you in human flesh; … ineffable dwelling of the Eternal Divine Holy Spirit, who showered on her all his gifts and all his graces." (S. 4003) She is so close to us that she is present above all in times of dire necessity: "…how timely is your presence in the time of our need! Oh! How Divine Providence has preserved you for these times and for these places…" Her punctual presence has a theological dimension. The Mother is indissolubly tied to the redeeming sacrifice of the Son: "Fortunate mother of our Divine Redeemer who died for all on a cross." (S. 4004)
However, there is something even more specific: Mary is not simply under the cross, but near, turned to the center of redemption, the Heart of her Son. Hence the splendid definition of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart as "our mother near the Heart of the Son for our entire life." (S. 4005) Mary continues to generate children, and therefore continues to be our mother, exactly because she is near the Heart of the Son, namely when she absorbs the feelings of the Son. This definition of Mary places the Heart of the Mother at the apex of the human-divine trajectory of the history of salvation and projects the most mature attitude of faith which saves and shares itself. At this point, the history of salvation has reached, in one person, the deep knowledge of saving grace and calls to sharing it. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart points at what we must contemplate and at how to get there. Mary points at the first element of salvation: the feelings of the Heart of the Son; Mary also leads us to a double attitude that must always accompany it: the contemplation of the mystery of love and the taking it up as a personal responsibility (this view generates mission). And finally, Mary points at the place: the redemptive activity of the Church is born at the foot of the cross. We are then within a dynamic of contemplation and of participation.
In current terms, we may say that Mary becomes the Mother who generates, because she acts as disciple. In this sense, here we see the balance of the mediating power of Mary over her Son in our favor. She opens for us the Heart of Christ inasmuch as she contemplates it in depth, and resonates with the center of redemptive love: from person to person, for ever.
The act of Consecration of Nigrizia to Our Lady of La Salette (July 26, 1868), shows that such interpretation is not arbitrary, but finds an amazing proof in the life of Comboni. He wrote it himself in a most appropriate way. The act explicitly affirms the connection between his Plan, its realization and the mediating role of Mary; it proclaims the maternal-ecclesial-propitiatory role of Mary. Here is the text, so extraordinary and so far reaching: "You, Divine Mother, inspired in me the new plan for the regeneration of Central Africa, which the Vicar of Christ and many bishops have approved as being very wise and very timely. …I have given myself, together with some generous companions, to the conversion of the Blacks who are still infidels despite the efforts of the Church, even though the Blood of Christ has already redeemed them and you, o Mary, have adopted them as your children at Calvary." (S. 1639-1640). It is normal, therefore, that it may be possible to see a great link from the Consecration at La Salette (July 26, 1868) to the consecration of the Vicariate of Central Africa in El Obeid (December 8, 1875), mediated by the fact that Mary was standing by the Cross of her Son. From La Salette, namely from a Mother who has adopted her children on Calvary to el Obeid, namely to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart "who is our Mother at the Heart of your blessed Son Jesus for our entire life." This is an explicit statement of what he wrote to Marie Deluil-Martiniy in 1868: "The Heart of Christ was wounded by the spear on the cross when he had already died and […] this terrible thrust of the spear pierced the Heart of our Mother Mary: this thrust of the spear will be felt also in Africa." (S. 1733)
The meaning for us
"To stand with the Mother near the Heart," means to believe in and to live by the primacy of the love of Christ in evangelization. Mary, the custodian of the feeling of the Son’s Heart becomes the icon par excellence of those who evangelize and points the way: she herself becomes a disciple in order to generate. That gaze totally focused on the center of generating love points at the missionary consecration as a two way street: gazes at the saving love and answers unconditionally to the love it chooses. In the light of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, every Marian feast could become for us a "memory" a re-enacting and ritualization of our missionary consecration. "Through her we have entered into the Most Holy Heart of Jesus; through her we know Jesus Christ…"(SD. 3999). Any consecration has by necessity a contemplative dimension. Therefore, this is the Marian exhortation: Penetrate ever more deeply into the feelings of the Heart of the Redeemer as it is written in the Redemptoris Mater (RM) "follow in the footsteps of the Virgin Mary’s itinerary, who progressed in a pilgrimage of faith and preserved her union with her Son until death." (§2, and 22, 27) This is an invitation to examine the substance and the presence of contemplation in our own lives in order to evaluate the authenticity of our missionary consecration.
"The Mother near the Heart of the Son for our whole life," means that Mary is the partner of Jesus, therefore not a lifeless instrument, but active. She shares in the act of redemption with her whole being and tells us that salvation must be passed on with the full richness of the human person, male and female. Any loss of equilibrium, or exclusive attitude, or discrimination of one or the other, dooms to mockery the act of salvation. It therefore asks for a serious reflection on the ability of our evangelizing activity to express the richness, the diversity and the complementarity of the male and female element. It moves us to discover possible elements of discrimination, of exclusion and, even before that, to name in a positive way the differences that may complete, complement and give authenticity to us as evangelizers, both personally and as communities. "Central Africa is the hardest and most laborious mission in all of creation – so Comboni wrote from Khartoum on July 24, 1878 to Mother Maria Annunciata Coseghi: "Now, how is it that the smallest and most insignificant of all Institutes, such as mine, microscopic and most unimportant of all, was able to consolidate the apostolate in Central Africa and spread its reach more than its predecessors? Because I, in agreement with Pius IX, solemnly consecrated the Vicariate to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, and to St. Joseph, […] and because in the apostolate in Central Africa I was the first to unite the omnipotent ministry of the woman of the Gospel and of the sister of charity, who is the shield, the strength, the certainty of the ministry of the missionary" (S. 5284) (See also RM 46). We have to value our being together as evangelizers (convictions, sensitivity, realizations, difficulties…).
"The Mother near the Heart of the Son in our whole life," finally means that the evangelizing act is born with Mary at the foot of the Cross. Not in any old way, however, but as she herself is born together with the Crucifix (crucifixes) and as Church. This is totally a program of evaluation of our faithfulness (to what binds us to God, our brothers and sisters, and various situations) and a program of evaluation of our rising above individualism (to pay attention to others (S. 3993, 3997, 4003), to console (S. 4004), to protect (S. 4005, to wipe the tears (S. 4004), to be a blessing (S. 4003), to intercede (S. 4004), "to offer and consecrate all our thoughts, words, actions … our sufferings, our labors, our entire life." (S. 4005) "Mary places herself between her son and humankind in the concreter reality of their needs, poverty and sufferings" – writes John Paul II (RM 212, and 23, 37§3)
Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, as "Mother who stands by the Heart of the Son for us," is the irreversible Marian gift that St. Daniel Comboni left behind and which opens for us the way to mission and to evaluation, if we believe that Mary continues to be present in the history of salvation: "A unique moment, the place where the eternity of God touches the flow of human history." (Karl Rahner)
The Immaculate Virgin, missionary icon of a regenerated humanity
In the preparatory form letter (S. 3990-4001) and in the act of consecration prepared for December 8, 1875 (S. 4002-4005), Comboni connects in a very harmonious way the title of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart to the titles of Immaculate, Mother, partner in Redemption, Protector. He himself consecrated the newly born Institute to the Most Holy Heart of Jesus and placed it under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Immaculate (See Rules of 1871, S. 2649).
Of course, there were historical reasons that prompted Comboni to make frequent use of the title of Mary Immaculate: a few days before his ordination to the priesthood, Pope Pius IX on December 8, 1854, had solemnly proclaimed the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Daniel Comboni had a special affection for the Virgin Mary; he looked at her as the precious comfort of the Missionary, as the Mother of all Africans to whom he prayed with filial trust. Mary, the Immaculate Virgin, is the one who on Calvary has adopted all Africans as her children (S. 1639), and Comboni hoped that in her diadem Nigrizia would shine as a black pearl (S. 1031).
In the Institute of the Comboni Missionary Sisters the feast of the Immaculate Conception has always being celebrated with great solemnity since the first years of its existence. Daniel Comboni had already solemnized the day of the Immaculate Conception with the foundation of Cairo on December 8, 1867, (See S. 2895) and again with the act of consecration of the Vicariate of Central Africa on December 8, 1875 (See S. 4000). By renewing their consecration to the mission ad gentes on the feast of the Immaculate Conception the Comboni Missionary Sisters see in Mary a model of fruitful, faithful consecration and a total availability to cooperate with the Plan of God for the "regeneration" of humankind.
The devotion of our Founder to Mary was deep and real. It is the missionary dimension of the link between Comboni and Mary that we want to underline, since we consider it as the most specific aspect of his Marian devotion.
His vow for the missions, namely his reordering, re-focusing everything – talents, desires energies, affections, time – to mission, to what he called the first love of my youth, appears clearly in his devotions and in particular in his Marian devotion. A good example can be found in the way he, in the homily delivered in Khartoum, invokes Mary after having, with the heart of a pastor, restated his total gift of self to the regeneration of Africa: Hasten the hour of their salvation, level the obstacles, vanquish the enemies, prepare the hearts, and send ever new apostles to these lands so unhappy and so much in need." (S. 4002)
To celebrate the mystery of the Immaculate Conception of Mary means to affirm, above all, our faith in Christ who fulfills the loving plan of the Father by overcoming evil in this world. Mary conceived without sin, in fact, is the marvelous sign of the activity of the saving grace of the Redeemer who conquers the evils that beset the world; she, as the first creature saved by Christ, is the model for all redeemed humanity; she is the absolute proof that God is greater than our misery and our sinfulness. In her we see already a new creation; in her we see the destiny of all humanity and the fulfillment of history: a humanity which is free from all manners of evil, cured of the wounds of division and oppression, living in harmony and unity.
Eph 1,306.11-12 – the second reading of the liturgical feast – describes the life of humankind which, despite trials and tribulations, is journeying toward its perfect fulfillment: "In Christ the Father has chosen us before the creation of the world to be holy and without stain in his presence in love." It is the description of humankind loved and regenerated in which the definitive meeting of human beings with God and with one another, the clear sign of the presence of the Kingdom. Mary is the one in whom all this has already come to be in a unique and exceptional manner.
Together with Comboni we look at her as the beacon of hope who shines as a rainbow of peace and reconciliation between heaven and earth and, therefore, as the image of the Plan of salvation already realized: in her we see humanity already redeemed, freed from sin and division. This is a humanity to which we are sent and in which, like Christ the Good Shepherd, like Mary in the Magnificat and like Comboni we are called to be involved, in deep solidarity with those who, because of sin and of today’s forms of slavery, do not enjoy the fullness of life and of the true freedom of the children of God. It is the true mission of Jesus Christ – says Comboni – who came into the world to free the slaves, to give freedom to all, and to make them brothers and sisters and children of the same Father who is in heaven (S. 3603)
The celebration of this mystery sends us into the world with Mary with an optimistic frame of mind, with new hope and new courage; and, in situation of crucifixion and of sorrow that we meet, she is seen as an icon of humanity at peace, in harmony and reconciled. From her, who did not give up but was able to stand erect at the foot of the cross, and who followed her Son all the way to the tomb, the "place of mourning," and on to full life, we draw the strength to persevere and to know how to begin anew, with the certainty of Comboni, that the works of God are born and grow at the foot of Calvary, to have the grace to be part of the mystery of the Cross, the sufferings of the world and those we experience personally: our frailty, our wounds, accepting the scandal, but in a position to begin to see, like Mary and in Mary, the whole fruitfulness brought by the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is the resolve to work to ensure that the marks of sin will decrease in the world and give way to the regenerating action of Christ’s grace which transforms and creates anew humanity from within. We too, like Comboni, look at her with Nigrizia in our hearts: to her we entrust our anxieties, our hopes, joys, the anguish of the people to whom we have been sent and that we receive from the Pierced Heart of the Good Shepherd contemplated on the cross, certain that the absurdity of human suffering finds meaning in the Sacrifice of Christ.
The feast of the Immaculate Conception reminds us that the Marian component of our Comboni Missionary vocation is an essential part of our lives. Our devotion is born of the contemplation of Mary: on one side we look first of all at what the Lord has done in her, touching and regenerating her with his grace and making her an icon of all humanity loved and saved and, therefore, a sign of hope for all of us; on the other side we see in the Virgin Mary the full availability to be shaped by the merciful love of God each day of her life, thus becoming the first missionary.
If we recognize in Mary the sign of redeemed humanity, we will by necessity turn to that same humanity and see in it the signs of God’s grace all the time, even in the midst of total darkness and in the most violent storms. Mary Immaculate, icon of a harmonious and reconciled humanity is an invitation to contemplate with hope human history accepting it as sacred space where the Plan of God develops day by day up to the end.
Mary conceived without sin is a challenge to all of us, a constant invitation to start each day on a journey of conversion to the "manners" of God in our missionary service, so that his redemptive grace may freely act in us and in history in order to lead it slowly but constantly to its fulfillment. Like Mary, we are called to be a Comboni Family to all humankind, a gift from God, a sacrament and an instrument of peace, of reconciliation and of harmonic unity.
P. Arnaldo Baritussio, mccj
Sr. Marina Cassarino, smc