The life of fellowship extends also to the deceased members who intercede with the Father. Their memory is a spur to live the missionary vocation with generosity. At the notification of a member’s death each priest celebrates a Mass in suffrage, preferably in community. The deceased missionaries are remembered during the Eucharistic celebration or another community prayer on the anniversary of their death
The history of our Institute, like that of others, comes to us through little mission cemeteries. Plain crosses on humble graves show the passage of God in those distant lands. The history of the Comboni Missionaries finds its starting point in the small mission cemeteries of Africa. It is the ancient story, often heard and often forgotten, of the grain of wheat which dies under the soil to give life to new growth. Visiting mission cemeteries one has the feeling of witnessing a real miracle: the miracle of lives which, though buried in the earth, continue to live. It is the miracle of those people who believed when all had lost faith, who hoped against hope. A tombstone inscribed with two dates, that of birth and that of death. Two dates which, in most cases, cover a short period of time. Dates which dust and time may wear away but which are the footsteps of God in that land. Such are the sand-covered graves of the first missionaries who ventured into the heart of Africa. Such are the desecrated graves of Maximillian Ryllo, of Daniel Comboni and of his missionaries in Sudan and the forgotten graves of hundreds of men and women who chose to consecrate their entire lives to the mission till death.
Faith in the face of death
Comboni continues to be an example of faith for us, in the face of difficulties, sufferings, disease and death itself.
During the final months of 1881 the frequent deaths of his missionaries wounded the heart of Daniel Comboni. Seven of them died of malaria fever within days of each other. They all died very young. Some were not long ordained. He himself describes the situation: “The other day we celebrated the office and the Requiem Mass for a most dear missionary of mine who died recently and whom I myself ordained priest, the Polish Rev. Mattia Moron. Even before we took away the catafalque the news came of the death of another of my missionaries, Rev. Antonio Dobale, who died of typhoid fever at El Obeid. Yesterday morning we celebrated Requiem Mass for him. Just as we had concluded the ceremony I received the news that Sr. Maria Colpo, a member of my Institute, had passed away in a saintly and heroic manner. What am I to do?” (cf. S 7151-52)
Faced with suffering, anguish and death, Comboni turns to faith and the crucified God: “If we could see the reason why God works thus, we should have to praise and bless him because thus is good… Pray for us that we may be happy and resigned in bearing the cross on which Jesus died”.
Since 1881 the list of our deceased confreres has grown and it now numbers more than a thousand. Those names are the history and the sacred memory of our Institute. Each name is a missionary chapter in the history of our Comboni family. Each day, as we read the names of our deceased confreres, we must thank God for the life, the vocation and the mission accomplished by each one. Each name is sacred. Each name speaks to us of our life as Comboni Missionaries and the goodness of God towards us.
Every day, as we remember our dead, we are brought to contemplate the marvels which God has done through men at once fragile and holy.
Renewing our consecration
Remembering our dead means above all renewing our common consecration to God. Every deceased confrere reminds us that it is worth while persevering and “risking” one’s life for the mission of God. Comboni himself speaks of the grace of “knowing how to lose one’s life in order to gain it”.
It was always the desire of Comboni to end his days in a missionary land. The thought of dying in Africa strengthened his apostolic spirit: “I would feel it a great loss”, Comboni wrote to his friend Fr. Arnold Janssen, “and I would be ashamed of it, if I could not die in Africa, because the soldier must die on the battlefield, fighting” (cf. S 5829).
To die in a missionary land is the desire of an authentic missionary of faith. To die and to become the seed in the place where one has worked, so that human beings may become more human and the Christians more Christian. The missionary knows that his consecration is total. To consecrate oneself to the poorest and to the least presupposes giving without limit, including death. “The missionary”, Comboni recommends to his candidates, “must be a perpetual sacrificial victim, destined to work, sweat and die, without, perhaps, seeing any fruits from his labours... The missionary must cultivate this attitude: to keep one’s eyes fixed on Jesus Christ (...) frequently renewing the offering of himself to God” (cf. S 2721-22).
Renewing our communion
The missionary is an instrument of life, especially after his death as a faithful servant.
When we remember our deceased confreres and relive their memory, in that very moment we draw from the vital source of our existence.
It is a mutual experience of “regeneration” of the mystery of the Resurrection of Christ. At that moment we “are there” for them through prayer and memorial while they “are there” for us through intercession and the brotherhood of the common missionary vocation. It is as though we “maintained” each other in the etymological sense of holding each other by the hand (manu tenere), participating together in the life and events of the Comboni mission. With them we celebrate the memory “of our roots, the origins and development of our history”. This vital co-participation helps to renew and reinforce our ties as a missionary family. It is the communion of saints in Christ.
1 November 2005
Fr. Teresino Serra, mccj