Wednesday, May 23, 2018
It seems to me that the quest to reflect upon and deepen our charismatic identity should bring us Comboni Missionaries to: (1) appreciate more the person of St. Daniel Comboni and love more our Congregation; (2) dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to mission in the footsteps of our father and founder; and (3) pay special attention to communication as our founder did. (The last point springs from the awareness of the increasing importance of the media, the sector in which I have been working for the last 15 years.) In that direction, I put forward the following notes. […] Fr. José Rebelo.
A reflection on our charismatic identity
by Fr. José António Mendes Rebelo
It seems to me that the quest to reflect upon and deepen our charismatic identity should bring us Comboni Missionaries to: (1) appreciate more the person of St. Daniel Comboni and love more our Congregation; (2) dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to mission in the footsteps of our father and founder; and (3) pay special attention to communication as our founder did. (The last point springs from the awareness of the increasing importance of the media, the sector in which I have been working for the last 15 years.) In that direction, I put forward the following notes.
1. Deepen our esteem for St. Daniel Comboni and love for his Congregation
Like our confreres in China who are undaunted in the face of death and the most terrible tortures, without fear we will face enormous efforts, dangerous journeys, frightful deprivations, the slow martyrdom of a torrid climate and burning fevers, the harshest sacrifices – and death itself – to win the people of Central Africa (St. Daniel Comboni).
Daniel Comboni was an outstanding missionary. He was a very capable and holy person – multi-skilled and with a rare intellectual capacity. He was endowed with a broad mind, a large vision, leadership qualities and a deep-rooted spirituality. These are more than enough reasons to be proud of him as our father, spiritual leader and missionary guru.
Comboni was a towering figure of the 19th century. His exuberant personality, knowledge of languages, range of interests and, especially, his passion for Africa, allowed him to open and enter almost all doors and to relate to so many personalities, civil and religious, of his time. The following references, drawn mainly from the excellent biography of Comboni written by Gianpaolo Romanato (L’Africa Nera fra Cristianesimo e Islam. L’esperienza di Daniele Comboni) highlight his multi-faceted personality.
Among his contacts were: Pope Pius IX, who received him in audience, at least, 18 times; Cardinals, archbishops, the General of the Jesuits and other Congregations, such as: Don John Bosco (1815-1888), the founder of the Salesians; Arnold Janssen (1837-1909), the founder of the SVD; Charles Lavigerie, the founder of the White Fathers; Herbert Vaughan (1832-1903), the founder of the Mill Hill missionaries; Cardinal Guglielmo Massaia (1809-18890), the Apostle of the Galla in Ethiopia…
In the world of politics, he dealt with French Emperor Napoleon III and his wife; Belgian King Leopold II; Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph; the Russian Czar, Alexander II; the khedive of Egypt; the Governor General of Sudan, Ismail Ayoub Pasha, etc., etc.
He met men of culture and science such as Jacques PaulMigne (1800-1875), the famous author of the Greek and Latin patrologies and Charles Forbes René de Montalembert(1810-1870), a French publicist and historian. Comboni was in touch with all major specialists in African studies, from Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894), the maker of the Suez Canal and Antoine d’Abbadie (1810-1897), the explorer of Ethiopia, to Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904).
Knowledge about Africa and mission are closely correlated in Comboni. In a March 1872 report, to Cardinal Alessandro Barnabò, he writes: “I have read the books and writings, in different languages, of all the most famous travelers who, in the last century and in this one, have visited one part or another of the central regions included in the Vicariate, penetrating them either from the north or the north-east, or even from the south” (Writings, 2916). Then, he indicates 61 names and the dates on which they accomplished their exploration, and adds that he knew many of them personally.
Comboni had personal contacts with all the great explorers who kept him informed about the progress concerning Africa. In a report to the Society of Cologne, written on March 29, 1872, he states: “I have had personal dealings with the great travelers Linant Bey, Mr. (J.P.) d’Arnaud, (John Hanning) Speke, (James Augustus) Grant and (Samuel) Baker and had many conversations with the Jallabas and the Arab merchants who were constantly crossing the country and know it better than the European travelers. In addition, I have well digested all the literature published on this subject and have studied the works of the explorers on the matter from 1698 to the present day” (Writings, 2935).
Much more could be said about Comboni. The above-mentioned facts are just a glimpse to help us better appreciate Daniel Comboni. Once, a Jesuit mused that the Jesuits think diversely about any single issue except one: that they all consider their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, a great saint. We, Combonis, are far from such an ideal.
1.2 Loving the Congregation
The missionaries draw inspiration for their personal life and missionary service from the Founder’s witness of life (RL, 1.1).
The Institute that “derives its identity and specific manner of following Christ from the charism of the Founder,” St. Daniel Comboni, has been writing eloquent pages of sublime dedication and competence in the book of mission history, especially in Africa. Impelled by the Spirit, our confrères have been enduring adversities, deprivations and conflicts out of love for God and His people, to witness to Jesus and fight poverty and underdevelopment. Starting with their Founder, Comboni missionaries have been an intrinsic part of the African Church and have been contributing – often quietly but effectively – for its extraordinary growth. The blood of our martyrs is a sign of credibility of our missionary endeavors.
The Congregation is our true home. We believe that God called us to become members of the Comboni’s family. Thus, to be in this missionary family – and not in another one, to grow as persons and exercise our missionary vocation – is not irrelevant. We were not called to this family by chance or accident. It was God’s will for us in Jesus. We were attracted by Comboni’s holiness shining/reflected in the family members who were instrumental in our vocational discernment. Now, we are called to witness to Comboni’s holiness in the way we live and work.
It seems to me that, in the last 30 years, the Congregation has registered a pitiful impoverishment in the qualification of its members in the different areas of knowledge, even theological disciplines – starting from missiology, which should be our first area of expertise – as aids for mission. Such impoverishment diminishes our capacity to reflect and to discern our way, to be effective in our mission and lessens our credibility before the Church and the outside world which increasingly demand competence. For good reasons, Comboni wanted his missionaries to be holy and capable.
Such perceived impoverishment, however, is not a reason to love less our spiritual and missionary family. On the contrary, it is a call to preserve and develop its rich missionary legacy. The number of its members is dwindling – because the new professed confrères do not supersede those who have passed away or given up along the way – but there’s no reason to think that the Congregation has lost its place in the great adventure of the Kingdom. Instead of preparing for doom, we should renew our commitment and hope daring to believe that God still counts on us to bring about His universal salvation design. Leadership’s main task is, in my view, to help confrères face the future with courage and hope.
2. Passion for mission
Daniel Comboni distinguished himself for his total dedication to the missionary cause for which he spoke, worked, lived and died. (RL, 2)
2.1 Spirit of initiative
Following the example of the Founder, the missionary is ready to take the initiative, constant in carrying out any undertaking, persevering in difficulties, patient and strong in bearing loneliness, exhaustion and, apparently, useless labor (RL, 2.2).
In spite of the hardships he endured, Daniel Comboni never shrank from his missionary passion. Like Paul the Apostle, he could write: “I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).
Mission without borders – ad extra, ad gentes, ad paupers and ad vitam – following the example of St. Daniel Comboni, means a willingness “to go where there’s greater need” (Jesuits), to make common cause with people, especially the poor, to accept provisoriety and address human emergencies – not just do some ministry or quiet pastoral work in a parochial context. Such mission goes far beyond the shade of the church towers and should incorporate all good willed people: “The missionary mobilizes all civil and religious resources, and cooperates with them in the total advancement of the peoples among whom he works” (RL, 8.3).
The mission’s horizon is the Kingdom of God – not just the Church – and requires us to build bridges across peoples, cultures and religions. Therefore, it’s a mission that should be carried out through proclamation, prayer, dialogue and work for justice, peace and integrity of creation.
Comboni was a trailblazer. His life is a hymn to entrepreneurship and courage. We do not need to have his character and skills, but we certainly need a bit of his preparation and passion. We became missionaries to give fully ourselves for the well-being and salvation of others. The Congregation is not a refuge against uncertainty but the space to renew our missionary thrust.
2.2 Mission by being
God does not measure according to the greatness of things, which are all less than nothing in His sight, but by the greatness of the love with which they are given (Writings, 186 – Letter to his father from Korosko, December 9, 1857).
In Asia, perhaps more than anywhere else – especially due to the continent’s multi-religious nature and its resistance to Christianity – the missionary is led to question his true identity and testimony. People look for our Christian witness, not our sermons. They want to see that, in everyday life, we are compassionate, patient, kind, joyous and authentic; that our faith makes a difference and that we are people with a deep spiritual experience and a heart for all.
Time and again, Mohandas Gandhi encouraged Christians and missionaries using the Parable of the Rose: “Let your life speak to us even as the rose needs no speech but simply spreads its perfume. Even a blind, who does not see the rose, perceives its fragrance. The fragrance is its own sermon.” Before the explicit proclamation of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are called to proclaim the Gospel of the Rose through our loving deeds – sharing Christ’s fragrance in a life of solidarity with the poor and those in need, reducing inequalities in the distribution of goods, working for justice and peace, protecting the environment and fostering sustainable growth and development. Such witness attests of our Christian identity and is a good platform to meet and relate to believers of other faiths.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was surely one of the persons who touched the Asian soul because she lived wholeheartedly for the neglected and, in her apostolic endeavors, was a true witness of Christ’s love. The quality of her life and work spoke more powerfully than anything she could say. Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, India, one of Asia’s great thinkers, suggests we develop her sense of service and transcendence so that “all our activities, small and big, develop a ‘sign-value’ pointing to transcendent realities.”
He adds: “Certainly, one universally accepted trait of a committed person in Asia is a measure of renunciation. In Eastern cultures, this is considered the touchstone of the genuineness of a man of God. Silence, self-possession, calm, inner serenity, gentleness, quiet joy, humble service, respectful approach to persons and cultures – these are some of the qualities expected in the lives of ‘God-realized’ persons.”
In 1975, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical on Evangelization in the Modern World, commented: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (EN, 41). And Karl Rahner forewarned: “A religious person of tomorrow has to become a mystic (a person who has a personal experience of God) or he/she will be nothing.” These are challenges to authenticity!
3. Communicators for mission
The Institute’s publications and audio-visual aids must have satisfactory technical quality and should appeal to the public for which they are intended (RL, 78.4)
The Rule of Life doesn’t say much about the media and their vital role in the prosecution of our mission, especially in promoting missionary animation and justice, peace and integrity of creation – a commitment that emerged only in the last years. Here, I would like to state that our work in the media is “a precious inheritance,” from our Founder – a media-minded person – who availed himself of the means at his disposal to bring mission farther and reach virtually a greater number of people.
3.1 A great communicator
St. Daniel Comboni was a great communicator. He believed in the power of information and, all his life, he used his eloquent words – spoken and written. Whenever he was in Europe, usually to recover from his infirmities, he would not miss the opportunity to travel and meet as many collaborators, friends and benefactors as he could to inform them about the misfortunes of Africa, his tireless efforts to alleviate its misery, and to stir their faith and generosity. He even had programmed a trip to America in 1871 to ask for aid and for Black missionaries to help him. He was stopped by the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Barnabò, afraid that Comboni would channel, to Africa, funds that were sustaining the Roman offices.
Besides, he would use pen and paper – the means at his disposal in the XIX century, because the telegraph was invented only some years after his death – to promote mission awareness, make known his work in African soil, and raise funds to support his projects. Every day, he would write many and extensive letters in different languages. Let me to give just two examples. In May 1871, he confided to the Bishop of Verona, Msgr. Luigi de Canossa, that he had written 1,347 letters in the previous five months. In another letter, while talking about his multiple commitments, he mentioned that he had “more than 900 letters to write.” During his life, he wrote thousands of letters.
But his “lively and diligent correspondence with Europe” included many papers and magazines which multiplied with the spreading of the printing press after 1820. In a letter to the editor of the paper Libertà Cattolica, he stated: “I have to write all the time as a correspondent for 15 other German, French, English and American journals which send me fine sums of money. In Italy, I have relations with nearly all the Catholic papers … as well as my own Annali del Buon Pastore in Verona, which is a quarterly.” The latter became the prestigious Comboni magazine Nigrizia. Its first issue came out in 1872 and was the first of the Comboni magazines which define also our way of doing mission.
Comboni had an encyclopedic knowledge and was interested in all matters pertaining to Africa – people and their vicissitudes, history, geography, fauna, flora, discoveries, exploratory expeditions, customs and culture, trade, development… He wrote chronicles about his trips, ethnographic, geographic and biographic articles, historical essays and, especially, annual reports about the progress of his mission and asked for prayers and financial aid. It seems he believed in the power of communication as much as in the power of prayer.
In addition to writing, he read and subscribed to a great number of Italian, German, French and English periodicals, especially, Catholic papers. The reason he gave was: “because I want the Institutes and the many establishments I direct to think properly today, and I thank God that they all do.” In his Writings, he mentioned more than 40 papers and magazines. One wonders how, in the middle of his strenuous labors, exhausting trips through sickening swamps and scorching deserts, he could still have time to read and write so much.
The means of transportation then were the camel and the steamer. One can only imagine how the great mission animator, Daniel Comboni, would use modern means of communication, especially phone and Internet, to communicate in real time and how he would put electronic media at the service of mission promotion and evangelization!
3.2 An unavoidable challenge
Mission is communication – mainly of our perception and experience of God. Besides, we communicate what we are, the experiences we make, the work we do. There’s no communication without contents – otherwise, that is pure entertainment! The missionary is a communicator. The quality of his communication depends on the quality of his experience. The words may be poor and the technique may be inadequate, but the message would certainly get across.
On the other hand, communication is mission. The media are simply a tool – ever more indispensable and precious. Our mission is a source of beautiful stories – or should be – with which we touch people and help to create a better world. Some involvement in the social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is not enough. Besides, we should remember that our more or less sophisticated gadgets (cell phones, computers and cameras) should not be so much for personal enjoyment but for the service of mission.
The Congregation’s involvement in the media – “a precious heritage” – is faltering. In the 60s, we were ahead of times in missionary animation (using slides and Super 8 projector machines); today, we are clearly behind the times. The world evolved but we didn’t. More and more, we find it difficult even to keep the existing magazines. Not enough personnel have been prepared for the job, not mentioning the challenges of the new media. The shrinking personnel calls for strategic decisions in key sectors, such as in this multi-facetedareopagus of the mass media.
News – more than any other journalistic genre and in another context, sermons – have the power to change people’s way of thinking and mobilize their will to do good. Therefore, it is not easy to understand the Congregation’s reluctance in committing more people and resources to the media sector. Surely, our mission at the service of the Good News of Jesus deserves much more courage and dedication.
Jose Antonio M. Rebelo, MCCJ
World Mission – Manila, Philippines