Father Tomás Herreros: “The mission that the Holy Spirit has entrusted to the Comboni missionaries”


Monday, August 10, 2020
In the context of continuous formation, I intend to provide a brief reflection on the issue about a certain appropriate capacity for Comboni missionaries, following the concern of our founder who wanted "holy and capable" missionaries. (...)


(Able collaborators in the mission that the Holy Spirit has entrusted to the Comboni missionaries)


In the context of continuous formation, I intend to provide a brief reflection on the issue about a certain appropriate capacity for Comboni missionaries, following the concern of our founder who wanted "holy and capable" missionaries.

Our Rule of Life says that each of us is responsible for our ongoing formation (RL 99-101), even if it is also organized in the community and in the province. The permanent formation of the community falls under the responsibility of the local superior, the one of the province under the responsibility or supervision of the Provincial Superior.

Ratio Fundamentalis asks us to have a personal on-going formation programme (RFIS 543, 547). That implies a schedule that appears in our personal life project. In this project, we determine what, when, how and where we will carry out our continuous formation. That is, we need to make concrete issues that concern my person, my spiritual life, and my abilities for ministry. For this personal programming, the community can make a positive contribution because it can tell us how to do it and in what aspects we would like to concentrate, within the framework of human, spiritual and pastoral dimensions. The deepness of the community’s contribution will depend on how much we have shared first, an in its own sources of information.

Today, personal dispersion is very common risky habit. We have so many means at hand that we easily get lost, and we bite here and there like bees. Much of what we receive helps us; but when assimilation is not done methodically it does not contribute to our formation effectively. It is often mentioned that each person cultivates desires and deeds. The first ones are always good, the second ones sometimes. Desires point to excellence, even when they seem utopian. Actions are excellent when good wishes are put into practice systematically, methodically and efficiently.

They are materials regarding on-going formation that we receive from the General Administration and from our own provinces. Those materials help us to create a "common feeling" and so to continue growing at the same pace. In that way, we acquire some kind of institutional consistency that gives us identity and nourishes unity. But that does not mean that each one of should not look for topics on which he needs to improve his personal formation in any of the dimensions mentioned before (human, spiritual, pastoral).

Just to remind us I copy and paste four sentences from the RFIS, since it is a document that we seldom use:

530. Formation is necessarily permanent, in terms of responding to the evolutionary and dynamic character of the human person, the requirement to be creatively faithful to one's vocational identity and to continue to empower it, facing in faith the multiple demands of missionary life.

531. Comboni demanded from his missionaries, even on a mission, a continuous commitment towards his own formation (RL 99.5)

532. Lifelong formation is a process that involves: the continuity of the growth of the person; the progressive maturation in Christ and identification with the charism of Comboni and the Institute; an attitude of constant conversion to discern the action of the Spirit

534. Otherwise, the missionary risks staying in a simple "object" of updating and will never become a "subject" of his formation and growth.

We all have three guidance documents that were sent to us from the On going formation committee of Rome, and which is useful to read sometimes:


2. SHARING LIFE: For a true growth in fraternity

3. COMMUNITY COUNCIL: Mirror of a missionary community...


We are all well aware of St. Daniel Comboni's quotations about how he wanted his missionaries to be holy and capable (Writings 3191, 3617, 3710, 6655), and how he boasted of the abilities and resiliency of his nuns.

In our initial formation we distinguish, practically, between academic preparation and spiritual formation. There's also physical fitness, but that's associated with sport, and it seems more like fun than health maintenance. We do have easy access to medical care and food, but we forget the importance of taking care of our bodies in order to fulfill the Latin saying "mens sana in corpore sano". Bodies strong enough to be exposed to difficult and uncomfortable situations (RL 2.2; 90.2; Writings 2592, 3617, etc. And in order to be able through manual work to contribute in our own maintenance (RL 93.1)

Spiritual care is related to the path of holiness, and we associate it with the work of formators, the ones in charge of instructing candidates in the values of the Comboni missionary charism.

Academic preparation is related to studies in our institutions to acquire knowledge and qualifications. Sometimes, we get more qualifications than knowledge. Later on when pressure of compulsory studies is no longer there, or the desire to obtain other degrees disappear, we leave behind farther studies, which are necessary for our missionary apostolate, with or without degree.

Ongoing formation goes beyond learning. It focuses on continuous "self-teaching but assisted by someone", because we are not finished people, and never will never be. This transformation is a contextualized process according to our personal and social situation of the moment, that is: my person person, my community, my ministry, my spirituality.

In our spiritual jargon we prefer to call improvement as "growth or climbing." Our improvements in the pastoral fields we referred it as "insertion, inculturation, adaptation, move forth". Personal transformation has terms such as "adequacy, healing, fitness, attitude, improvement, etc.). Community transformation involves "commitment, support, correction, consensus, relations".

Every positive transformation process is an organic growth. We know that the plants grow according to what they are, each branch on its own direction, but according to what the nature of the plant. In order to guarantee organized growth it is needed to do pruning, tie shoots, caring with fertilizers and pesticides. In our lifelong formation that is done in a personal way, but in collaboration with the brothers one lives with.

In The letters of St. Daniel Comboni we discovered how he was concerned about finding missionaries capable for the African mission, so challenging; how he wanted to prepare African people, lay and religious, who would be able to carry forward the evangelization of the Vicariate of Central  Africa. These preparations were made in Cairo and Malbes, to replace the previous initiatives in Naples or Verona. This concern remains constant in our  Comboni Institute in such a way that it does not care only about the training of young people before perpetual votes, but also follows the training all its members to enable them to face the cultures and ministries where they are sent. That is why all circumscriptions mention in their provincial directories the processes for the insertion of new arrivals into the local reality of the province. The fact that it is officially mentioned does not mean that it is carried out regularly, because sometimes emergencies prevent them from being fulfilled. This institutional deficiency does not help in the training of our confreres and consequently affects our personal fulfilment in our ministry and the quality of missionary service we offer.

Preparations of missionaries to new destinations fall under the responsibility of provincial superiors. But in addition to this general training, we find the need to train ourselves to face the reality of the local community we join and its people around. For this we need personal interest in knowing cultures and languages, as well as the history of the people, the local church, the presence of the Comboni missionaries in the place.

Literature and official documentaries are found with some ease (whether they are updated or not is a different story). All the same it seems that we are in deficit in documenting the presence and the work Comboni missionaries have done in our missions. It is a fact that we have lost the practice of writing diaries and chronicles of the missions or parishes. This is more amazing precisely when right now it is easier and faster to do that than in the past: we can prepare multimedia with photos, writings and videos, etc. It might be the case that the young Comboni missionaries have not been educated in this tradition, and that they have not been prepared to do so quickly and effectively, because it is not a question of writing novels, but of listing events adding a bit of meat to the bones... Something that can do in a couple of hours each month. St Daniel Comboni is a clear example of his commitment to write letters, at hand, even repeating the same story several times (something that today we do with copy and paste). Therefore, it is up to us, his disciples, to learn from him.

Mission diaries and articles we have published in our written press have been very helpful in making known to others what we do; but that doesn't mean we've read them, watched them or appreciated them.

Because it seems that we lack interest in knowing what had happened or what others did on the missions where we arrive. The current trend is to think that because the world has become globalized, it is no longer so necessary to know the local reality: neither its history, nor its languages, nor its peculiarities – folkloric rites and festivities are just for tourism and for holidays –. The communities where we are assigned to also find it difficult to introduce newcomers, and to give them appropriate time to prepare themselves, because we run on emergencies. This trend is not beneficial to pastoral care, hence the local community needs to apply patience a little longer to let newcomers properly insert themselves property. Also it is necessary that new comers show interest in knowing and learning. This interest appears in the joy we have when receiving our destination.

We all know the great capacities of our founder had: for learning languages, for personal relationships, for corporal endurance, for writing, for the acceptance of crosses, for the recognition of the merits of his collaborators, for believing in the possibilities of Africans, for overcoming the difficulties of ecclesial and political diplomacies. He had received those capacities from nature as God’s gifts, but he also had to cultivate them through study, effort, constancy, consultation, and optimism.

We all have qualities that we have inherited and others in which we have been educated, but all of them are subjected to the law of wear and tear, therefore, they must be reinforced and renewed. In addition, there are also other capabilities that we are unaware of just because we were never exposed to realities that required those abilities; but when we are placed where they are needed, the challenge becomes a stimulus for learning on which we can apply the same technics Comboni used: study, hard work, constancy, consultation and optimism.

How do we know we're improving in our capacities? First of all, it must be borne in mind that few are experienced experts in the field. Luckily, in our missionary vocation there is no unemployment, therefore no one asks us for "experience" even if we are young. It is enough that there is knowledge and interest. The titles we have obtained in our initial formation offer some guarantee of sufficient preparation. Courses and seminars and workshops we have done later, whether online or face to face, help us to continue learning without getting tired and, little by little, to be updated. The readings we do every day manage to get for us three-quarters of the same. That is to say, tools to improve our skills are plenty, now, we need time and methodology to use them.

In the above-mentioned academic world, the test results are used to determine the progress we make, at the theoretical or practical level. In the business world, the benefits demonstrate our competitiveness. However, in our field of evangelization things are not so systematic. Agriculture assists us as analogy to understand how the success of a good harvest does not depend only on the capabilities of the farmer, it also  counts the quality of the seed, soil, fertilizers, rains, sun, pests, etc. And once you have got the harvest, the profits also depend on the market, the sales strategy, the conservation of the products, etc. That is, there are a lot of exogenous factors to the farmer that make his efforts profitable or not. Something similar happens with ourselves, and with the apostolic ministry entrusted to us by the Lord.

If we focus on the goal of our training, it turns out that Comboni wants us capable for "evangelizing". And once again we ask ourselves: evangelize... who, where, how, when, what. Because all those factors condition the success of our efforts, it does not depend solely on our capabilities. That is why we solve the equation by saying that the success of our pastoral activity is a "blessing from God".

Such an answer also raises another issue: Is failure a curse? If success or failure does not depend solely on our capabilities and our efforts, why to focus on this now?

In academic world, people's abilities are valued for their intelligence. In the technical world the capabilities are measured by the "skills". In real life, the smart person is the one who “survives”. And in the apostolic life? Who is the most clever or capable? Which features characterize the proficiency of an apostle? Well I dare to say: being consistent, being coherent, with what we teach or preach. Teaching covers all aspects of our missionary work, from catechesis to school education, human promotion activities, training courses. Preaching focuses on the announcement of the Good News of God’s Kingdom, in churches or in public forums (including new communication areopagi).

Nowadays, any profession needs "updating" courses. Consider that one thing is maintenance and another is updating, that is getting acquainted with new techniques, new theories. In our religious world, that focuses on eternal truths, the content of the message does not change, but it does change the methods of conveying the message. In itself, even if the content does not change, it does need interpretations suitable to the new circumstances that arise in the life of the church and of humanity.

Both in terms of media and methods of communication, as well as with respect to updated content, the Comboni missionary needs learning and training, regardless of whether the new skills acquired will produce better results or not.

2. Media and messages

In our ministry there are several instruments of transmission: there are external instruments and there are internal ones. Externals are the means we use and the knowledge we acquire. Internal means are our very selves; we are the vehicle for communication. Since McLuhan wedged the phrase "the medium is the message", some theories of communication have changed:

The medium influences how the message is perceived,

Both the medium and the message go together,

The medium modifies the relationships between the communicators.

If we apply these phrases to our missionary life it turns out that we are the medium, and the message is the doctrinal content or practical knowledge that we transmit. Doctrinal when we focus on faith and human relationships. Practical knowledge when we refer to issues of human promotion. We must speak this way because as Comboni missionaries since Comboni's time these two aspects have gone hand in hand.

Thus, in saying that the medium is the message, we are emphasizing the importance of testimony, and the importance of the person who conveys that message. Testimony is to act according to the proposals of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. The person is our concrete way of being. And what are we? The compendium of what we have inherited genetically, the parenting, the influence of friendships, the culture where we grew up, the education we received, the experiences we had in life, the Comboni formation that we have gone through, the religiosity through which we were introduced to the faith and spirituality that we have accepted. The faith we defend and the whole set of aspirations, traumas, successes and failures we have experienced. There are many issues on stake, and they could lengthen.

We modify our testimony through our personal efforts. And through the supporting contributions we receive from our companions, spiritual directors, good people who counsel us, and the Holy Spirit itself who guides us. We improve our personality through formation, relations and divine grace.

Either way, not by striving hard, we manage to modify our testimonies as much as we would like or improve our personality to be suitable for our ministry, as much as it would be needed. This is altruism, which does not have to put us off. It simply helps us to be realistic and therefore be patient with ourselves. And in turn, to be humble to accept our limitations without throwing in the towel and be grateful for the contributions that others bring to us.

As transmitters of salvation contents, we care about the impact that our communication and presence do on the receivers. We are means that in turn use other means, which also change who we are, or at least the perception others have of who we are. That is to say, one thing is that they know us in person; and another that we are known to be through other means: writings, speeches, pictures, social networks, etc.

In person we can be authentic, hypocritical or actors. In other means we can be cold and intellectual, warm, fun, communicative, etc. In direct dealing, it is more difficult to hide who we are. In the projection of what we are through other means, we have time to adapt what we are to what we want others to perceive about us.

In today's world we see how anyone posts a profile of their own that is not real. The recipient is excited by the message he/she receives - let us remember that the medium and the message go together - But when the recipient realizes that the transmitting person was cheating him/her, the transmitter’s reputation and truth falls with the content of the message (That is what has happened with consecrated people who have abused children. Just as had happened in the past with the priests who were on the side of the landowner or the military. Or, less dramatically, with the nun who was very cruel to students.)

All this is to emphasize the importance of training us to be suitable means for evangelization (which is different from ideal). All that implies modifying and improving who we are and the content we transmit. We would say that dealing about ourselves as persons we should used the adjective "holy". But when it comes to deal with ourselves as means, we should used the adjective "capable". Finally, when it comes to the contents we transmit, we are remain in the realm of "capacities".

3. Emotional and spiritual ability

Recently CONFER of Peru has announced a workshop on "Spiritual Intelligence". I don't know what the subject is about, but it is soon apparent that the term is influenced by the title "emotional intelligence" of Daniel Goleman. According to this psychologist, people's intelligence should not be measured by IQ, but by the combination of intellectual, technical and cognitive abilities which on people are influenced by emotions. Later I have seen that "spiritual intelligence" is a term that has been used in circles of self-knowledge and self-promotion, also in relation to technics of  “coaching” in applied psychology.

Before, often people fell into the fallacy of thinking that the higher IQ the better it would go to a person in life and in business. It was then appreciated that there are various types of intelligence, depending on the skills used, and that these types of intelligence help to elaborate information in ways appropriate to the context in which we live.

That's why we can't say that any very intelligent person serves to be a Comboni missionary, because first we have to determine what kind of intelligence we are talking about. We can distinguish between different types of intelligence, depending on the skills that come into play and that help us understand and develop information in an appropriate way to use it in favor of the goals we have set for ourselves.

However, when we consider emotional intelligence, we realize that emotions help us to be more or less "alive" to the ministry entrusted to us. Therefore, if we were to be properly trained for the apostolate, we need to work the emotional content of our personality:  discover our own emotions and feelings, recognize them, manage them, create our own motivations and manage personal relationships (create in the sense of encouragement).

All this is done during initial formation along with academic, pastoral and spiritual education. But we must also continue to perfect this emotional intellectual adaptation to the apostolic environment in which we develop our missionary vocation. The suitability to that environment can be natural for the person who has good interpersonal skills, who is sympathetic. But it can also be acquired as well, when we strive to reach the heart of peoples, without manipulation though, in order to be better understood, because thanks to the acceptance awe get from others, recipients will feel more likely to listen to us.

There are indicative scales of the appreciation that our personality and behavior produce; for instance:

  •  people feel at ease in our presence
  • people seek our advice
  • people show appreciation for us

Nonetheless, in turn it is needed to have good self-knowledge of our world of emotions and how they affect us personally depending on which circumstances. To do this, one must be able to:

  • Recognize the kind of emotion that people or situations arouse in me, especially negative one
  • Channel negative emotions once they have been identified
  • Relate to others according to the situation
  • Take criticism as something positive because we learn from it
  • Deal with adversity and setbacks without getting discouraged.

People who are optimistic by nature have a way quite walked in these circumstances. They are entertaining, they have an eagerness to learn, they are not discouraged. They motivate themselves and motivate others. They are in tune with those around them because they grasp their feelings and concerns (they have empathy).

4. Comboni missionaries and their capabilities

Everything said is fine for the present. However, we cannot forget Comboni's sentence for his missionaries, "holy and capable" phrase that he also applied to himself.

From Comboni's explanations regarding his religious sisters, missionary candidates and lay collaborators, it is clear that "capacity" is more than a wealth of knowledge. And that responds to the combination of "attitude and aptitude" in a given person. These two qualities complement each other in a good Comboni missionary. Both are ways of being and acting that never attain perfection and are therefore constituents of what in spirituality we call the "path of holiness". But as Comboni mentions holiness as another adjective, it better not mix it. What does matter is to consider that every candidate has a minimum starting point indispensable in both attitudes and skills. And that the same Comboni missionary continues to improve his attitudes and skills throughout his whole life motivated by apostolate, the community and his personal situations. This optimistic phrase is not intended to obviate the reality that we also suffer regressions, only that, from the perspective of divine grace, we know that they are not permanent.

Among the attitudes that Comboni emphasizes for his missionaries, the most important would be:

Mercy, obedience, humility, spirit of sacrifice, self-denial, apostolic zeal, patience, total dedication, stamina, effort, generosity, sense of God, optimism, camaraderie, fraternity, faith, constancy, fidelity.

(Whoever likes to check the sources the following numbers of Comboni’s writings may help:

Mercy (2709), obedience (2814), humility, (2814), spirit of sacrifice (2720-22, 2885), selflessness (2814), apostolic zeal (6987), patience (6683,2700),) total dedication (7004), stamina, effort  (6406), generosity (5337, 6656), sense of God (2698, 2887), optimism, companionship, brotherly and fatherly touch (1861 2495), faith (2698, 2887,6819),  constancy (4049,6900), fidelity (5022, 5332).

Among the most necessary skills for the missionaries of the Nigrizia, Comboni highlights:

Health, courage, language knowledge, theology, technical practicality, sagacity, prudence, understanding of others and councils, apostolic assistance, sociability, entrepreneurship, collaboration, tenacity, righteousness, sincerity, sociability, entrepreneurship and assertiveness.

(To consult the sources in his Writings: Health (803), courage (3111),language knowledge (298,2729,6599), theology (2235,2667), technical practicality,  sagacity (1329,3918), prudence (2510), understanding of others and councils (1861-62 2665 2680 2684), apostolic zeal (2007 3148 3333 3710 6486 6655), collaboration, sociology, entrepreneurship, collaboration (2674), tenacity (4304, 5075), righteousness and sincerity, assertiveness (2698 2887)).

Simplifying, it can be said that attitudes are human qualities that come in handy almost always. Aptitudes are skills that, depending on what context, are more necessary or less. Those lists of attitudes and aptitudes can serve for further deepening and personal reflection in our provincial spiritual exercises, having the awareness that "we are all deficient" and that "others can give me some trick to improve my attitudes and my abilities". All that without forgetting always the humble certainty that no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to achieve the goals that others propose to me. And that the success in achieving the goals I have proposed myself depends on how I judge the results (with benevolence or with demand).

This brief cast of attitudes and skills that Comboni considered important for the missionaries of his time needs to be updated, especially aptitudes. And to defend my position better clarify the definition that best suits what I say:

Aptitude: Ability to acquire a certain type of knowledge, or to function properly in the framework of a theoretical subject or practical context.

Within the framework of permanent formation, we accept the need to improve our capacities for our own good, for the good of the Institute, of the community, of the people of God, and of evangelization itself, etc. I already explained at the beginning what type of organization and method we can apply to ourselves. It remains true that our cultural, historical and genetic background conditions the possibilities of our progress. And that the availability of means modifies the speed on which we achieve improvements and the quality of the results.

Like Comboni, I am optimistic and think that almost all of us Comboni missionaries live situations and environments that facilitate our training. Similarly, the selection that the initial formation has done of our candidates ensures that we all have sufficient attitudes and skills to continue progressing. In the past, some protectionist behaviors were projected on candidates for priestly life and enshrined in the justification that Christians do not need to be much enlighten in order to do works of charity. And that to perform a good ministry apostolic zeal is more effective than erudition.  Personally, I do not deny these claims; but I also do not consent to them because they tend to justify mediocrity in our personal commitment to excellence in holiness and capacity. I think I do have Comboni on my side, if we stick to what he wrote to the president of APFL, Afrique Centrale:

I do not accept any Missionary who is not prepared to die immediately. I have immense trust in the forthcoming Canonisation of a great number of African Saints, who will contribute to the conversion of all Africa. (Writings 6164).

We all know how Comboni bet on Africans to be agents of their own evangelization and human promotion (using his language, now obsolete, "civilization"). Therefore, that phrase of Comboni was a prophecy of what was to happen. Many of us witness holiness, and the depth of faith in our African churches. I understand by church the whole of believers, because where that holiness shines the brightest is among the laity. Families, where our African brothers come from, who today are the majority of our younger forces. Therefore, it is the holiness of our people that must inspire our own commitment (what I say about Africa now, also applies to Europe and America before). So when we are not interested in our constant formation to improve our missionary service, we are betraying the expectations our faithful have placed on us; even when there are no scandals.

To conclude this reflection I bring some idea, on Comboni's part, about a couple of elements in which I believe we need to improve our "skills": 1. selflessness and a spirit of sacrifice; 2. apostolic zeal.

4.1. Selflessness (abnegation) and spirit of sacrifice

There are many quotations where Comboni talks about these issues, just because he had experienced that without these skills and virtues it was impossible to be faithful to the missionary vocation for Africa. The African frontier mission at the time was the most arduous of all foreign missions. In itself, missionary ministry has always been considered of high risk. And if it was then, it is so even today. Not for nothing Comboni said about the  " Everyone was happy to greet these glorious virgins of St Joseph who have had the courage to overcome all the great difficulties and be the first to go to the most central Mission in Africa, where the Gospel had never penetrated until 1872.. I hope that after the feast of St Joseph you will be able to send me at least half a dozen. I am infinitely grateful for your bounty, my good mother, because you even planned to send me the late Sr Abdù. You are doing everything you possibly can to come to the rescue of the Mission. (E. 3511)".  He said something similar about Sister Emilienne  de Pau " who has spent 30 years as a Superior in the East. She is an able and exemplary woman missionary, full of courage and dedication. (E. 3827)". Comboni's praises for his missionaries, and  especially his missionay sisters, are many, and we will focus on this quotation that shows that the skills of courage and self-denial are not innate, but arise from frequent contact with the Lord of the harvest, the Good Shepherd, and with the saints. This means that there are skills that are not acquired through study, but require prayer, goodwill, and practice. Because the repetitive and progressive practice promotes excellence. Thus, Comboni wrote:

These ordinary pious practices done as a community are most effective in preserving the spirit of the members of the mission, they strengthen them and enable them to support cheerfully the great sufferings, discomforts, difficult and dangerous journeys and crosses that are part and parcel of such an arduous and difficult apostolate (Writings 3617)."

(Comboni mentions the following practices of piety:

  • The Rosary of the Sacred Heart, every Friday morning
  • The via crucis in common, every Friday afternoon
  • Monthly recollection day on the first Friday of the month
  • Adoration of the Most sacred Sacrament
  • Renewal of the consecration of the Vicariate to the Sacred. Heart of Jesus
  • Daily sermon and blessing during the months of March and May respectively, in honor of St. Joseph and the Immaculate Virgin, Queen of Nigrizia.
  • Tridua and novenae in preparation for the main festivities of Our Lord and of the Virgin Mary.)

What is self-denial? (abnegation) The quality by which a person spontaneously sacrifices his will, interests, desires and even his own life for a reason that convinces him. As Christians we know that Jesus Christ is the supreme example of self-denial (Phil 2:66s. Jn 15:13). Sacrifice is selfless, but not useless. It intends to achieve something good for other people; if it were for oneself it would amount to an investment. Comboni gave up many possibilities just to make possible for the African people to come to the knowledge of Christ and enjoy His salvation. Something that statrted suddenly in the joy of liberation from slavery... We know all of that very well.

Comboni experienced selflessness so deeply that he knew that only thanks to divine grace it was only possible to be lived"... they convince me in practice of what I wrote in my rule for the new African Institute of Verona: that to labour in a vineyard as arduous as this one in Africa, a firm religious basis and training in extraordinary self-denial is essential and in accordance with the spirit of Jesus Christ Crucified, because the gift of self, and the whole of self, in order to fling oneself into the arms of obedience and God, is not obtained without the extraordinary help of grace. And this is vital for Central Africa (E.3392)".

We consider that God's grace is not lacking for those He has chosen (Jn 15:16; 21,1ss), therefore, the effectiveness of that grace in us is conditioned on our willingness to accept it and let it act on us, not with the automatism of a chemical reaction, but with the intention of those who collaborate and assume the exercises that are proposed to him to improve the records that he achieves in his missionary career (Cfr. 2Tim 4.7; Hch 20,24). The dedication we put into the services entrusted to us, the promptness that we show in reaching the destinations where the superiors send us, are indices of our self-denial.

What is a spirit of sacrifice? The personal disposition that prompts a person to accept without reservation and with exemplary dedication the hardships and deprivations arising from the fulfillment of a duty, even if this implies the surrendering of one's life. It assumes that embodiment of this spirit is not a pleasure.

Comboni was very clear when he mentions that this spirit is not born spontaneously but that if cultivated it grows. He wanted it to be planted in the hearts of candidates to work in Central Africa," The constant thought of the great purpose of their apostolic vocation must engender in the students of the Institute the spirit of sacrifice. (E.2720)". This means that candidates who did not show that spirit of sacrifice did not qualify for his institute.

Again here, this skill is not achieved once and for all, but must be safeguarded through practice. His counsel — for the candidates - is equally valid for all of us experienced Combonis: " They will develop in themselves this most essential disposition by keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, loving him tenderly and seeking always to understand more fully the meaning of a God who died on the cross for the salvation of souls. (2721)". That is to say, the spirit of Comboni sacrifice is the result of contemplation of the pierced heart of the Good Shepherd crucified on the cross. In the contemplation of the one who love us, we receive the grace of loving the way He loved. And consequently the ability to sacrifice ourselves, whenever there is need of it, with the naturality of the one who is a seasoned athlete, or a soldier of Christ (E.3450, 3827) - an expression very typical of Comboni also, even if it has Ignatian inspiration.

The spirit of sacrifice is not a pleasure, but it does not represent either fruitless suffering. Pain is resisted with hope and joy, not with delight. He keep writing in that same text:"If they contemplate and appreciate a mystery of such great love with a living faith, they will consider themselves blessed to be able to offer themselves to lose everything and to die for him and with him. The detachment from their families and from the world which they have already accomplished is only the first step: they will seek always to make this holocaust more and more complete, giving up all human affection, accustoming themselves not to bother about their own comfort, their own little concerns, their own opinion and whatever else is theirs. Should even the finest thread remain, it could prevent a generous soul from rising up to God. They will make continuous practice of self-denial, even in small things, and they will often renew the offering of their whole selves to God, the offering of their health and even of their lives” (Writings 2722).

The text is unbelievable uo to date. I don't know if because we put it into practice or because we need to put it into practice. What is true is that this ability called "spirit of sacrifice" is not achieved by force, it cannot be imposed in the initial formation, though we can expose ourselves to it. Once we have acquired the feelings of the crucified Christ, it will be spontaneous to offer ourselves to the most challenging circumstances, starting with the small ones that appear in our daily lives. The athlete who does not have the muscles in tune, when he makes a great effort, injures the muscles. To be fit you have to do physical exercises. However, we have got used too much to sitting sports, being spectators rather than players. To know the level of our spirit of sacrifice, it is sufficient that we examine the devotional practices of our Lent. The traditional proposals of the church may be outdated, but they remain valid as exercises of abnegation and sacrifice, to which it is advisable to add other more up-to-date exercises if those ones are considered obsolete, but which will also need constancy to be efficient.

We are used to considering virtues as something that is acquired once and for all in our initial formation process, and that therefore they should work automatically in the following stages. However, as they are behaviours that go "against nature", it turns out that they must continue to be cultivated on the basis of continuous practical exercises. It is true still that the toughest and most complicated missions are in remote areas of Africa and America, but that doesn't mean that there aren't any tough situation closer. Often we leave the option towards demanding ministries to put into practice our obedience, not because we opt voluntarily for them. This happens in initial formation and easily fall in the trap of thinking that we will take those steps once we have gone through nititial formation and join fully our missionary ministry. Just as it sounds, it is an illusion.

This is not the case, when the brave Comboni missionary of whom Comboni speaks is exposed to demanding apostolic situations wherever he is. In other words, he seeks those situations in the surroundings where he is residing, and tries to get involved into direct evangelizing mission, even when he is responsible of services to the Comboni institute, to the initial formation of candidates, or to missionary animation. When we do not do in that way, we end up losing flexibility, strength and missionary capacities. Then, we will not be any longer fit to take on the hard challenges of the frontier mission. If we escape the remote mission to take refuge in the cities, if in urban centres we evade the alleys and the slums, to accommodate ourselves in our rooms, it means that we have dwindled the health of our bravery. The Institute of theological studies Juan XXIII, where the scholastics of Lima receive their academic skills, has been organizing vocational fairs for two years with the title "Brave!" (valientes). The title itself is optimistic and purposeful; however, the danger is that it remains as slogan and that the word itself loses its sharp and inspiring meaning (though even if deluded it cannot change its meaning), With this explanation, rather than being critical, I want to be purposeful towards improving our evangelizing skills.

4.2 Apostolic zeal

The third and last aptitude that I want to consider in this writing that serves as a pro-memory for what we all already know, because on-going formation builds on the foundations of initial formation; it does not intend to raise up a parallel building. One of those pilars of our formation is precisely "apostolic zeal".

Zeal is the interest and concern for obtaining something that is valued. When we add the adjective "apostolic" it implies that the object of concern is the good of the people who receive the message of the apostolate, that is, their salvation.

It is curious that the missionary ardour that so much characterized St. Daniel Comboni, and for which the most distinguished missionaries of his time praised him, was the fruit of what he himself had seen in other missionaries who preceded him, as well as in his companions and religious sisters. This appears clearly in his writings when he talks about them. He appreciated missionaries lies Vinco, Rillo, Massaia, and also his mentor Fr. Mazza. He praised his contemporaries with whom he even sometimes had disagreements, be them the Camilian (W. 3380), the sisters (W. 3088), his parents (W. 2508), the laity (W. 1719). Apostolic zeal is for the missionary as gasoline (petrol) for cars without it our vocation ends up losing its meaning and direction, and without that the missionary does not enjoy the happiness of the work he is performing.

Apostolic zeal is an aptitude that we acquire with our own practice and with the good advice of others, who have experience, or have vision. WE are not short of it; yet when it comes to strengthening and updating that zeal, we need the wisdom and sagacity of others (words that Comboni also liked to use because they are concrete and practical).

It is nice to realize that apostolic zeal is contagious and passes from one to others. In fact, teamwork makes possible to win the game more than individual dexterity. The courage that we give to each other is what motivates us. Generally, when we feel self-assure and own the thought of being right, we perceive that we are good, at times even better than others, and that cheers up the mood. This attitude has been very present in the spirit of the ad gentes missionaries over the centuries. Today dialogue and respect have diminished this complex of superiority. It has rightly has to be so because we cannot destroy relations with the people we evangelize and from whom we also get spiritual benefits if tricked by bigotry -even if it is religious bigotry. This attitude of superiority marked Comboni when he wrote: "Europe, whose task it is to bring civilisation to the whole world, after being wrenched from the evil yoke of paganism by the admirable force of the Gospel, must deploy its powerful force with renewed zeal in the noble ideal of working to illuminate and save this unfortunate and abandoned continent, to call it to be part of the great flock of our common Shepherd” (Writings.2570)

He was a son of his time, as much as we are of our own. In any way, if we put aside apostolic zeal, we have already lost the game. Not for nothing, sports teams and athletes need fans to cheer them up. And they need themselves to lift their decaying spirits when they lose or when the predicaments make it very difficult to achieve their goals. We are often encouraged by phrases that say "We have to..." "Come on you need to..." Yet, imperatives are not convincing if we lack the spring to get up from the floor when we have fallen. If we put aside the dynamism needed for getting up, for not losing hope, for knowing that the game ends at the last minute and not before. This optimistic attitude is learning process that is acquired through failures; but never giving up.

To feed our apostolic zeal we need the team: the community, pastoral agents, other priests, pastoral councils, friends, spiritual companions, our families, etc. And most importantly, our Lord, the Good Shepherd who teaches us, walks ahead of us, comforts us, nourishes us, instructs us, and inspires us thanks to his Holy Spirit.

When saint Paul speaks in Athens (Acts 17),) or defends himself in  Jerusalem  (Acts 15), or manages to postpone his judgments with Governor Festus (Acts 25) is being cunning and shrewd, qualities that Comboni also had to exploit to confront slave traders, relate to political authorities, and gain economic support from personalities and organizations.  These qualities, along with kindness, good manners and convincing words made it possible for Comboni's project not to sink. In his humility, he used his qualities for the good of the vicariate and Nigrizia not for his own benefit, and there, he teaches us how we should act.

But even if Comboni was the captain of the team, the strategist and the main authority, he could not go ahead with his missionary endeavour without the support of his missionaries, of Fr. Sembianti, of Bishop Canossa, and of the associations that sponsored his efforts, among others. In the game, team work means to play for the others so that the other player makes his best and all together achieve victory. The player who only wants to score his own goals and waits for the ball to be given to him, ruins the team. To be men of team work, of community, of collaboration, we need practice and we need direction.

Direction not only from the official strategist that indicates what to do, but also from the general who marches in front of the troop, and with his care and effort shows that he sticks together with the soldiers like any other, although he does not have to do the most risky feat, because he has no strength or dexterity, and because he also has to be protected to continue to lead the team or the army.

It is the effort that Comboni made to raise structures, teach, seek, etc. with so much hard and desire that it lacks arms (W. 1338) and time... because he never had enough means for all he wanted to achive.

To cooperate the first thing we need is to recognize the virtues of others, and here Comboni was a great teacher, because he managed to give courage to his collaborators and to get them involved: "You are a true saint, just as your Congregation is a holy one, that you deal with my affairs in Africa with more commitment, zeal and charity than any man would treat his own, that it is a really divine blessing of God’s to have destined you to care for the major interests of Africa as Rector of the African Institutes, and that I would like to die before you for the good of Africa. In any case, everything happens through God’s adorable dispositions; therefore let us love him with all our heart and place all our trust in him. You must be brave and press on, for one day we shall sing of the divine glories in heaven because, although we are unworthy, he has made us the instruments of the redemption of the Africans, who are the most forsaken souls in the world” (6986-87).

Apostolic zeal is the responsibility of each and every Comboni missionary, so it is up to us to keep it in good condition. The contradictions that arise in our apostolate, personal life, or community affect the quality of that zeal, and that is where we need to give advice to each other,  and people who from the outside, can council us as well. Assiduousness in prayer encourages, as Jesus himself did, when he spent hours praying, or when he found the final push to fulfill the will of the Father in Gethsemane; but since we are human, that is not enough. We need a hand from close friends, or even those far away, with whom we can confront, or receive relief, encouragement or advice. Their cheerfulness will warm again our cooled and fainted spirits. For this to be possible, we must have the humility to seek counsel and accept when we are overwhelmed by discouragement, tiredness, loneliness, or despair.

Knowing how to rest, take a break, a holiday, is part of a good methodology to improve our skills in apostolic zeal. When we do not do it, easily we fall into stress and exhaustion, which can lead to depression and unhappiness; situations that are painful for the missionary, and dire to the mission.

We cannot forget that, even if we enjoy good fame, that we have good preparation for situations of frontier, of tension, of great demand, we are human beings, and we need to take care of ourselves. In that way, we shall be effective instruments in showing that predilection that God has for his poor and abandoned, just because he does not want them to remain in that condition, and he wants them to become part of the Kingdom of God and his Church.

Today our Comboni missionaries institute, our provinces and our communities, despite the shortcomings, can hear the words Comboni said of his own: "God’s hand in this great Work is manifest and can be clearly seen. The hour has struck for the redemption of the most unhappy peoples of Central Africa, who to this day have been lying shrouded in darkness and the shadows of death. It is true that this is the most difficult and challenging mission in the whole world; and this is why only today has apostolic zeal, inspired and supported the grace and will of God, succeeded in making possible this tough and thorny apostolate which demands the most robust virtues, the harshest sacrifices and martyrdom (W. 6406)." That these words respond to the truth is up to us.


The suggestions of this writing may entertain the original thought that we should consider the influence of our emotions in our formation and in our efforts to improve and update our skills during our initiatives for on-going formation. Because this formation is not just about adding more theoretical knowledge.

In addition, we cannot forfeit the importance of personal coherence when we communicate the Good News. This coherence is evident considering that the message and the means (the messenger) are intertwined. I don't think that what I've mentioned about the capabilities that Comboni wanted for his disciples have something original.

In fact, in the renewal of vows ad devotionis, that we do every year on the feast of the Sacred Heart, we proclaim "today we renew the offering of our lives to the missionary service among the poorest and most abandoned. for the love that flowed from the Pierced Heart of Jesus, our Redeemer, and by the mediation of the Virgin Mary..." It is well known that our vocation is an update of the immolation of Jesus Christ. It will have no salvific effects, but it is necessary for salvation to be effective in those who receive the gospel and God’s graces.

In the last sentence of our Comboni family prayer we say "Grant that, by imitating his holiness and missionary zeal we may consecrate ourselves entirely, as a community of apostles, to the regeneration of the poorest and most abandoned, to the praise of your glory." All this to indicate that we do not lack knowledge on the consequences of our vocation; but we will always need to renew our commitment in practice, no matter what.
Fr. Tomás Herreros