Your friendly letter spurs me to inform you of the true state in which I find myself; indeed it is a great relief for me to be able to reveal to you the turbulence which presently agitates my spirit. As I seem to have told you a few times before, I am inclined to pursue my career in the Missions, however arduous this may be, and for the last eight years at least my mind has been set on Central Africa, to which I have directed a part of my studies. The Superior, aware of my intentions, has always counted on being able to make use of me in the foundation of his Mission in those barren and scorching deserts; and to this end, since last year, he has decided to send me there with the next expedition due to depart at the end of this coming August or the beginning of September, providing of course that he manages to conclude all the Mission business he must see to in Rome and Vienna. On both these counts he has almost finished. So as soon as I returned from Limone, he advised me to prepare for the expedition, and to make all the necessary arrangements with my family and in matters which concern me personally. I had been yearning for this moment for a very long time and with more passion than two ardent lovers longing for the moment of their wedding. But two serious difficulties frighten me, which I cannot leave unresolved while departing for the Mission, and they are both formidable.
The first is the thought of abandoning my two poor parents who have nothing else on this earth to comfort them but their only son: but this is a hurdle I can overcome because our Mission is such that, given the barbarity of the climate and matters linking it with Europe, there is a need every year, or at most every two years, to come here. It would thus not be a total neglect. It would be like not seeing them for a year or two, though regular correspondence could sweeten any separation. This, as I have said, is not my most serious concern, especially as they have already written to say they are resigned to accepting Providence and are prepared to submit, painful as it may be, to a temporary separation. The other difficulty is that before I leave I want to ensure the comfort of my parents’ life, which I can achieve by freeing myself of all debts. I believe that when my little field (inheritance) is freed of the burden inflicted upon it by the past mournful circumstances, with my first salary, the value of my little field and the Masses I will be able to celebrate on the Mission for the intentions of anyone who would be willing to give the offering directly to my parents (and with all the travelling I still hope to be able to celebrate 200 a year), they will be able to live comfortably.
But what can I do now to achieve this? For the time being I have no means, and neither do I wish to procure some in a base or risky manner. So I do not know what the result will be. It is certain that I do not want to leave for the African Mission without having done all this. But Fr Melotto is in the same situation. Not knowing what is going to happen. It is certain that this uncertainty, and much more so the thought of leaving my parents even momentarily, in the throes of the present family circumstances that you know, and especially thinking of my mother, disconcerts me greatly.
If I can free myself from the two above-mentioned difficulties, I have decided to go. But the thought of the unhappiness of my parents, the isolation in which they will find themselves, that is what disturbs me. Neither life nor the difficulties of the Mission nor anything frightens me, but matters regarding my two elderly parents make me tremble greatly. That is the reason why, in such uncertainty and consternation of spirit, I have decided to go on retreat so as to implore help from Heaven. If I abandon the idea of consecrating myself to the foreign Missions, I will be a martyr for the rest of my life to the idea that germinated in my mind at least 14 years ago, and always grew, as I discovered the loftiness of the apostolate.
If I embrace the idea of the Missions, I make two poor parents martyrs. Neither can I contemplate that once my parents die, I might then think of the missions; for would I not then have to be wishing them dead? Such an idea is neither Christian nor priestly, it is a vandal’s and a cannibal’s; and I have always wanted and always will want to die first, before they do. On the other hand, if one does not go to the Missions under 30, one may as well abandon the idea, because once age advances one cannot even learn the unknown languages of the African tribes where we have to go, and because experience shows that tackling those regions any older than that age is certain to lead to a quick death.
So I can tell you nothing that is certain or determined: all that is certain is that I am one minute anxious, one minute hopeful, one minute I have pleasant ideas and the next I have disconsolate ones. If I consult the one who has always directed my conscience, I am urged to decide for departure; if I look to my family, I am terrified; if I think of the world and resolve to persevere, I must expect to be damned by those who know of my family circumstances and have worldly thoughts; if I search my heart, it tells me to sacrifice everything and fly to the Missions, and spurn what others might say. Imagine the storm my spirit is in, the struggle, the conflict which troubles me.
If nothing else in the midst of the universal conflict my thoughts are in, I think it appropriate to plan to go on a retreat, to consult Religion and God; and He, who is just and governs all things, will know how to extricate me from this tangle, arrange all things and console my parents, if he calls me to give my life under the banner of the Cross in Africa; or if he does not call me, he will be able to erect such obstacles as to make it impossible for me to carry out my plans. So it is best for me to exclaim as Samuel did: loquere Domine, quia audit servus tuus: and once all is resolved in conformity with the divine will, utter like Job: sicut placuit D.no, ita factum est: sit nomen D.ni benedictum.
I am sad in a way that you did not pass through Toscolano: but on the other hand going via Limone was much better, so that for a while this town may profit from the good influence of your presence. The Superior’s portrait is still being worked on: or rather I should say that neither I nor my fellow priests have any news about it. As soon as it is made available to the Institute my first task will be to send you a copy. As for Margotti, his portraits have been sold out since the first day I arrived in Verona. A new edition is therefore being produced in Milan and is due out any day: as soon as it appears I will send it to you. With regard to my Breviary, I will bring it to you the next time I go to Limone.
This is the substance of the conflict that is troubling my heart. I do not know which part to take: if Providence smiles upon my wishes, having arranged everything, having assured easy maintenance for my parents in the future, I will fly happily to the great undertaking: if God does not want this work from me, I shall bow my head and sorrowfully bless the hand of Heaven. Sed hoc sub sigillo secreti, inter nos, please. But write me something beautiful, skilfully console my poor parents and console me too: write to me. Oh, how precious are the words of a distant friend!!! Even here in the Institute, I dare speak openly only with two or three dear friends! They both console and depress me! But what does comfort me is to have a companion who is held up by the same circumstances: it is Fr Melotto. He has the same desires as I: though less fervently, because there is naturally more fire in Lombardy than in the Venice region … I find he has more resignation than I. I therefore need to be remembered in the great Sacrifice, when under the downpours of Limone, in the church of St Benedict, you raise the pacifying host of consolation.
Furthermore, I hope that by mid-August I will be able to give you more definite news. May God’s will be done; we must adapt to all things […]. Beltrame has already written his journey on the Bahar-el-Azek: it is a volume similar to Tiboni’s and will be printed shortly in […] by the Mission Committee in Vienna: then in Verona. With all this I send you the greetings of all the brother priests and those of your anxious
Most affectionate friend and servant
Fr Daniel Comboni
N.B. The fifth sheet of the letter is slightly torn.