Thursday, June 15, 2017
“The whole issue of the 150th Anniversary looks like – writes Fr. Francesco Chemello – to be rather self-referential to us, the Comboni Missionaries. Moreover, you have been invited here and many friends all over the world have been invited in order to participate and rejoice for our MCCJ anniversary: however, I was asking myself, is this anniversary only for us Comboni Missionaries? This might be true, in a certain sense at general level, but for Sudan and South Sudan I would look at this 150 years anniversary under a slight different angle, but not an insignificant one. I like to look at it as: The Anniversary of a long love Story.” We present here the new book: “The Comboni Missionaries in South Sudan – An Outline of History”.

150th anniversary of foundation of the Comboni Missionaries
The Institute for the African Missions of Verona
1 June 1867

The Anniversary of a long love Story

I fact, this is the celebration of 150 years of Journey of the Comboni Missionaries together with the people and the Church of Sudan and South Sudan, in the footsteps of Daniel Camboni, now Saint Daniel Comboni.

This was precisely the purpose for which Daniel Comboni founded the Institute for the African Mission in Verona, for the Regeneration of Africa through Africans-themselves, and this plan could not be worked out without reciprocal sharing along the journey.

So, the work of the Comboni Missionaries was going hand-in-hand with African people at large, (the laity, the catechists and leaders) then with the African (indigenous) Clergy and Religious from within Sudan and South Sudan and finally with the full mature Local Church which took shape with the installation of the Sudanese Hierarchy.

Then, the Comboni Missionaries carried on with their missionary service working from within the same Local Church in order to be a sign of the Evangelizing Mission of the Church itself. Now their call (our call) is to be a sign that this same Local Church is herself called to be open up to the Evangelizing Mission beyond the local boundaries and towards the whole world.

This is the reason why this is precisely the celebration of 150 years of journey together, the Anniversary of this long love Story.

In fact, to help the reflection, I can put two questions to our attention:

  1. What would have been the history of Sudan and South Sudan without the Comboni Missionaries?
  2. What would have been the Comboni Missionaries without the people and the Church of Sudan and South Sudan?

As we can see the two realities cannot be separated, so the feast of the Combonis is also the feast of Sudan and South Sudan. But for South Sudan, I think it is even deeper because here is where Daniel Comboni made his first experience. All his reflection and planning find their main roots in the deep challenges of SOUTH SUDAN. (eg. Holy Cross experience and related ones).

When Fr. Daniel Moschetti, then provincial superior, asked me to take care of the history of our province, that is the Comboni Province of South Sudan, I never thought to undertake such a difficult job, in fact, there were people much more experienced than me like Fr. Salvatore Pacifico and Fr. Ezio Bettini. They knew Sudan and South Sudan much better and for longer time than me, especially Fr. Salvatore Pacifico. In fact, I had already handed over to him the history of the NEW SUDAN GROUP, to be used for this purpose, which then was published under the title of “A missionary experience in a context of War”.

He should have integrated it into the whole story, in fact he had already taken care of the “Witnesses of the Gospel", and started with the history, but when he declined to go along with it, Fr. Moschetti asked me to take care of this History of the Province. I told him that I would accept only if the various provincial superiors, previous and present, would write down the main events of their administrations, while I would just coordinate, give unity and edit the whole history. 

However, such a plan never materialized and I had to take care of the full research from the scratch. If I had known this since the beginning I probably would not have accepted, though I was convinced of its importance, but then, as the old proverb runs, when you have started dancing, just carry on with it… That was precisely what happened. Moreover, while dancing, I realized that, for South Sudan, one could not start from 1981, date of the beginning of the province, in fact:

  • What about the effort of evangelization done before that date by Daniel Comboni e other missionaries before him, who gave their lives for and in Sudan and South Sudan?
  • What about the time from the restarted evangelization, post Mahdiya, in 1900 until the expulsion of the Expatriate Comboni Missionaries in 1964?
  • And what about the time from 1964 until 1971 (without Expatriate Combonis) and then until 1981?

From 1964 until 1974 it was the time when the Local Diocesan Priests and the South Sudanese Comboni Missionaries found themselves to evangelize alone without Expatriate Comboni Missionaries, and then, later on, with the Expatriate Comboni Returnees.

On 12 December, 1974, there was the installation of the Sudanese Hierarchy and in 1981 the handing over of see of Khartoum to the Sudanese successor of Bishop Daniel Comboni, H. G. Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako, now Archbishop emeritus and Cardinal. For this precise reason the previous period of time could not be left out.

This was the reason why also the title of the book had to be changed, not anymore The history of the South Sudan Province, but The Comboni Missionaries in South Sudan, with a remote link with Daniel Comboni and the missionaries before him, though without repeating in length what was already written by many other more specialised writers.

Then, why an outline of history? Because, although I had a licentiate in Missiology, I was not a scholar, I was just a Comboni priest who always worked in the pastoral field and, therefore, more acquainted with this than with an historical research, although I did do a lot of research in the files of Archivio Comboniano in Rome and in the files of the South Sudan Province.

So, after a long fighting between the Kairos of God, and the Kronos, as Fr. Guido Oliana put it in his last book, the Kairos of God, that is the opportune time of God, prevailed. This work was completed just on the very 150th  anniversary of the Institute’s foundation. Thus, “The Kairos of God came to its fulfilment”.

But again: what do we celebrate?

As I said before, we celebrate the anniversary of these 150 years of journey together, “the Anniversary of this long love Story”

As in a family, parents are born, then children are also born and start growing to age and during their “TEEN” age there is a lot of questioning and even conflicts. Then parents come to realize that children have grown up and start questioning their role, until parents and children have to find a new way of relating to each other as grown up people, until the time in which parents are no longer “the protagonist”. Nonetheless, they can still discover a new role from within the family itself with a “new presence in spirit”. This, I would say, is what happened along this long relationship and what this Outline of History tries to put in evidence and, finally, what we celebrate this year 2017, and precisely TODAY.

Of course, this history is a history of people and events: “Missionaries and Local people” who carry with themselves great ideals, aspirations and holiness, but also their limitations, their human weakness and, why not, their burden of sin.

So, it is a history of great faithfulness, generosity, enthusiasm, and hard work in evangelization and human promotion, but also of deep wounds which the human weakness has left behind and in need of acceptance, healing, forgiveness and capacity of always carrying on with this relationship in a renewed way.

It is the journey of a relationship always in need of conversion and growth in the Spirit. It is the journey of the CHURCH, always in need of renewal within itself.

H. G. Archbishop Paolino Lukudu Loro in his sharing during our last South Sudan Provincial Assembly said that “The Church in South Sudan still needs very much the presence of the Comboni Missionaries” Why? “Because they are Missionaries”.

This is deeply true. From within the local Church there is the need of people who are a permanent sign of the deepest vocation of the Church, that is to be missionary, to be evangelizer, not only within herself but also opened to the world, “Ad Gentes”.

This, I think, is the real mission of the Comboni Missionaries today.  In a grown up Church, the prophetic sign of the evangelizing mission of the Local Church is still deeply needed. This is surely the present role of us Comboni Missionaries everywhere in the world, but especially here in South Sudan after this long love journey together.

This is also what this new historical book “The Comboni Missionaries in South Sudan, an outline of History” is presenting to all of you through its historical account.

Fr. Francesco Chemello, mccj.
Juba, Comboni House. 10 June, 2017


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