Saturday, November 14, 2015
“This was the first Chapter of the new era of the Comboni Institute, an era marked by the presence of many African Combonis, mature young men who took part in the Chapter with freedom, competence and Comboni identity. This, in fact, gave us much hope. Not a hope based on suppositions but on the real fact that we have many young confreres who live the charism, love the mission and want to participate in the life of the Institute. The diverse cultures of the Chapter members were not a problem but a gift, a joy, a source of vitality and hope”, rights Fr. Antonio Villarino, Comboni missionary.


Fr. Antonio Villarino,



I will begin this reflection of mine with a brief introduction based on the Chapter as I experienced it.

  1. This was the first Chapter of the new era of the Comboni Institute, an era marked by the presence of many African Combonis, mature young men who took part in the Chapter with freedom, competence and Comboni identity. This, in fact, gave us much hope. Not a hope based on suppositions but on the real fact that we have many young confreres who live the charism, love the mission and want to participate in the life of the Institute. The diverse cultures of the Chapter members were not a problem but a gift, a joy, a source of vitality and hope.
  2. This was a Chapter lived with intensity and, at the same time, with serenity. The clearest evidence of this is the ease with which we elected the new General Council and approved the final document. Without doubt, there are still elements to be refined in the Statutes and in the workings of the Chapter to make it a better instrument of discernment and a guide for the life of the Institute, but we have made considerable progress.
  3. The final document – much shorter and more direct than previous documents – is not perfect but, in my view, offers inspiration along the lines of Evangelii Gaudium as well as some practical indications which may be extremely useful for the renewal of the Institute, if we are prepared to welcome them with humility and generosity.
  4. The Chapter was deeply marked by this Apostolic Exhortation and by the Magisterium of Pope Francis. We can see a sign of this continual presence in the numerous citations it makes that are only a small reflection of the number of times the Apostolic Exhortation was referred to in the Chapter Hall and in the working groups.

I believe that a good way to interpret and assimilate the Chapter Document would be to study these citations of Evangelii Gaudium.

1. The Joy of the Gospel, in the Comboni sense, is life given for others (Inspiration)

“Called to live the joy of the Gospel: a life donated to Jesus and his people is a beautiful life, a life that gives joy (EG 268)”. With these words begins the fourth of the six points used by the Chapter to explain the inspirational theme: “Comboni missionary disciples called to live the joy of the Gospel in today’s world”.

The Chapter text immediately relates this statement of Pope Francis to another one, of Comboni, that we know well: “The happiest of my days will be when I can lay down my life for you” (W 3159).

This is one of the keys that the Chapter, following EG and Comboni, gives us to make us become joyful missionaries: to lay down one’s life. This reminds me of the well-known saying of Tagore: “Life is given to us free and we merit it by laying it down”. And that other verse of the Gospel: only he who lays down his life will have life in abundance. The source of our joy and our fullness of life is nothing other than our life itself laid down, handed over.

The joy we seek is not easily acquired. The Chapter says: “it is a joy of great price: to defend the lives of the sheep we must face wolves and thieves. Our martyrs remind us of this. We Comboni Missionaries truly live according to our identity when we love the people with passion and struggle so that all men and women may live lives that are full, more human and dignified”.

This phrase from the Chapter reminds me, among others, of the example of Ezekiel Ramin, who, as we know, was not perfect but one who, as those who knew him agree, “had a dream” and invited the peasants of Cacoal to fight for a better future: “You must have a dream”, he would say, and he laid down his life fighting for that dream. It is not important to know whether he was right or wrong but to know that he handed over his life for the life of others.

The Chapter quotes number 268 of EG, which has the meaningful title: “the spiritual savour of being a people” and says: “Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people. When we stand before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which exalts and sustains us, but at the same time, unless we are blind, we begin to realize that Jesus’ gaze, burning with love, expands to embrace all his people. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people”. In line with all of this, the Chapter reminds us of the icon of the Good Shepherd and of Life: I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance (Jn 10:10). Joining the texts of the liturgy of St. Daniel Comboni and that of Evangelii Gaudium, we are reminded that the shepherd makes “common cause” and shares the odour of the sheep so that they may have life.

A question for us to reflect upon: Do I live in a way that is centred on myself or do I succeed in living for the others? How can I lay down my life even more?

2. We want to be an Institute “which goes forth”, with a dream: to move from the globalisation of indifference to the globalisation of tenderness (Mission)

After the concise but, in my opinion, very efficacious description of the Comboni identity contained in the inspirational theme of the Chapter, the Chapter document dwells on the situation of the world, the Church and the Institute. In this short chapter, two numbers of EG, 54 and 20, are cited. With these two paragraphs, the Chapter makes us understand the call to missionary conversion that the Spirit makes to us in this historical moment, in three stages.

a) The Globalisation of Indifference” (EG 54)

In order to understand what is written in number 54, it will be useful to read the last part of number 53 that speaks of the throwaway culture: We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

Number 54 says: To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed.… The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us (EG 54).

A question for us to meditate on: have I, too, fallen into indifference in the inability to show compassion? Have I, with age and the routine of work, become indifferent?

b) Facing this world characterised by the culture of indifference, the Church is called to reach all the peripheries with the light of the Gospel

The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth”. Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the Promised Land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth”. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel (EG 20).

A question for us to meditate upon: what comforts should I abandon? What routine should my community give up?

c) An outgoing Institute: missionary conversion

Faced with the actual reality of the world and of the Church, the Chapter feels called to dream dreams and to be converted:

“True Comboni-missionary-disciples, we take our inspiration from the Heart of Jesus filled with passion for the world, we wish to continue to listen to God, to Comboni and to humanity, in order to recognise and indicate the signs of the times and places in the mission of today” (22).

This desire for conversion is expressed in five proposals:

* “Structures that are simple, shared and welcoming make us more human, closer to the people and happier. We must avoid the danger of an easy, comfortable life, isolated, impoverished in its spirituality and with little passion for the mission” (23).

* Move from “protagonism and self-centredness” to “service and collaboration”.

* Carry out evangelisation based on the Word that is heard, lived and celebrated: Not only the homily has to be nourished by the word of God. All evangelization is based on that word, listened to, meditated upon, lived, celebrated and witnessed to (EG 174).

* Adopt “the poor as companions and teachers”:

For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one… The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way (EG 198).

* From the fear that tends to make us turn in on ourselves, we are invited to be converted towards that confidence in God and others that leads us to dare to dream great dreams despite our smallness” (24). This principle leads us to adopt certain attitudes towards the mission today:

I. Continual reflection on the theological content of the mission, its places and environments.

II. Deep conversion of our missionary pastoral ministry that “seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: We have always done it this way” (EG 33) and that must combine fidelity to the charism, boldness and realism.

III. “Inspired by the invitation of Pope Francis, we wish to set in motion a reflection that must lead to ‘rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization’ (EG 33), in our respective communities”.

IV. The Chapter proposes that the GC organise the manner in which all the communities carry out a methodical reflection on EG and LS, and accomplish a revision of their missionary activity and an in-depth revision of their commitments.

V. Regarding this revision of commitments, the Chapter highlights two realities: ministeriality and the mission in Europe.

3. Persons who encounter Jesus (Persons)

The Chapter brings into the category of “person” some fundamental themes of our life: spirituality, the cenacle of apostles, interculturality, the Rule of Life and formation.

In this short chapter, it cites some numbers of EG (235, 236, 259, 262, 264), that underline five themes:

a) In the community, the person is not eliminated but developed

We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighbourhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren (EG 235).

b) Our model is not the sphere but the polyhedron

Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. There is a place for the poor and their culture, their aspirations and their potential (EG 236).

c) Spirit-filled evangelizers: transfigured lives

Spirit-filled evangelizers means evangelizers fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also grants the courage to proclaim the newness of the Gospel with boldness (parrhesía) in every time and place, even when it meets with opposition. Jesus wants evangelizers who proclaim the good news not only with words, but above all by a life transfigured by God’s presence (EG 259).

d) Evangelizers who pray and work

Spirit-filled evangelizers are evangelizers who pray and work… What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity. Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the Word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervour dies out. The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer. There is always the risk that some moments of prayer can become an excuse for not offering one’s life in mission; a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality (EG 262).

e) Evangelisers who experience the love of Jesus that saves us

The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? … How much good it does us when he once more touches our lives and impels us to share his new life! What then happens is that “we speak of what we have seen and heard” (1 Jn 1:3). The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us (EG 264).

4. Reconsider objectives, structures and methods of evangelisation (Reorganisation)

The Chapter took into account that “the new context of society and mission challenges us to be daring and creative and to reconsider objectives, structures and methods of evangelisation and mission promotion, aware that we cannot meet all the expectations of our time. Guided by the Spirit, who goes before us on this journey, we dedicate ourselves to this service, accomplishing it in an experience of evangelical fulness, even in our weakness (2 Cor 12:10; Rm 5:20)” (39). In this number there are two quotations from EG (33 e 27).

a) From “we have always done it this way” to boldness and creativity

Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: “We have always done it this way”. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities. A proposal of goals without an adequate communal search for the means of achieving them will inevitably prove illusory (EG 33).

b) Ecclesial renewal that can be delayed no further

I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. As John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion” (EG 27).


The Chapter – the Chapter members say in their final letter – has been “a celebration of fraternity and shared passion for the mission. The suffering of the people with whom we make common cause accompanied us. It has been an experience of joy and unity that astounded even ourselves: we rediscovered the beauty of our Comboni missionary vocation”. And they conclude: “When you receive the Chapter acts you can rest assured that they are truly your own: we were just God’s instruments. All of us together can incarnate them in missionary attitudes that are full of the joy of the Gospel that the world demands so insistently”.
Fr. Antonio Villarino