St. Daniel Comboni

(1831 – 1881)

In 1549 the idealistic Dominican Friar Luis Cancer de Barbastro landed near Tampa Bay, Florida, with a small crew, purposely unarmed, in the belief that the local Indians would welcome peaceful gospellers. But it didn’t work. When he set foot on shore he was promptly murdered by the natives. This heroic tragedy might have been avoided had Friar Louis better understood the aborigines of Florida.

Missionary leaders in recent centuries have been more careful to acquaint their missionaries with the languages and the ways of the non-Christians where they were to be sent, and to study and help develop their civilizations. One such leader was Daniel Comboni, founder of the Verona Missionary Fathers and the Missionary Sisters of Verona. He was not only an apostolic man; he was a learned man who made relevant learning a part of his missiology.

Comboni, a native of Limone, on Lake Garda, Italy, felt a special calling to preach the Gospel in Africa. Preparing for ordination as a secular priest, he studied not only theology but languages and medicine. The first three years after his ordination he spent in Italy. Then in 1857 he set out for Africa and worked for two years along the White Nile. Ill health obliged him to go back to Italy, but there he continued to lay plans for resumption of his work in the Dark Continent.

He would not return alone. In 1867 he established in Verona, Italy, the Sons of the Sacred Heart, whose members were to devote themselves exclusively to the African mission. At the outset, this society was a religious institute. In 1885 this became a full-fledged religious congregation of priests and brothers. Today it bears the name of the Combonian Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus, or the Verona Fathers. In 1872 he established the Missionary Sisters of Verona, whose field of operation was likewise to be in Africa.

The Comboni Fathers started their work in the Sudan. Obliged to leave there because of a revolution, they eventually returned and branched out into Uganda, Ethiopia and Mozambique. (In later years they would come to the Americas: Mexico. Brazil, Ecuador, and in 1940 to the United States, where their work has been chiefly with Blacks, Indians and Mexicans.)

Father Comboni had been consecrated bishop to head the Vicariate Apostolic of Central Africa (1872). This was an immense missionary diocese embracing the Sudan, Nubia and territories south of Africa’s great lakes. The founder insisted that his missionaries, men and women alike, be specially trained to understand Black society and the climatic perils of the mission lands. An intense student of African cultures, he published much scientific work, particularly on African geography and ethnology. A “language genius” himself, he was a master not only of six European tongues, but he also learned Arabic and three African languages, and compiled a dictionary of the Nubian language. His institutes, therefore, learned from his rules and example, the need of fully understanding the mentality of those to whom they preached. Meanwhile, Bishop Comboni cultivated the friendship of the African civil authorities, and worked effectively through them to end the widespread slave trade and its abuses.

He was, then, a pioneer in superior methods of evangelization, working always to regenerate Africa through Africans. Pope Leo XIII termed his death “a great loss,” but Pope John Paul II, who beatified him on March 17, 1996 and canonized him on October 5, 2003, was already a witness to the flowering of a genuine African Catholic Church.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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