This year, the Comboni Missionary Institutes celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founder St. Daniel Comboni’s original publication of the Plan for the regeneration of Africa, which can be summed up in the words: “ Save Africa with Africa”.
Bishop Daniel Comboni, both in the text of the Plan as well as in later correspondence, recalls that on the 15th September 1864, while he was praying at the tomb of St Peter during a triduum in preparation for the beatification of Margaret Mary Alacoque, the 17th century Visitation nun at Paray-Le-Monial in France and Visionary of the Sacred Heart, “the thought of it (the Plan) burst upon me” – Comboni wrote -, “it flashed like lightning through my mind. lts individual parts came to me from on high as an inspiration”. At the heart of this experience of Comboni, there was a profound experience of God which, however, was never detached from the concrete reality of the persons and of the society to which he belonged.
The PIan “to save Africa with Africa”, besides being attributed by its author to an inspiration “from above”, is a reflection of Comboni’s preceding and ongoing confrontation with the reality of the black population of Central Africa, of the 19th century era of colonisation and the Church’s efforts to bring the Gospel to Africa. That it was an ongoing process appears from the fact that Comboni felt the need to produce a revised edition seven years later (1871).
In the opening statement which was left unchanged in the second edition, Comboni describes the situation using the metaphor of darkness. He said : “Even today a mysterious darkness still covers those distant expanses which go to make up the immensity of black Africa”. The ‘darkness’ envisaged by Comboni was a clear indication of the situation of pain and exploitation suffered by the African people.
Comboni in 1864, the date of the Plan, was a missionary of 33 years of age. He had already taken part in two missionary expeditions: from 1857 to 1859 to Sudan when he saw the reality of African people. In 1860-61, he took part in another expedition to Aden to rescue some slaves. This trip evoked Comboni’s commitment to the liberation of slaves at an early stage of his life. In a letter to a priest in Trent in Italy, he gives a moving and detailed description of the horrors of the slave trade that ravaged part of Africa and in which people in governing positions bore co-responsibility for this trade. For Comboni darkness means loss of dignity, oppression and exploitation.
Experience of light
Comboni’s moment of prayer at St Peter’s was an experience of light. It did not consist of a heavenly delivery of pre-fabricated solutions to excruciating problems and sufferings. This was a light-filled pouring forth into the dark of the world a stream of light and love and infusing into Catholics a new vision of faith that would enable them to become instruments of liberation.
In the conclusion of the Revised Edition of the Plan of 1871, Comboni envisions missionaries coming from all the world to offer their work in the implementation of the Plan, “enlightened by a ray of the true light”. He refers to them as apostles who “will remove the yoke of oppression from the shoulders of African people and bring them into the free and joyful flock of the Church”.
The Plan Today
Today there are more than 4,000 priests, brothers, sisters, and laity from diverse cultures who are dedicating their lives to following St. Daniel Comboni’s missionary ideal of evangelization.
They are currently working in all five continents. They are many committed to the so-called “first evangelization”. The characteristics of this missionary service can be summed up in four points. First, the Comboni missionaries are a society of Priests and Brothers ad gentes because they go out to peoples, areas and situations where evangelization has not yet been completed. Second, they are missionaries ad pauperes, because preference is given to the poorest and most abandoned from the point of view of Faith and the social dimension. Third, they are missionaries ad extra, because they are men of God who go outside (exodus) their personal family, geographical, cultural, social and religious frontiers, reaching out to ‘other’ realities into which they integrate. Finally, they are missionaries ad vitam because they make a life-long consecration to God for the Missions.
The Comboni Missionaries go to places of first evangelization; they choose the most remote and isolated areas, both geographically and socially, or the shanty houses around cities such as Nairobi, Kinshasa, Khartoum, Lima, Mexico City, Cairo and Sao Paulo. Many of them share their life with nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples such as the Karimojong in Uganda and the Turkana in Kenya; minorities in danger of extinction, like the Pygmies in the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Indios in Amazonia, Peru and Mexico. They assist and support movements of people that are engaged in recovering the historic memory and the dignity of their race, such as the Afro-Amerindians of Brazil, Ecuador and the United States. They work in centres for the defense of human rights, and support those movements that speak up for the homeless and the landless.
Wherever they serve, the Comboni Missionaries foster the growth of Basic Christian Communities, as effective means of evangelization and as a new way of being the Church today. They pay particular attention to young people, to their education and professional formation, through the foundation and management of numerous schools, in the city suburbs as well as in isolated villages in the savannah.
In line with the original inspiration of the Founder, the Comboni Missionaries have set up centres for Bible formation, catechism, theology, professional and social training in Africa, Latin America and Asia, in order to prepare local people who are active in the work of evangelization and human development. In this way, the missionaries collaborate to make local Churches increasingly autonomous and self-managed communities that, in turn, provide stimulus for other churches in other continents, and make a reality of the words of Daniele Comboni: “Save Africa with Africa”.
In his message for the anniversary of the Plan for the regeneration of Africa, Father Enrique Sanchez, Superior General of Comboni Missionaries said: “The event of the anniversary we are celebrating this year urges us to make a memorial of past experience for a re-launching that includes the provocations and questions that our situation and those of missionary life present…”. “It is, therefore, important that – he continued – we assume Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and dialogue and reconciliation as overlapping values that permeate all the ministries. It is equally important for us to review our methodology in the ministries: making common cause, being hidden stones so that others may grow, inculturation and insertion, the commitment to networking/collaborating (with the local Churches, the Comboni Family, other Institutes and various organisations), open to what is new that is present in the mind of society and its expressions”.
For this “it is necessary that we allow ourselves to be questioned by the emerging challenges, especially by the human trafficking of women and children, by immigration and refugees, the situation of peoples of African ancestry, indigenous and nomadic pastoral peoples, to give a meaningful response in our time”, he said.
Father Enrique concludes: “The spirituality inherited from the Plan, “feeling one’s heart beat in unison with the Heart of Christ”, moves us to bring the ‘kiss of peace’ to every geographical and existential periphery because Comboni’s Africa has become the criterion to find where the “poorest and most abandoned” are in the world and where “the footprints of our benevolent Father” are to be seen, and to continue being faithful to his Plan in this moment of history, after 150 years.