The Comboni missionaries elected Father Tesfaye Tadesse, a native of Ethiopia, as Head of the Congregation. Thus 150 years after the founding of the Institute, it’s the turn of an African for the first time.
He was born almost 46 years ago in the historical city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia, but after some months he moved to Addis Abeba, where his family comes from. He comes from the Ancient Christian Tradition of Ethiopia ,which has, succeeded in bestowing wonders on humanity, with great works of Christian Art, the Rock-Hewn Churches, Strong Christian community with deep monastic spirituality. Managing to combine contemplation with action. And causing a small Catholic community to grow and develop – just 1% of the population – and which has also earned respect and attention.
Father Tesfaye Tadesse became superior general nearly 150 years after the founding of the Institute of Saint Daniele Comboni. After his election he said: “The election of an African superior general, the first in the history of the Congregation, is a further step towards the realization of Comboni’s dream to save Africa with Africa”.
An Africa that now lays claim to its place in the international arena. An Africa that walks. And, as an African proverb puts it, “it is by walking that new paths open up”.
Father Tesfaye is not new to experiences of government. In the past he has served as provincial superior of the Comboni Missionaries in Ethiopia and in the last six years has been assistant in the General Council of the Institute, led since 2009 by Father Enrique Sánchez, a Mexican.
The new superior general feels the responsibility of leading a group engaged in the various continents in very different situations, from war-torn countries like South Sudan and Central Africa to its presence in the suburbs of large cities in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Kenya. From the defense of indigenous peoples to engagement with African Americans and the world migrants. “As Comboni missionaries – said Father Tesfaye – we are called to share the joy of the Gospel with the needy, the poor and those who are impoverished. Today we must continue this tradition, fortified by the new boost given also by Pope Francis and by the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. During the Chapter we reflected on the opportunity of whether to invest more in Europe, not by taking away personnel either from Africa or Latin America but by internationalizing our presence more and by strengthening different forms of cooperation”.
His appointment is a clear sign of the changes in the geographical balances of the Congregation also. The majority of Comboni vocations comes from the African continent, a phenomenon in contrast to the decrease of vocations in America and especially in Europe. “This also proposes to be – continues Fr. Tesfaye – an encouragement to young African confreres for missionary commitment and in their journey of appropriation of the Comboni charism according to the cultural characteristics of Africa”.
Terrorist attacks in Tunisia and Turkey. The Islamic State that advances in Syria. Boko Haram in Nigeria that spreads terror every day. Father Tesfaye knows the Islamic world. He speaks Arabic. He has lived in Egypt and Sudan. “We must believe that there is another Islam, one with which we must dialogue and that we need to know. Many Comboni Missionaries have lived for decades in the midst of Muslim communities. They have established relationships of trust and friendship. Our presence must be of witness and faith. During the chapter we have stressed the urgency of an increasingly qualified presence in the Arab world”.
At the end of the Chapter there was the visit to Francis. The Pope wished to remind the Comboni that the missionary being is to be found in the dimension of ‘being’, even before that of ‘doing’. Francis said that the meekness of the Heart of Jesus pushed outwards towards the margins and outskirts of society. “Being Comboni of the Heart of Jesus means – the Pope emphasised – to witness the charism of Saint Daniele Comboni, which finds a key point in the merciful love of the Heart of Jesus for those who are the least, the helpless, ‘the abandoned of our times’. From the contemplation of the wounded Heart of Jesus, a passion for the people of our time can always be renewed in you, which is expressed with gratuitous love in the commitment of solidarity, especially towards the weakest and the distressed. Thus you can continue to promote justice and peace, the respect and dignity of every person”.
Father Tesfaye concludes: “ We were deeply affected when the Pope told us that he had great admiration for the work we do and the risks we run”.
The Institute of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus was founded in 1867 by Saint Daniele Comboni; it is present today in about one hundred and eighty dioceses of forty-two countries. There are currently 1,670 members who make up the Comboni family. (C.C.)