Sixty Comboni Missionaries have died due to the Coronavirus with around 350 infected. Many of them spent their whole lives in Africa or Latin America. We remember three of them.
The sun is setting at Lachor Hospital in Northern Uganda. Brother Elio makes his way home after a long day’s work. He is worried at the dreadful news coming from Europe. A virus from China is infecting thousands of people and claiming hundreds of victims. The virus is spreading rapidly. Brother Elio still has vivid memories of what happened in 2000 when the Ebola virus struck Northern Uganda causing hundreds of deaths. Lachor hospital was hit hard. The doctors and nurses were among the first to die. He knows the new virus will soon appear in Africa. He wonders how he can prepare for the virus, but details are still lacking. Going to his room, he turns on the old wireless that has been his companion for so many years.
Brother Elio Croce first went to Uganda in 1975. He has spent forty-five years in Africa, first as technical director of Kitgum Hospital and then, starting in 1985, of Lachor Hospital.
Bro. Elio has shared all the events affecting the Acholi people. For them and with them, he built hospital buildings, dug wells, and set up technical and agricultural projects.
He shared with the Acholi people the terrible decades of the guerrilla war and buried their dead. He has lost count of how many kilometres he travelled throughout the area driving his old Toyota.
Bro. Elio was always attracted, moved and upheld by his faith in Divine Providence, an unrelenting and solid faith that was the indestructible nourishment of a life given totally for the African people. His was a world of building-sites and workshops for carpentry and mechanics and the maintenance of the electrical medical equipment.
During the war years, when no supplies were available, everything had to be made on the spot. Bro. Elio was very capable. He knew how to do things and how to teach others, but he insisted on having everything done properly. By so doing, he helped in the development of the local area. Many were trained at his school, learning a trade and acquiring the mentality of work as an art form. At his urging, many small activities were established. His workers worked hard and well, becoming independent. They knew they could count on Elio. Many pursued their studies thanks to him. His simple and concrete manner was sometimes sweetly rough though totally honest, with no frills and the experience of a life dedicated to Africa that seemed to exude from the man in dust-covered sandals, challenged and won over (often for life) anyone who approached him. He left no one indifferent; there was always an encounter with his choice of life and a feeling of being at one with him, even when people disagreed with him. Brother Elio, a survivor of massacres and Ebola, was taken to heaven by Covid 19 on 11 November 2020, at the age of 74 years.
On the day of his funeral, Mons. John Baptist Odama, Archbishop of Gulu said: “During the most difficult period of crisis in our local Acholi region, Bro. Elio risked his life to save many people whose lives were threatened. The community of this region can testify that, during the conflict between the rebels and the government forces, Bro. Elio courageously followed the rebels into the bush to rescue those who had been kidnapped, especially the school children. During the outbreak of Ebola, Bro. Elio stayed with the people he served. Most of all, Bro. Elio used his technical ability as a builder and engineer to develop Lachor Hospital. The modern buildings we see today at St. Mary’s Hospital were planned and supervised by him. In his work, Bro. Elio shared his knowledge and ability with many young Africans in such a way that they could follow in his footsteps. He taught many needy children in the schools to accept the responsibility of serving their brothers and sisters. In the Archdiocese of Gulu, we see Bro. Elio as our hero. His legacy of duty and dedication to the poor, the sick and the most disadvantaged of our community will always be a source of inspiration for us”.
Father Bascarán, wearing the shoes of the mission
He is known by everyone for his long hair and sandals as he walks the streets of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. Wearing the ‘shoes of the mission’ for him meant being on the side of the poor and humble people. It meant keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground, in the dust of the roads that brings home the situation of the people. As he walks, he sees the small boys playing football. They see him and kick the ball to him. He controls it perfectly and skilfully passes it back.
The sound of music is coming from one of the houses. He knows that tune; he has played it often.
His two great interests: football and music. As a young man, Spanish Father Carlos Bascarán Collantes was a professional footballer and fascinated spectators with his skills. Some believed he would have a wonderful future playing for one of the teams in the La Liga Espanola. His musical talents were also well known, and his guitar was always by his side. His presence was always a celebration. Cheerful and enthusiastic, he made friends easily, especially with the youth and especially through his music. He would say to the young people: “You must always be in harmony and sing the right notes to be together without being afraid of making mistakes. Music brings us together and makes us feel more like children of God and members of our communities. Music always carries with it love and liberation”.
For six years, he was provincial superior of the Comboni Missionaries in Brazil. His colleagues remember him well: “Those were complicated and difficult times for him. His critical attitude towards the civil and religious authorities led to clashes but he was always spontaneous and sincere”.
A man of great ideas, both during and after his mandate he gave new vigour to the Province both in the field of formation and missionary animation, while aware of the limits. He would say: “The mission is like a performance of a symphony. The music is perfectly written but the musicians are limited and often out of tune. However, this does not mean we can’t try to play perfect music”.
Brazil had been struck by the Coronavirus for several months, reaping thousands of victims and infections. During all that time, Fr. Carlos refused to stay indoors but went to visit the communities, offering advice and support. It was important that people should see their priest among them in those difficult times. For some days he had not felt well and was taken to João Pessoa Hospital suffering from the virus. He died late in the afternoon of Tuesday 22 September 2020. He was 77 years of age and had spent forty of them walking the side-streets of Brazil in his dusty missionary sandals.
Father Aranda Nava. Sharing life
The sound of gunfire is coming closer. Billowing smoke can be seen in the distance. The area has become a battlefield between the government forces and the rebels. The missionaries realise it is time to go. They gather their few possessions and start walking towards the Ugandan border. Amid the many dangers and ever-present fears, Father Aranda writes: “After walking for days, we reached the Bidi Bidi refugee camp. Living like refugees is a new experience for us as a missionary community. We have left our mission of Kajo-Keji in South Sudan and now we are with our people who live in the refugee camps in the north of Uganda. Like them, we are homeless people and refugees”.
Mexican Father José de Jesús Aranda Nava first went to Sudan in 1984. His main apostolate was the training of the Comboni postulants in Juba and Khartoum. In 1992, he was expelled with other Combonis by the Muslim government of Khartoum, in Sudan. Once back in Mexico, he worked in the formation of future missionaries as well as in missionary animation. He is remembered as a man who was always smiling. He would always speak enthusiastically of his missionary work in Africa.
In 1999, he returned to Africa and devoted himself to the formation of young missionaries first in Sudan and then in Kenya. Lastly, in 2007, he arrived in the parish of Kajo Keji, South Sudan.
There he worked tirelessly training catechists and managing a number of schools for boys and girls.
On the feast of Saint Daniel Comboni, he wrote on Facebook: “Comboni Day: 10 October 2020. The holiness of Comboni is lived out in communion with suffering humanity. Saint Daniel lived his holiness in solidarity with the suffering and the ill-treated. In the course of our history, the sons and daughters of Saint Daniel Comboni have sought to follow the path of holiness, sharing the daily life of their suffering brothers and sisters. We have great people who are fine examples of making common cause with the people: Father Giuseppe Ambrosoli, Father Ezekiel Ramin and many more. Today, we are called to share in holiness, the life of so many people who are faced with the crisis of the Coronavirus pandemic and its consequences. We are in communion with the migrants and refugees, the populations in areas of conflict and war. Let us carry in our hearts the burden of suffering of the Church and the sad situation of the environment and all creation. Pray for peace and brotherhood between our people and South Sudan”.
He was urgently taken to Lachor Hospital in Gulu where he was admitted with the Coronavirus infection. He died on 4 November 2020. He was 68 years of age. His dream was to be a missionary in Africa. This dream of his came true and he not only lived as a missionary in Africa but also died and was buried in the land he loved. (C.C.)