This year, Comboni Missionaries will celebrate the 150th year of their foundation. The celebration is about far more than an anniversary. It is also the occasion to revisit the new vision of Comboni and to detect its relevance at the beginning of the third millennium, an era of rocketing complexity and changes.
It is to be framed in the historical moment of deep reformation and transformation in the church under the leadership and drive of Pope Francesco. This article dwells mostly on the social dimension of Church Mission elaborated by the Pope in chapter 4 of Evangelii Gaudium under the heading: The social dimension of evangelization.
A new language for a new missionary process
Comboni’s brand of the process of missionary activity in Africa known as Regeneration of the continent, was borrowed from Giuseppe Mazzini, the inspirer of the social revolution bubbling all over Italy in the 1800s. The word was not part of the theological jargon of the day but rather of the political agenda of the nineteen century. It had mostly cultural, social and political connotations, that is: to retrieve the cultural and moral values and traditions of Italy; liberation from foreign political occupation; unification of Italy with the demise of the pontifical state; the participation of the people in the process as subjects; religion and ethics were part and parcel of the vision.
What Comboni added to Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian politician and activist for the unification of Italy, though, was the role of Christian faith in the process of the Regeneration of Africa. No wonder! During the 1800s, for the first time in the history of the church, christians all over Europe were trying to tap in a formal way the social potential of the Gospel in order to inspire and influence the revolutions and transformations sprouting up all over Europe. It was the experimentation and the intellectual elaboration of the Social Teaching of the Church which found in the first ever Social Encyclical Rerum Novarum, by Leo XIII in 1891, its magisterial expression. Comboni includes Regeneration in the title of the proposal elaborated for Pope Pius IX for the evangelization of Africa with the title: Plan for the Regeneration of Africa through Africa, in October 1864. Three year later Comboni founded his missionary Congregation to carry it out.
Science and faith for a revolutionary method
Comboni was son of a new scientific era, which provided him with the tools for a historical research and social analysis to identify the challenges of the continent to evangelization in modern and ancient times, with great attention to the new values of Africa in the context of industrial, political and scientific revolutions. Comboni opens The Plan by asserting that Africa was at the centre of the attention of Europe. He was very familiar with the reasons for the scramble for Africa by the European political powers prompted by the hunger for raw materials to feed the booming European factories.
Other interests were of scientific, geographical, anthropological, military, political and commercial significance. Comboni insists on theological motivations, without which there would be no missionary ministry: The Catholic, who is used to judging things in a supernatural light, looks upon Africa not through the pitiable lens of human interest, but in the pure light of faith; there he saw an infinite multitude of brothers who belonged to the same family as himself with one common Father in heaven… Then he was carried away under the impetus of that love set alight by the divine flame on Calvary hill, when it came forth from the side of the Crucified one, to embrace the whole human family; he felt his heart beat faster, and a divine power seemed to drive him towards those unknown lands (Writings, 2742). .
Religious and social goals of missionary activity
The goal of the missionary initiative in the Plan, and in the overall vision of Comboni is twofold: faith and civilization. In other words: the mission envisaged by Comboni for Africa was strongly religious and strongly social. Africa was still under the scourge of slavery. There were philanthropic societies interested in terminating the slave trade; what about the Church? Africans from objects to subjects, this was the revolutionary intuition which would be at the very heart of the Social Teaching of the Church and of the Plan of Comboni. As Donald Dorr puts it: “The poor are being recognized as the most important agents of social change. In view of the inspiring vision that now permeates Catholic social teaching, they can no longer be seen as the passive recipients of alms; they are under God, the makers and subjects of their own history, the one who plays a major role in shaping the destiny of the world”.
This intuition of Comboni was all the more prophetic in an era of rampant colonialism, which sanctioned and justified the dependence of Africa on Europe; Africans had to be objects and not subjects of their own history. No so for Comboni! For Comboni the grounds for being subjects were three: Africaness – Christian Faith – Modern Science. Hence Comboni’s Plan envisaged Schools, Colleges Universities and Churches well disseminated in strategic spots of Africa from the point of view of logistics and accessibility.
Missionary teams with the Inclusion of Women
To reach these above named religious and social goals, Comboni strategized missionary teams: never one missionary in isolation! Traditionally when the focus of Mission was primarily on religions conversion, baptisms and the foundations of a local community (parish), the missionary personnel consisted of priests. In Comboni’s Plan, Mission was in a sense de-clericalized, with additions of further personnel such as missionary brothers, sisters and even lay persons specialized in certain areas of human development, agriculture, administration and technology.
In fact, besides being sure that the hour of Africa had arrived, Comboni had also realized that the hour of the woman, both in the Church and in Africa, had finally dawned. Up to that time, very few women had been directly involved in the evangelizing mission entrusted to the Church. With particular attention to female missionaries, Comboni, who, as stated before, had studied carefully the history of the missionary enterprises directed towards the evangelization of Africa, had come to the conclusion that one of the causes whereby they had all failed was due to the absence of women as partners in mission. He perceived the presence of women in mission to be tantamount to that of the women disciples that followed Jesus in his ministry, and who, due to their capacity to love unconditionally, were able to give themselves totally to the demanding mission they had been called for. His experience had also taught him that women would be able to address the needs of people in ways that were not possible to the male missionaries, and by so doing, they would give a more humane face to the preaching of the Gospel.
Comboni appreciated the unique capacity of women to care for all the members of the mission stations and how, by so doing, they would act as protective shields of the missionary vocation entrusted to all. And so Comboni involved women from Africa, Europe and from the Middle East, to work side by side with the male missionaries. Today, the number of women dedicated to the evangelizing mission entrusted to the Church, both belonging to religious congregations and to the laity, has outnumbered that of the male counterparts. But what is important to underline here is that Comboni wanted men and women to collaborate among themselves as they went out to renew Africa in the light of the Gospel values.
Social Apostolate of Comboni
Below is a list of concerns, which might help make out the vastness of Comboni’s commitment to social issues as part and parcel of his missionary mandate: advocacy: with the emperors and the governments of the colonial powers and of the Ottoman Empire; scientific research in geographic and anthropological areas in Africa still unknown; concrete initiatives in the areas of Health and Education; promotion of the woman; anti-slavery campaign and anti-arms campaign; transfer of modern technology from Europe to Africa; the use of media for missionary and scientific awareness.
Comboni’s unshakeable conviction that religion and civilization are bound together stands as witness to his profound determination to bring about a social transformative impact as one of the irreplaceable objectives of Missionary Ministry. “Catholic faith and civilization in Central Africa, this is the sublime apostolate of the redemption of Africa. (…) Faith and Civilization were never hostile to each other, and whatever is being said by human philosophy or insinuated by incredulous skepticism, the fact remains that Faith and Civilization have met and kissed each other (Writings, 6214). The French Capuchin historian, Jean Marie Mauzaize, who studied in depth the missionary methodology of our Founder, wrote: “It was to Comboni’s great merit the attempt to bring about the regeneration of Africa by combining the proclamation of the Gospel with human promotion, thus offering Central Africa truth and charity in their entirety, the achievements of modern science and liberty for all”.
Let me wind up with a quotation from Pope Francis: Starting from certain social issues of great importance for the future of humanity, I have tried to make explicit once again the inescapable social dimension of the Gospel message and to encourage all Christians to demonstrate it by their words, attitudes and deeds.(Evangelii Gaudium, 258).