This year, the Comboni Missionaries are celebrating seventy years of their presence in Portugal. An Institute that is born and grows in response to the new challenges of mission in that country and in the world.
They first went to Portugal in 1947. The decision to initiate this new presence in Europe had already been taken at the end of 1946 in Verona, Italy, when the Superior General of the Institute, Father Antonio Vignato, sent Father Giovanni Cotta to open a house of formation in Portugal. The decision was reached in agreement with the Vatican Secretariat of State with a view to opening missions in northern Mozambique. In order to do this, it was necessary to open a house of formation for aspiring missionaries as had been established in the ‘May 1940 Agreement’ between the Vatican and Portugal which stipulated that the missionary congregations present in territories under Portuguese administration should have a house of formation in Portugal. Father Giovanni Cotta arrived in Lisbon on 1 April 1947. Having visited Lisbon, Fatima and Aveiro, he arrived in Viseu on 22 April. He was enthusiastically welcomed by the bishop of the diocese Msgr. José da Cruz Moreira Pinto and the diocesan clergy.
A few months later he acquired a plot of land on which to build the first Comboni house in Portugal.
Later, on 3 November, other Combonis arrived intending to dedicate themselves to the apostolate. The foundation stone of Viseu Seminary was laid on 1 June, 1948. A year later, on 14 August 1949, it was opened as an institute of education and received its first students, a group of 17 young men.
However, it was not until 11 December 1955 that the first Comboni seminary in Portugal was solemnly inaugurated. In less than three years, other formation houses were opened. In January 1956, a house of formation for Brothers was opened on the banks of the River Vouga in the Arcoselo of Maya. On 1 November, the novitiate was opened at the church of San Giacomo di Antas in the city of Porto. Finally, on 16 October 1958, a house for philosophical studies was opened in the outskirts of the capital of the north, Vila da Maia.
The Comboni houses of formation became true focus points for missionary animation. Mission support groups came into being around them and around other local Comboni communities.
In January 1956, the magazine Alem Mar was launched with the purpose of making known and providing information concerning the mission of the Church in the world. Missionary animation is closely connected with vocations promotion. The work of the first Combonis, all Italians, was characterised by their closeness to the people, the importance given to friendship and by the openness of its Christian and social vision.
Ordinary people as well as personalities in the world of culture and finance had great esteem for those young missionaries who brought with them a vision for the future and infectious enthusiasm.
In the fifties, the first independence movements in Africa and the Portuguese colonies were founded.
The missionary magazine ‘Nigrizia’, published by the Comboni Missionaries, did not ignore this evolution on the African political scene and featured a series of articles supporting these movements.
Sometime in the year 1960, the Portuguese authorities began to regard the Comboni Missionaries in Portugal with suspicion. This cloud of suspicion darkened in November 1964 and the storm broke that same month with the closure of ‘Alem Mar’ magazine (5 November 1964). Its closure was provoked by an article on the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay and the visit of Pope Paul VI to India. ‘Alem Mar’ resumed publication a year and a half later in May 1965. The second storm in the tense relations between the Comboni Missionaries and the political authorities broke ten years later, in April 1974. The previous year, two Italian Combonis were expelled from Portugal by the PIDE (State Police). No reason was ever given.
On 12 February 1974, the Comboni Missionaries in Portugal signed a document entitled ‘A Requirement of Conscience’, in which they defended the right of the Mozambican people to their own culture and political autonomy. On 13 April, eleven Comboni Missionaries were expelled from Mozambique by the Lisbon authorities. There were fears for the work of Combonis in Portugal but, on 25 April, a ‘carnation revolution’ completely changed the political situation of the country. A wind of change and hope for the country was blowing and would lead to the independence of the Portuguese colonies in 1975.
During the sixties and seventies, the Comboni Missionaries in Portugal showed creativity and vision for the future. In 1966, a community was opened in the capital that would be the headquarters of the magazine and where the magazine for children, ‘Audacia’, would be published.
During the 1970-1971 academic year, a new house was opened in the university city of Coimbra. On 18 October 1972, a missionary presence was established in Ribatejo with the opening of the novitiate in Santarém. Finally, on 10 October 1977, a formation house for Brothers was opened in Aveiro. The fruits of these centres of formation and missionary animation were seen especially in the eighties and nineties: in these two decades, 47 Portuguese joined the congregation of the Comboni Missionaries. Up to April 1974, Portuguese Combonis could only be sent to the missions of Mozambique and Brazil. The difficulty derived from the absence of diplomatic relations between Portugal and other African countries and also the colonial policy of Portugal. The events of 25 April 1974 opened the door to new destinations for Portuguese Combonis. As early as the late seventies they were to be found in five African countries from Togo to Kenya, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. Later, in the eighties and nineties, the Portuguese Comboni Missionaries were present in other African countries (Chad, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Africa and Uganda), in Latin America (Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica) and in Asia (The Philippines and China).
Today the Portuguese Comboni Missionaries number around 88, 49 of them working in 15 countries. In Portugal they are present in five dioceses and seven communities. They are continuing their commitment in missionary animation, vocations promotion and mass media. They lead the numerous missionary groups throughout the country. They are also open to the challenges presented by the society of today, especially that of the refugees who arrive daily from Africa and other parts of the world. In recent years, they have assumed three parishes in order to be ever more present in the country.
Manuel Augusto Lopez Ferreira