With the passing of Fr Agostoni, I have lost a friend, a missionary brother, a spiritual director, a mentor and ‘an elder’. I became a friend of Fr Agostoni when I was a novice of the Comboni Missionaries in the late 1980s. In all our conversations, I could see the love he had for missions, for the Africans, and the local Church. Fr Agostoni was born in Italy in 1920, and spent over fifty years of his life in Uganda. He arrived in 1951 and worked there until 1969, when he was elected Superior General of the Comboni Missionaries. He taught philosophy in Gulu. His special focus was social ethics. In 1956, Fr Agostoni was appointed the Diocesan Chaplain of the Lay Apostolate for the Northern Province, a task he accomplished with zeal. It was in this capacity that he would come up with the idea to publish a magazine for the on-going formation of the laity. So he founded Leadership, a monthly magazine still in production. He desired to convey social ethics to the African people, based on the Catholic Social Teaching, with the idea of preparing Christian leaders which was witnessing national independences around that time.
Fr Agostoni was a communicator, and analytical writer. Of the many books and articles he wrote, Fr Agostoni is known for Every citizen’s handbook. He was happy to know that this book was chosen as the textbook for social ethics in many African countries. I treasure the long conversations I had with him on topics related to the social teaching of the Church.
Fr Agostoni offered valuable services to the Uganda Episcopal Conference, during his more than 25 years at the Uganda Catholic Secretariat, Nsambya, where he held various responsibilities. These included activities into social, lay apostolate and communication departments. At one time he served as Secretary General of the Uganda Episcopal Conference. In 1987 he started the Uganda National Commission of Justice and Peace. Many people have hinted to me that he promoted much of this in respect for the prisoners, the poor, and marginalised.
I thank God that I was able to give him a hand for five years in the prison ministry, at Luzira in Kampala, a facility where he so much cherished to serve the inmates. His love for the dignity of the prisoners can be seen in the wonderful work he did especially in the campaign against the death penalty. He would seek funds to enable lawyers to do independent investigations on cases deemed impossible. John Mary Mpagi remained on death row for 18 years awaiting execution for a robbery he did not commit. While in jail, his charge changed from robbery to murder of a person, who was still alive! What a joy it was to see him receive presidential pardon after Fr Agostoni and the lawyers were able to produce in court the person he was said to have murdered! John Mary became an example of how an unfair trial can cost a life!
Fr Agostoni shared with me the sad moments when a prisoner would confess to a priest, while a prison warder would be standing nearby listening to what he was confessing. He worked hard until the prison administration accepted to respect the sacredness of the sacrament! He rejoiced in seeing that no Ugandan was executed after 1999. The death penalty remains in the law books, but the Supreme Court left it to the discretion of the trial judge to order the hanging or an alternative sentence. It is in this context that I appreciated Fr Agostoni’s book May the State kill? a challenge to the death penalty. The school system in Luzira, which gives possibilities to prisoners to sit for various national examinations, is a brainchild of Fr Agostoni.
‘When you see Fr Agostoni, he has a small head, but that head has a lot of brain to politically disorganize the whole of Uganda’ was a remark a friend of mine made to describe the love Fr Agostoni had for socio-political life in Uganda. He was an advisor to the Democratic Party in Uganda. In our conversations about politics, I found that he was updating himself every day. He kept himself abreast with modern technology with the use of e-mail. Many Ugandan civil servants, of different political affiliations and different walks of life, would seek his advice so as to leave a mark in society in a Christian way. A Jesuit student said of him: ‘He was a selfless modern missionary, who tapped into the power of the youth and means of modern media in passing the message of the gospel. This attitude is worthy emulating’.
The clarity with which Fr Agostoni wanted things done, would make him step on the toes of others. All in all, he has faithfully witnessed the love of Christ in the 91 years of his life and 66 years of the priesthood! Fare thee well, till we meet again!