Comboni Missionaries commemorate 150 years of Foundation

The Comboni Missionaries are making memory of their foundation, 150 years ago. The official commemoration took place in Rome during a symposium from the 25th of May to the 1st of June, at the General House. Representatives from all the provinces and the General Council of the Comboni Missionary Sisters gathered to mark the occasion. Comboni Missionaries all over the world are looking back at their origin to renew their missionary mandate. Find below the reflection of Fr. Francesco Pierli, former superior general and Fr. Mariano Tibaldo, secretary General for Evangelization. Photos: Comboni Media Center Rome.


In 1867, Daniel Comboni launched a new approach to missionary action in Africa. Inspired by his Christian Faith, and dreaming a bright future for the continent, Comboni envisioned a ministry for the transformation of Africa. It was not just a matter of adding a new chapter to the missionary agenda of the Church. Comboni wanted a new group of men and women ready to act according to his vision, spelled out in the Plan for the Regeneration of Africa (1864). Daniel Comboni became the first bishop of the newly founded vicariate of Central Africa; an immense land including the Sudan, what today is: Central Africa Republic, Uganda and Kenya. The boundaries were uncertain but clearly the bulk of the Vicariate rotated around the axis of the river Nile.

In celebrating this anniversary, there is the danger to focus only on positive aspects, such as the dedication and martyrdom of dozens of missionaries. Comboni himself died in Khartoum when he was only 50 years old. The missionaries who reached the African interior in the XIX century often died even before reaching their missions. About half of all the missionaries who went to Africa in those years died within three years of leaving Europe. Mission and martyrdom were interlaced. It would be understandable to celebrate 150 years of commitment lauding the sacrifice of so many missionaries. Yet, remembrance, of a past gone, does not help to evaluate the present. Today we live in a world completely different from Comboni’s; we need to look at the experience of the mission with new eyes.

We can do that by asking ourselves what was Comboni’s novelty in the missionary effort of those years. What did he really achieve: the foundation of religious orders or something different altogether? Comboni provided an answer to these questions in a document he drafted in 1864, three years prior to the founding of the Comboni Missionaries: The Plan of the regeneration of Africa. In that Plan he announced his vision: Africa can be regenerated through Africa that is by empowering Africans to become agents of their own transformation. The foundation of a new missionary institute was an important component in the process of implementing the plan. Yet, placing Africans at the core of their own transformation was a real revolutionary insight.
Comboni perceived missionaries as collaborators of the African people in the journey towards a new Africa. Missionaries were to contribute with what they had: faith, scientific revolution, new political insights, peace and the wish to cooperate with the local population. Africans had to remain in charge of their choices.

Religious and social dimensions:
Comboni’s task as the founder of a missionary institute was twofold. On the one side, there was a religious revolution for Africa. On the other side, he envisaged a social revolution for the continent. The religious revolution consisted making it possible for Africans to come in contact with Jesus and the Word of God in such a way as to command a tremendous religious experience and mutual enrichment between the novelty of the Gospel and the rich African religious tradition. Thus the missionary would not be in charge with removing one experience to replace it with another. Evangelization required a new approach to tradition, an approach enlightened by faith in God and relationship with Jesus.  Comboni wished to see a dialogue where the Western approach would not suffocate the African vision and sensibility. It was a matter of capturing the immense religious potential of Africans cultures. Benedict XVI spoke of Africa as the lung for world’s religiosity. Even today we still need to help the grafting of the African religious experience into the one in Jesus as it was elaborated in our Christian Tradition.

The second revolution was the social transformation of the continent. Every person is created in God’s own image. This claim is at the centre of our faith. Hence our Love for God can only be manifested in the acceptance, communion and solidarity with all human beings, who are sons and daughters of God. Without this dimension of love for others, we cannot call God Father. The social dimension needs the verification of religious dimensions. The religious dimension provides the vision, the mindset, and the perception of the social dimensions, which are a dignified human condition of life, human rights and access to all the resources of creation. Upon his return to Africa, Comboni immediately opened two schools showing his commitment to education, which is an important component of the social dimension of ministry. He also emphasized the great field of action women could have in paying attention to the poor, the children and education. He worked to have brothers taking up jobs as competent technicians and consecrated professionals.

In every new project, Comboni wished to see the religious aspects and the social dimension of evangelization. In the back of his mind, most surely, there were Rosmini and Mazza. Rosmini was a thinker who encouraged the church to be involved in social transformation. Mazza was a priest who dedicated his life to the education of needy students. They were a great inspiration to his vision of evangelization and transformation. Comboni did not want the Sudanese to mistake him and his missionaries for slave traders. He was aware of the danger. He was also aware that the missionaries’ commitment for social change and evangelization had to go hand in hand. We Comboni missionaries have remained faithful to this tradition. Wherever we work – Africa, Latin America, and Asia – these two components have remained crucial for us.

Pope Francis: renewed impetus on proclamation
Pope Francis elaborated the relationship between the religious and the social dimension of evangelization in his programmatic document: Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. Chapter 3 and 4 of that letter are central to understanding the place of the religious and social dimension of evangelization. The religious experience ought to be enlightened and perfected through the encounter with the one Jesus. The Word remains the pillar of this encounter. Celebrations must go beyond the cold accomplishment of liturgical rubrics. Celebrations have to wear the cloak of joy, sharing, and have a real impact in the life of the believers.

An outstanding fruit of the first Africa Synod in 1994
Strong attention to social ministry emerged in 1994 during the first African Synod in Rome. The author happened to be part of the group of experts called in by SEDOS, a missionary agency whose intent is to provide the bishops with competent practitioners and theologians for the preparation of the different documents during the discussion of the Synod.  The Synod started on the 8th of April 1994, only two days after the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide. All African Bishops kept an eye on the Synod and an eye to Rwanda, the most Catholic in Africa. The tragedy and massacre which were going on in that country were a tremendous challenge to the social impact of the Christian message. According to the reports, Rwanda enjoyed the highest percentage of churchgoers and almost weekly reception of the sacrament of penance. And yet, these indicators of deep Christian faith were not met by the other essential indicators. There was no sign of a fraternity and solidarity stronger than ethnic identity and other social issues causing tensions and frictions.

During the Synod there was a growing concern of how to assure a transformative social impact of faith to bring about reconciliation, to correct negative ethnicity and to ease the process of gradual reconciliation in a country torn apart by apparently different ideologies. Where was the outcome of the social teachings of the church, or the impact of the sacrament of reconciliation, received on regular basis by the high percentage of the Catholics?  A decade before, during the Synod of Bishops on Reconciliation, Cardinal Maria Martini stressed the point that we are called to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation in order to strengthen the social impact of the Christian community. The sacrament should bring about reconciliation, fraternity, and solidarity in real life. In other words, the cardinal was insisting that each sacrament had to have a missionary and apostolic dimension. The social impact of each sacrament had to be made manifest through concrete initiatives to achieve at social level the objective of that sacrament. It was during that synod that the expression ‘social sin’ entered in the teachings of the Church as to complement the personal dimension of each sin.

In other words, during the African Synod, the element of the social message of the church became a core concern. The commitment of the spreading of the social sin a major objective of the apostolate at parish, diocesan and national level and the necessity of training for social ministry and for social apostolates emerged as a major priority:  If the proclamation of justice and peace is an integral part of the task of evangelization, it follows that the promotion of these values should also be a part of the pastoral programme of each Christian community. That is why I urge that all pastoral agents are to be adequately trained for this apostolate. “The formation of clergy, religious and laity, imparted in the areas of their apostolate, should lay emphasis on the social teaching of the Church. Each person, according to his state of life, should be specially trained to know his rights and duties, the meaning and service of the common good, honest management of public goods and the proper manner of participating in political life, in order to be able to act in a credible manner in the face of social injustices” (Ecclesia in Africa, 107)

From the Synod to the Institute of Social Ministry
In this context, the idea of an Institute of higher learning totally dedicated to the spreading and implementation of the social teachings of the church, and to the promotion of all types of social apostolates and ministry, emerged. A remarkable contribution was given by the Ugandan outstanding theologian and social transformer; John Mary Waliggo, (1942 – 2008). The author of this article had a good personal relationship with him. Waliggo was one of the twelve theologians who, in 1993, attended a series of ecumenical meetings sponsored by the Comboni Missionaries for discussion on the preparatory documents in view of the Synod. The outcome of such an ecumenical collaboration was published under the title: Cast away fear, translated in 5 languages as an academic contribution to the Africa Synod by the Eastern African Theologians.

In the context of that ecumenical meeting, a new idea emerged: giving life to an academic institution that could prepare agents of transformation rooted in the teaching of the church. That idea materialized with the setting up of the Institute of Social Ministry in Mission (ISMM) within Tangaza University College in the months following the end of the African Synod. The Comboni Missionaries, particularly the province of Kenya, backed the initiative. The Institute of Social Ministry was founded under the sponsorship of the Comboni Missionaries and as an expression of the Comboni charism and as meaningful actualization of the plan for the regeneration of Africa with Africans issued by Comboni in 1864.

The programme spearheaded by ISMM started with a Diploma in Social Ministry. In 1998, it was upgraded to a Bachelor of Arts in Social Ministry formally approved by the Commission for University Education and supported by the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. Due to the positive impact and response by religious congregations, dioceses and the civil society at large, in 2008, ISMM inaugurated the Masters Programme.  In 2014, the cycle was completed with the starting of a PhD Programme in Social Transformation. All these programs are now well established with a noticeable number of students. Besides the academic programs, different initiatives have been taken for the dissemination of the social teachings of the church and the training of social ministries.

These activities aimed at reaching Small Christian communities at parish level and other local realities. The programme is run in collaboration with the National Seminary of Christ the King in Nyeri. Another notable foundation was the opening of University Mtaani, a fully-fledged department of ISMM located in the slums of Nairobi. At University Mtaani, ISMM offers a Diploma in Civic Education and does that by being close to the people it serves.

All in all, I may conclude this reflection and enquiry on the celebration of 150 years of the beginning of Comboni movement and of the foundation of the Comboni Missionaries by stating that the promotion of social ministry for social transformation of Africa is a major actualization of the Comboni charism at the beginning of the third millennium. A visible and tangible manifestation of the unquenchable vitality of Comboni’s dream and plan. We might wish that what is offered in Nairobi by the Comboni Family as sponsors of the Institute of Social Ministry at Tangaza University might be replicated elsewhere, both in Africa and in other continents. Nobody can deny that the full impact of evangelization in the world of today will depend basically on the integration of the two hands of Evangelization: the religious and the social commitment.

By Fr. Francesco Pierli, mccj

Courtesy of Leadership Magazine, Jul 03, 2017  



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