“THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF THE GOSPEL” Presentation of a recent book
Fr. Guido Oliana, MCCJ
This year 2017, memorial of the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Comboni Missionaries, I have had the opportunity to present my recent book[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel. The Kairos of Mission. Explorations in Comboni Missionary Perspective, Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa 2017.[/note] to various audiences: the students of the Catholic University of Juba, the students of philosophy and of theology of the St. Paul Major Seminary of Juba in two separate sessions, and, finally, on October 10th, to some priests, religious, and friends of the Archdiocese, gathered to celebrate with us the Dies Natalis of St. Daniel Comboni. I feel now to share my considerations on the book with other people as an occasion to reflect again on mission from a different perspective.
The title of the book is: “The Transforming Power of the Gospel. The Kairos of Mission. Explorations in Comboni Missionary Perspective.” The work is a collection of articles that I have written during the last 15 years at different times and on different occasions. It was thus a tug of war to organize them in a systematic manner. To facilitate the organization of the book I divided it into four parts: historical, theological, spiritual, and pastoral with an introduction, which presents my autobiographical missionary memories, and a general conclusion, which summarized the content of the book in 10 propositions.
I begin explaining the title: 1) “The Transforming Power of the Gospel”. The Gospel is neither a religious nor ethical ideology, nor a mere lofty spiritual doctrine, but it is the power of Jesus himself reaching out to people and transforming them through the ministry of the Church. 2) “The Kairos of Mission”. Mission is not a static propaganda of Christian religious ideas, but is a dynamic presentation here and now of the person of Jesus who summons people to conversion. The time of proclaiming, witnessing, and celebrating the Christ-event is a time filled with grace and opportunities calling for a responsible decision for Jesus and his Gospel. These ideas are all expressed also in the Pope’s Message for the 2017 World Mission Sunday. 3) “Explorations in Comboni Missionary Perspective”. The reflections represent an effort to explore various dimensions of mission. They are not fixed in a prefabricated scheme of thought. The main perspective is that of Daniel Comboni in the context of his mission here in our land of the Sudan and South Sudan.
I like to recall an interesting comment, which Fr. Dr. George Jangara, professor of philosophy and my colleague in St. Paul’s Major Seminary, made in his final remarks on the occasion of the presentation of the book in the Catholic University of Juba in March 2017. He said that the reflections of missionary spirituality in Comboni perspective contained in the book, inspired mainly to the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus, do not describe just the spirituality of the Comboni Missionaries as such, but also of the Church in the Sudan and South Sudan as a whole, founded by the sweat and blood of St. Daniel Comboni and his companions.
I first thought that these reflections might not interest people, but, to my surprise and joy, a few months ago, I received a note from one of my students of philosophy. I was gratified to read his words: “It was thoughtful of you to give us the book. I really appreciated this precious book. Every time I read it, I am touched by your beautiful reflections. The book is quite challenging to me. It is changing my life as far as discerning my vocation is concerned.” I come now to the main contents of the book.
In the Introduction, I intend to contextualize my reflections in the light of my almost 30 years of African experience: 17 years in Uganda, 6 in Kenya and now 6 in South Sudan. During these years of missionary service, my constant concern has been the following: How to proclaim the Gospel in a way that is meaningful, impacting, and thus transforming our African people’s mentality, often characterized by an attitude of fatalism, conditioned by a magical approach to life, and at times traversed by strong fears. This in the conviction that the acceptance of the Gospel may make them “eucharistic people” who feel that Jesus’ Gospel brings them joy, optimism, and hope of transformation.
Among other things in these pages, I underline the importance and joy of learning the local language in order to be able to freely and friendly communicate with people. I personally learned the Luganda language, spoken by the Baganda of the Southern part of Uganda. In our evangelization efforts, we may run the risk of creating a certain dichotomy between the Gospel and culture by presenting a doctrine that does not touch people’s existential concerns or by preaching good and pious devotions that leave people indifferent, not really engaged in a creative and transformative dialogue between the Gospel and their cultural and existential problems. I felt this issue especially in Karamoja.
I present also my positive experience of the use of drums in the liturgy, especially of the Baganda drums, which create a great atmosphere of beauty, contemplation, and prayer in the process of celebrating people’s life in Christ. I was also touched in particular by some meaningful cultural dances of the Acholi, Ngakarimojong, and Bannyankole, which beautifully express people’s joyful view of life.
I conclude my “Autobiographical Memories” with the following words: “My prayer and wish for South Sudan is that the vision of St. Daniel Comboni about the ‘regeneration’ of Central Africa into a land of blessings may become fully true. This will be possible thanks to the One who can make it happen, Jesus Christ”. Comboni adds beautifully: “Jesus Christ […] is the only source of redemption and of life, the true source of civilization and of the salvation of peoples, the indestructible foundation of the true greatness and prosperity of the nations of the world.”[note]Writings, n. 6215. The abbreviation Writings refer to D. Comboni, The Writings of St. Daniel Comboni. Correspondence and Reports (1850-1881) of the Founder of the Comboni Missionaries. Preface by Card. Carlo Maria Martini, London: Comboni Missionaries 2005; orig. Daniel Comboni, Gli Scritti, Roma: Missionari Comboniani 1991.[/note] This vision motivates a great commitment in the fields of evangelization in South Sudan with renewed “ardour, methods, and expression, as St John Paul II puts it.[note]John Paul II, Address to the Members of the Latin American Episcopal Council (March 1983), in AAS 75 (1983) 778, quoted in Benedict XVI, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africa’s Commitment (Africae Munus), Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa 2011, n. 165.[/note]
Part I: Historical Explorations
In Part I of the book, entitled Historical Explorations, I present three articles of historical nature.
The first is the story of the first Catholic Missionary who reached Central Equatoria and worked for a short time among the Bari: Don Angelo Vinco. He was a fascinating figure, who inspired Comboni’s African missionary vocation. He learned the local language. He could communicate with chiefs and the normal population. He gained their sympathy and friendship. He became an instrument of peace among the various conflicting tribes, like the Bari and Lokoya. He announced the Gospel with great sensitivity for people’s mentality. He was also concerned about the sources of the Nile. Before other explorers, he even tried to enter Uganda searching for the sources of the Nile. Fr. Vinco had to suffer quite a lot from the side of the slave traders he was opposing. His death was also accelerated by these moral struggles beside malaria’s attacks. When he died, Bari people paid him a royal homage with eight days of funeral rites. Songs were composed about Fr. Vinco. They were sung for about one hundred years after his death. One day, here in Juba, I met a young man among the students of Catholic University, called Nyihilo, the name of a chief friend of Fr. Vinco, who told me that his relatives still speak of a certain kawaja (white) missionary who was closed to their ancestors.
The second article deals with historical considerations on Comboni’s “Plan for the Regeneration of Africa”. The initial failures in the evangelization of the Sudan were due to the death of so many missionaries (sixty in a few years), caused by the fatal climate and because the Africans trained in Europe either died there due to the cold climate, or could not adapt themselves when they returned to the continent. Then Comboni devised a plan for the evangelization of Africa that was thought to solve these practical problems. He planned to create training centres where European missionaries and Africans can live together in a more tolerable climate. After training, the Africans would go to the interior to evangelize. European Missionaries will guide them for a while until they can assume the responsibility of evangelization. He envisioned the creation on the costs of four universities of theological and scientific nature to train Africans. Comboni had a strong conviction of the importance of the African clergy and the ministry of women in the evangelization of Africa. The Plan was intended also to stir up the missionary concern of the ecclesial communities and of the civil society in the West.
The third article is a reflection on the evolution of the concept of mission: from spiritual conquest of territories and peoples to spiritual persuasion of the transformative power of the Gospel thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit; from the missionary or pastoral agent as protagonist to a missionary or pastoral agent who becomes an animator, a promoter of talents, thus creating a responsible and co-responsible Christian community.
Part II: Theological Explorations
The II Part of the book, entitled Theological Explorations, presents 5 articles.
The first two are theological reflections on Comboni’s Plan for the Regeneration of Africa. Here I simply highlight three main ideas.
Firstly, the Plan is based on a strong Trinitarian dimension. God is called the Father of many brothers and sisters. Africa has to become “Family of God”. Comboni anticipated the so-called African Synod where the image of the Church as “Family of God” is so much stressed (cf. Ecclesia in Africa, n. 63). Christ died on the Cross because of the love of humanity and Africa in particular. His love has to be burning in the missionaries, so that they may be generous in giving up their life for the evangelization of Africa. The strength of the missionaries comes from the power of the Holy Spirit, shared by Jesus through his pierced heart on the Cross; an inner power which drives the missionaries to reach out to African people in an embrace of peace and love. There is here an echo of Pope Francis’ invitation to reach out to the peripheries of the world to announce the Good News (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, n. 20). The Vicariate of Central Africa at the time of Comboni was a far and very crucial periphery of the world!
Secondly, God himself suffered for the painful situation in which people of Central Africa found themselves. This suffering God for Africa was expressed in the crucified Lord who loved and died for Africa as well. Christ died to free Africa from the curse of Canaan, a racist ideology that considered Africans as a cursed race because of the colour of their skin, thus just destined to be slaves. The problems that afflicted Africans, such as the shame of slavery, superstition, poverty, sicknesses, and other miserable conditions for Comboni were symptoms of this curse. Christ’s liberation of Africans had already taken place eighteen centuries before, and yet Africans had not yet heard about this wonderful Good News. Evangelization had to announce the good news of the liberation that had already been accomplished on the Cross. Comboni found here the theological and spiritual springboard for his African missionary vocation.
Thirdly, the river Nile, first, acted as a witness of the ruin of Africans through slave trade, when slave traders sailed its rough waters to reach their destination for their evil practices. Now, thanks to the evangelization of the Church, the Nile has becomes a joyful witness and an instrument of liberation through its waters used for baptism. The true discovery of the sources of the Nile is not a mere “geographical discovery” but also and especially – so to speak – a “theological discovery”. The source of the waters of the Nile is the Holy Spirit, who now uses its waters to accomplish the regeneration of African through baptism. I write in the book: “The tears of God, who have been lamenting and crying for the ‘mute agony’ of his African people, are finally transformed into tears of joy for his children, who have finally entered into his covenant of love. God’s tears of joy are mixed with the tears of repentance and joy of his African children regenerated to new life. These tears of repentance and joy, through the baptismal waters, join the roaring waters of the Nile that sing and dance happily with its tumultuous and thunderous cataracts and falls, celebrating the regeneration of its peoples. The Plan for the Regeneration of Africa is now being accomplished! Comboni’s dream is now being fulfilled! The victory drum beat and the jubilant dances can now begin to sound freely in the limpid African air!” As the Paschal Sequence says: “Death and Life were locked together in a unique struggle […]. Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: […] Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining!”[note]Paschal Sequence on Easter Sunday. For the quotation, cf. G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 140.[/note]
The third article deals with Jesus preaching parables, in correlation with St. Thomas Aquinas’ writing and teaching, both considered models for formation directors in the seminaries and active missionaries in the field. St. Thomas is a model for seminary lecturers and formation directors in fostering sensitive pedagogy, first suggested by the way Jesus delivered his parables, towards seminarians’ capacity of longing for God and responding to him in a coherent way with all their emotional, rational, and spiritual faculties.[note]Cf. G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 166.[/note]
Jesus’ preaching and Thomas’ teaching inspire also the missionaries in the field. Evoking our Rule of Life, I write: “The missionary will even understand better the Gospel itself while he discovers the values of the people he serves, thus enhancing an enriching interaction between Gospel and cultures through an authentic spirit of dialogue.[note]Cf. RL, n. 57.2.[/note] The proclamation of the mystery of Christ, however, has to be clear and unequivocal.[note]Cf. RL 59: cf. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 22.[/note] Yet care should be taken through different methods in order to present the message in such a way that it can touch the individual conscience and evoke personal adherence and commitment.”[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 185[/note]
The fourth article draws some inspiration from Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis in order to focus on a new approach to mission, on the importance of homily and on the necessity dialogue at all levels. “Dealing with the importance of the homily, I have highlighted ten basic dimensions that the preacher should enhance in his service: 1) favouring a lively relationship between God and his people; 2) embodying motherly attitudes (listening heart, cordiality, humility, joy); 3) communicating truth, beauty, and bounty; 4) proclaiming a captivating synthesis; 5) presenting an idea, a sentiment, an image in positive terms; 6) preparing himself by study, prayer, reflection, and creative pastoral insights; 7) respecting the literary value of the text in view of the central message; 8) personalizing the Word through the method of Lectio divina; 9) listening to the Word, but also listening to the people; 10) fostering the centrality of the Word in the whole process of Evangelization.”[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 185.[/note]
Dialogue at all levels is indispensable for peace in a world tormented by so many divisions and conflicts. The document suggests five forms of dialogue: 1) Dialogue between faith, reason, and science; 2) Ecumenical dialogue; 3) Dialogue with Judaism; 4) Interreligious dialogue; 5) Social dialogue in a context of religious freedom.[note]Cf. G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel,185.[/note]
The fifth article is entitled: “Missionary ecology” in St. Daniel Comboni and the Encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis. Comboni re-opened the mission of Shellal, between Khartoum and Egypt, because of its healthy climate for his missionaries. The place had a lot of natural resources (water, possibility of cultivation, marble for building the Church and the Sisters’ House). The place could also offer opportunities to the priests for pastoral work among the workers building the rail way and opportunities to the Sisters for health ministry for the sick people of the area.
Comboni opened also Malbes in Kordofan near El-Obeid, because it had a healthy climate. Thus his Missionaries and sisters could rest. He had also a pastoral concern. “The main aim of this special settlement is to help young Christian families to safeguard their faith because they ‘do not persevere in the faith if they are in service with Muslim families, who naturally want their servants to be Muslims, and thus the new converts run a serious risk of losing their faith.’ ”[note]Writings, n. 4527; cf. nn. 4528-4529; 4934; 6697; 7254-7255. Comboni writes to his father from Malbes. He informs him about having “a new little Christian community […] where there are several wells, called Malbes.” “We have settled three young married couples after they have received Christian education [….], assigning to each one a plot of land, on the produce of which they must live […] (Writings, n. 6674) (italics mine).[/note] We find here a link with the Encyclical of Pope Francis, where he speaks of what we could call “family ecology”. “Having a home has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of the families’ (Laudato si’, n. 152).”[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 197.[/note]
In the light of the encyclical of Pope Francis, the ecological concern becomes an integral part of evangelization. “Integral ecology in its different dimensions (environmental, human, educational, and spiritual) has to become an essential part of our catechetical, preaching, and homiletic service as Comboni Missionaries. It is not just an appendix, but it has to become an integral part of our proclamation of the message of the Gospel.”[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 200.[/note]
Part III: Spiritual Explorations
The Part III, entitled Spiritual Explorations, presents five articles.
The first deals with spirituality, nourished by Lectio divina and the celebration of the liturgy as the foundation of religious missionary life. I write: “The door is thus opened for religious missionary life to become a real expression of our ‘passion for Christ and for humanity.’ ”[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 220.[/note]
The second article discusses the importance of the Word of God and discernment in the Comboni formation process. This reflection highlights the sharp observations of St. Paul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer about the tension between the natural community, based on the psychological man who is often moved by immaturity due to his or her emotions and passions, and the spiritual community, based on the spiritual man who acts out of spiritual maturity. In the article I report Bonhoeffer’s challenging words: “The basis of all spiritual reality is the clear, manifest Word of God in Jesus Christ. The basis of all human reality is the dark, turbid urges and desires of the human mind. The basis of the community of the Spirit is truth; the basis of the human community is desire.”[note]D. Bonhoeffer, Life together, London: Harper and Row Publishers 1954, 31.[/note]
My reflection is based on the deep awareness that in the Comboni formation process, “the assiduous and patient commitment to the process of Lectio divina progressively moulds our candidates and all of us into “being mission” (esse). It thus helps to assimilate deep convictions and attitudes of faith, hope, and love, in the urge of reaching out to those people that need the liberating message of Jesus Christ (agere). This is the DNA of our identity as Comboni Missionaries. The missionary service that one does is an expression of “doing mission” in the light of the philosophical principle “agere sequitur esse” (“acting follows being”).[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 251.[/note]
The third article studies the Comboni Missionary Spirituality in the light of the Rule of Life of the Institute. It is based on three basic dimensions: 1) Lex credendi, characterized as “being attentive to God’s hour”; 2) Lex orandi as “remaining with the Lord”; 3) Lex Vivendi in terms of “dialogue, witness, and unequivocal proclamation of the Gospel.” Three statements of Comboni summarize the Comboni Spirituality reflected in the Rule of Life: “The missionary must be prepared for everything; for joy and sadness, for life and death, for embrace and abandonment”[note]Writings, n. 218[/note]; “We have Christ himself by our side, fighting and suffering for us and with us”[note]Writings, n. 425.[/note]; “We are not alone in the great work: there is God […]. Si Deus nobiscum, quis contra nos? (“If God is for us, who is against us?”)” [note]Cf. Writings, n. 1185.[/note] All can be summarized by St. Paul’s words: Charitas urget nos (“For the love of Christ urges us on”) (2 Cor 5:14). This is and should be the vital principle that inspires every Comboni Missionary to fulfil his missionary vocation.
The fourth article presents Comboni’s assessment of his collaborators. In this assessment, we may see what I call the “uncoventional holiness of Comboni”. The reflection deals with the letters of Comboni during the last year of his life (1981) concening three of his Sisters (Grigolini, Scandola, and Paganini) and three of his priests (Bonomi, Rolleri, and Losi), who were his strict collaborators.
In the way Comboni assesses his close collaborators, Sisters and priests, we can get the following message that I condense in the book in five pointers. “1) To be a true missionary means to be holy, that is, to have the spirit of faith, hope, and charity. It means to pray, to be humble, and self-giving. It means to be burning for the love of God and people. 2) To be a true missionary means to be also capable, that is, to be full of charity and love for the people, to be creative and enthusiastic in taking various initiatives. It means to be kind and merciful, to draw people with the spirit of the beatitudes, especially with gentleness and meekness. 3) To be a true missionary means to know the languages of people, so as to be able to communicate freely with them, and thus proclaim the Gospel effectively. 4) To be a true missionary means to be spontaneous, relaxed, and jovial, to feel at ease with people, and to have good manners not only inside the community, but also with outsiders. 5) To be a true missionary means to have a good sense of discernment of situations and people. It means to possess the gift of a creative leadership.”[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 251.[/note]
The fifth reflection deals with the missionary spirituality of the Comboni Missionary Fr. Bernardo Sartori, who served most of his life in Uganda. His cause of beatification is in the process. Four sentences of his give the tone of the spiritual caliber of this man: 1) “History has been traversed by a shiver of life, because Christ has become its actor”; 2) “Without the Holy Spirit, religion is tasteless, empty”; 3) “I have to thank the Africans, because they have given meaning to my life”; 4) “The marvellous apostolate […] has transformed my life into a song of joy and enthusiasm.”[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 324-325.[/note]
His writings can just give some insight into the abundance of his experiences of the Spirit. He was speaking and writing “ex abundantia cordis.” He was a very human person, aware of his limits, humbly recognizing them and making fun of them with a smiling and witty serenity. He was a man of great faith and love. He had an intense spiritual life, sustained by an eager desire for holiness, fulfilled by discerning and doing God’s will through a loyal commitment in prayer. He felt the beauty of religious life and the joy of a missionary vocation. He proclaimed it openly: “How beautiful it is to be a missionary!” He thanked African people because they gave him the opportunity to serve them as a missionary, and thus provided him spiritual satisfactions. Fr. Bernardo felt the tender love of God the Father, the enlightening power of Jesus, and the enkindling flame of the Holy Spirit. He was a man of a great hope.[note]Cf. G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 341-342.[/note]
Part IV: Pastoral Explorations
In the Part IV, entitled Pastoral Explorations, I present pastoral considerations that aim at giving guidelines for missionary practice.
The first article offers few lines of missionary spirituality from the pastoral point of view. I here propose a sketch of missionary spirituality and methodology by articulating the various dimensions according to the initials of the Italian adjective SPECIALE. Thus, S stands for: Sensitive Scriptural Spirituality; P stands for: Prophetic Pledging for Peace; E stands for: Enthusiastic Engagement of Energies; C stands for: Consistent Creative Catholicity; I stands for: Inventive Investment in Inculturation; A stands for: Accurate Accountability of Assets; L stands for: Lively Liturgical Leadership; E stands for: Ecumenical Encounter and Inter-religious Dialogue.[note]G. Oliana, The Transforming Power of the Gospel, 245 and note 899.[/note]
The second article deals with the relevance of St. Daniel Comboni for South Sudan in terms of suggesting which society, which Church, and which pastoral approach would Comboni envision for our present times in his former Vicariate of Central Africa, of which he still patron and intercessor. Among the many inspiring insights coming from the Plan and the testimony of Saint Daniel Comboni, I limit myself to five basic dimensions: 1) the centrality of Christ; 2) the centrality of the human person; 3) the Church as “family of God”; 4) proper use of human and material resources; 5) cordial pastoral attitudes.
Four homilies, dealing with Comboni pastoral missionary spirituality, follow. They were delivered in different places and on different liturgical celebrations: Solemnity of St. Daniel Comboni; Solemnity of the Sacred Heart (Italy, Milan); Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (Juba); Solemnity of Pentecost during a Mission Appeal (Canada, Niagara Falls).
Lines for a Spiritual-Pastoral Profile of the Comboni Missionary in the III Millennium
In the Conclusion, I dare describe various dimensions of the profile of the Comboni Missionary of the III Millennium, which I elaborate in ten propositions or theses: 1) Passion for Jesus Christ, the human embodiment of a compassionate God; 2) Passion for the people as co-sharers in “divine charity”; 3) Love for the Scriptures, since “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”; 4) Love for the Liturgy as “source and culmination” of the life and mission of the Church”; 5) Love for the Church as “family of God”; 6) Loving concerns for the “joys and the hopes” of the whole of humanity; 7) Fostering meaningful personal relationships while promoting “the grace of healing faith”; 8) Creatively living the evangelical counsels by becoming “salt and light of the world”; 9) Fostering ecumenical sensitivity and inter-religious dialogue as a way towards an enriched catholicity of the Church “united in diversity” and “diverse in unity”; 10) Fostering “ecological conversion” and “ecological spirituality”.
In sum, I feel that the volume is a rich resource book helpful for theological and spiritual reflection on mission. To my surprise, the book was generally appreciated here in Juba, also by lay people. The copies that the Paulines of Nairobi had in their store are already sold out.
On the whole, I have been personally happy of the enterprise, because it has given me a providential occasion to review the deep motivations of my missionary vocation and life. I really felt the need to put together this book to close a chapter of my life: 55 years among the Combonis, since I entered the Minor Seminary of the Comboni Missionary in Trent when I was 10, and my 65th birthday. This is an occasion for me to profess publicly my missionary faith as a Comboni Missionary. I have struggled to make sense out of it; existentially: in my more than 50 years of Comboni life and in 30 years of missionary service; reflectively: in thinking and writing about it. I believe that theological reflection is an important ministry. Its results are to be shared with others so as to enrich the reasons for our missionary faith, as 1 Pt 3:15: “Give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” That’s why I have written this book: to give an explanation of my motivations for missionary life.
In sum, these reflections have been very beneficial to me personally, because they have helped me to review my missionary experiences with ponderous gratitude. The same happened to Comboni’s Plan for the Regeneration of Africa. If it did not have a great influence on other people, at least he had it on Comboni himself. “Comboni’s Plan was of absolutely crucial significance: not primarily because of its direct influence on those who read it, but because it transformed Comboni himself” (R. Gray).