The Cross is part and parcel of every Christian vocation. For each Christian, the sharing in the Cross of Christ takes on a different form. For some, the identification with Christ’s sufferings reaches the point of giving their lives as in the case of those Comboni Missionaries who wished to remain faithful to their missionary vocation ‘until death’ as taught by their Father and Founder, St. Daniel Comboni.
The following excerpt is from Supreme Witness: Comboni Missionaries Killed in the Line of Duty, an account of the lives of 25 Comboni Missionary priests, brothers, and sisters who died in the service of the Gospel in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Brazil and Mexico. You can find the book online here.
Father Alfredo De Lai – always smiling
It was in the small town of Borgo, in the Valsugana Valley in the North of Italy, that Alfredo was born on September 30, 1913. From his childhood Alfred was known for the constant soft smile on his face and his gentle personality. His mother raised no objections when her son chose to enter the Junior Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in Trento. From there he went to Brescia for his secondary education and then to the Novitiate in Venegono in the Province of Varese where, on October 7, 1932, he took his First Vows as a Comboni Missionary. He studied theology in Verona and, on July 10, 1938, was ordained a priest there. Less than a year later, on January 3, 1939, he left for Ethiopia.
A life of witness
The Comboni Missionaries had arrived in Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, towards the end of 1935 as Military Chaplains to the Italian troops stationed there. This was part of the compulsory ‘Military Service’ in Italy at the time. Father Alfredo joined his Confrères attached to the Army Camp in Socotà. From the start, he felt very uneasy in his role as a Military Chaplain and wrote to his Superiors, “Is it right that we, messengers of the Gospel, apostles of peace and ministers of forgiveness should be together with people bearing arms who, willing or not, have come to usurp a land which is not theirs? Is our life a witness or a counter-witness to what we preach?”
With his Confrères, he decided to draw a clear distinction for the local people between the ‘cross’ on the one hand and the ‘sword’ on the other and they decided to build a small house of their own, at some distance from the fort where the Army were billeted. Their dwelling was a simple structure, four metres square, made of timber and covered with iron sheets. Without help from the Army, the life of the Missionaries was not easy, but they made do. Some months later, Father Alfredo wrote, “The people understand that we have nothing to do with arms and military force, and that we do our best to share their lot in life.” With the arrival of a Missionary Brother, they built a house of mud and stones. They also started a small garden and built a hen-house. In the meantime, Father Alfredo was learning the local language, Amharic, and giving catechism lessons to local children and young adults preparing to receive the Sacraments.
Resist to the last man or surrender?
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had Italy join the Second World War as one of the ‘Axis Powers’ on June 10, 1940, after France had surrendered to Nazi Germany, with a plan to concentrate Italian forces on a major offensive against the British Empire in Africa and in the Middle East. The expected collapse of Britain, however, did not materialize. German and Japanese actions in 1941 led to the entry of the United States and Russia in the War. Mussolini’s plan lay in ruins. In January 1941 British Forces, assisted by Indian, South African, Sudanese and Ethiopian soldiers, invaded Italian East Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland) in a three-pronged attack from the Sudan, Kenya and Aden. The Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa fell in April 1941, and the stronghold of Amba Alagi would fall the following month with the surrender of Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, who was the Viceroy of Italian East Africa. British, Sudanese and Ethiopian troops reached Socotà on April 25, 1941.
With enemy troops massing around the town and just thirty soldiers under his command, the Italian Captain ordered the Missionaries into the fort in anticipation of a British-led attack. The following morning, after consulting the Missionaries, the Captain decided there was nothing to do but surrender. Any resistance would have only led to the pointless shedding of blood on both sides. He therefore went to the British Commander to discuss terms and in the interim ordered that all the ammunition in the fort be blown up and the heavy machine guns be put out of action. While the Captain was discussing terms with the British, some of his soldiers arrived with the news that orders had been received from the Italian High Command in Amba Alagi that they were to resist to the last man as Italian troops had done elsewhere. Realizing that, without heavy arms or ammunition, resistance would have been simply suicidal, the Captain made an agreement with the British Commander: a number of Sudanese and Ethiopian soldiers would be sent forward and, after a symbolic exchange of fire, the Italians would raise a white flag and surrender.
“For God’s sake, stop the killing!”
At around 12:30 a.m., after an hour of both sides firing in the air, the Italian soldiers laid down their arms and surrendered. That was meant to put an end to the shooting but something went wrong. Upon entering the fort the Sudanese and Ethiopian troops began to attack and kill the unarmed Italian soldiers and set fire to the buildings. Seeing a massacre taking place before his very eyes, Father Alfredo, with a crucifix in his hand, rushed to the Sudanese and Ethiopian troops shouting, “For God’s sake, stop the killing!” One of the soldiers snatched the crucifix from Father Alfred’s hand and shot him three times at close range with a handgun. Mortally wounded, Father Alfredo fell to the ground. It was Saturday, April 26,1941. He was only twenty-eight years of age and was the first Comboni Missionary to die violently and needlessly on African soil.