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 Antionio Fiorante – a heart filled with joy
Antonio was a young boy of twelve years of age, living in the beautiful green hills and mountains of Civitanova del Sannio of Central Italy, when he decided he would be a missionary priest in Africa. His dream came true when he was ordained a priest on June 3, 1950 in Milan Cathedral by Cardinal (later Blessed) Ildefonso Schuster, and three years’ later finally left for Africa. He had been assigned to Southern Sudan, and he reached there in January 1954.
When Father Antonio arrived in the heartland of the Dinka, a proud ethnic group who inhabit a wetland, infested by mosquitoes and malaria, he had nothing but enthusiasm for his Mission. One can sense this from the first letter he wrote back home, “Africa scares only those who have never seen it. Those who know the Continent are fascinated by it, they love it and never want to leave.” For him, it was a great adventure: “We left the Port of Naples at midnight on December 27, 1953, on a ship of the Esperia Company, and we set sail for Alexandria in Egypt. From there we took a train to Cairo, and then another train to Shellal, where a boat was waiting for us. We sailed down the Nile through Egypt for three days. Then, we crossed the desert by train, seeing nothing but sand for three hundred miles. We arrived in Khartoum twelve hours after the scheduled time. After a brief stop in Khartoum, we boarded a small plane to Wau, the capital of Wau State in Southern Sudan. From there we reached the Mission of Mboro by car. We are here at last – in the heart of Africa. Now, my first duty is to learn the local language and culture. Mboro is a Mission with about five thousand Catholics, scattered through the surrounding swamps and hills for a radius of about a hundred miles.”
“A Missionary is always happy” Father Antonio was a very cheerful and optimistic individual. His love for the elderly and for the sick was immediately obvious and much appreciated. His determination to learn local languages was also admired and enabled him to further work in the Missions of Kayango, Gordhiim and Mbili. Not only did he become fluent in Dinka, but he could converse easily in Jur and Ndogo. In a letter to a priest friend he wrote, “We are constantly on the move. Difficulties make life adventurous. In spite of the many hardships, a missionary is always happy wherever he is. Why? Because the heart of one who does good for others is always filled with joy.”
Expulsion from the Mission he loved Yet harder times were ahead which would demand much more than a cheerful heart! With the outbreak of the first civil war in Sudan between the Islamic North and the partly-Christian and partly-Animist South, a conflict had begun that would continue for seventeen years, from 1956 until the signing of the ‘Addis Ababa Agreement’ in 1972. The cost, in terms of lives lost, is estimated at over five hundred thousand, of whom only a minority of victims were armed combatants. More than two million people were displaced from their homes. Sudan, in the words of one Missionary, became “a bottomless pit of misery and despair.” The Comboni Missionaries were seen by the Authorities in the North as ‘inconvenient witnesses’ to the cycle of relentless violence and destruction being wreaked on the people of the South. At first the Government in Khartoum curtailed the movements of Missionaries and they were confined to the compound of their Mission, this was followed by a ban on them working in the clinics and schools they had founded and were running, and then came the gradual refusal to renew their residence permits. In November 1962, Father Antonio became the first Comboni Missionary to be forced to leave his beloved Mission and return to Italy. The official reason given was that his residence permit was not being renewed, and so he could not lawfully remain in the country, but everyone knew what the Authorities in the North were really aiming for: the expulsion of all Missionaries working in the South. Within little more than a year, the Government would issue a decree expelling from the country the more than two hundred Comboni Missionary Fathers, Brothers and Sisters remaining in Southern Sudan.
“Let me go somewhere else” But Father Antonio did not wait around. By the time his Confrères and the Sisters been expelled from South Sudan, he had already been assigned to another Mission. He had written to the Superiors in Verona, “I am too young to play the role of a retired returnee. I cannot stay idle at home when I can work for the Kingdom of God in the Missions. Send me wherever you deem more necessary.” In 1963, Father Antonio was already in the Mission of Ombaci in North-western Uganda. After learning the local language, he was posted to the Mission of Angal. After two years in Angal his Superiors asked him to move to Parombo, near Lake Albert, to open a new Mission there. His answer was always ‘Yes,’ and that ‘Yes’ was always accompanied by an enormous smile. This did not mean however, that Father Antonio found things easy. In 1966, he wrote to a Confrère, “I am tired, but far from running out of energy. I am working hard to found the new Mission. From the rising of the sun until 8:30 a.m. I serve as a priest. Then from 8:30 a.m. till sunset I become a ‘worker-priest.’ You should see how dirty and exhausted I am at the end of the day! After supper, I still have a few hours to recharge my ‘batteries’ in front of the Lord in the chapel. In the morning, I am a ‘young fellow’ again wanting to change the world. We must finish the Church as soon as possible. Then we will think of the Presbytery. After that we will begin with the building of chapels in the outlying areas of the Mission. You know better than I that the beginnings of any work are always difficult. However, difficulties do not scare us, do they?”
All this manual labour was accompanied by great pastoral success. It was a period when people were literally flocking to the Missions. Children and young people wanted education and the sick needed medical care. Dispensaries and schools were built around churches and chapels. All these activities, however, did not distract the Missionaries from the work of preaching the Good News and explaining the Faith. Catechumenates were packed, and the Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, Holy Communion and Confirmation were administered.
Achieving development with words and deed Father Antonio was also passionately devoted to the social and economic well-being of the people in his care as well. He was a champion of what, in later decades, would be termed, ‘integral human development.’ In his hectic schedule, he could always find time for ‘bread and butter’ issues. One of his great achievements was the founding of the ‘Fishermen’s Cooperative’ in the fishing village of Panyimur. He would say, “Our evangelising action must be carried out in words and deeds. The Church today cannot limit herself to proclaiming the Good News, but must be promoting the life of the people.” Great was his joy when the fishermen were able to provide themselves with larger, safer boats and eventually with a truck to transport their dried, smoked or salted fish to the markets of Kampala and to those of the nearby Congo. By combining their efforts the fishermen were able to guarantee a larger and more regular income with which to provide for themselves and their families.
Father Antonio was to remain in the Mission of Parombo until 1975 when, after a period of home leave, he was posted to the Mission of Pakwach. On his return to Uganda he wrote to his family, “Here I am in Africa again for the fourth time. I feel fantastic and have no regrets. It was good to be with you. Yet, only now do I really feel at home. As I crossed the bridge over the Nile at Pakwach, I felt as if I had returned to my motherland. Seeing once again the places where I have worked for so many years, I felt like I was born there. When people came to greet me, it felt as if I were surrounded by joyful relatives who were greeting a member of their own family. I am really happy to be here again.” Although the Missionaries working in Pakwach had to leave the place at regular intervals to recover from recurrent bouts of tropical illnesses, Father Antonio never complained and wrote in a letter to a friend, “When one works for the Lord, life is always beautiful. I am working as hard here in Pakwach as I did in Parombo but my heart is always full of joy.”
On February 17, 1979, Father Antonio, together with almost all the Missionaries present in the country, was in Kampala for the national celebrations of the ‘Centenary of the Arrival of the First Catholic Missionaries in Uganda’ on the shores of Lake Victoria on February 17, 1879. In his heart and in the hearts of all the Faithful, there was great rejoicing, but because of the political situation, there was also a deep sense of foreboding. Idi Amin had declared war on Tanzania on October 30, 1978 and sent troops to invade and annex part of the Kagera Region of Tanzania, which he claimed belonged to Uganda. Aided by Ugandan nationalists in the form of the ‘Uganda Liberation Front,’ Tanzanian troops eventually over-powered the Ugandan Army. As the Tanzanian-led forces neared Kampala, the capital of Uganda, on April 13, 1979, Amin fled the city. Escaping first to Libya, he finally settled in Saudi Arabia. Former soldiers of the regime terrorized much of the country as they made good their escape, robbing and looting on the way, through the North of Uganda and on to Congo and Sudan.
Martyred The cycle of wanton violence sadly also hit the Mission of Pakwach. On May 3, 1979, at around four o’clock in the afternoon, some former soldiers of Amin arrived at the Mission and demanded a supply of petrol, food and money. Father Silvio Dal Maso, Father Antonio’s Confrère, informed them that there was no petrol left, but the soldiers wanted to check the store for themselves. They found a barrel of diesel and rolled it towards the main road.
What happened later was narrated by Sister Paula, a Member of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, who was living in their Convent in the Mission at the time: “About 9:00 p.m., we heard some dogs barking and the sound of people speaking loudly in the Fathers’ house. Terrorised by fear, we locked ourselves in our house. The following morning, as usual, we went to the Church for morning Mass but we saw that it was still locked. We, therefore, decided to go to the house of the Fathers. The main door was open as were all the doors inside. The house had been completely ransacked. When I entered the room of Father Antonio, I found his body together with that of Father Silvio on the floor, bound with rope and with a single gunshot wound to the head.”
The news of the murders spread fast, and people began to congregate in the Mission. The Sisters of Mary Immaculate decided to transport the bodies of the two Missionaries to the neighboring Mission of Angal. Clothed in liturgical vestments, the bodies of the two martyrs were placed in front of the altar of the Church, and after the Funeral Mass were interred together in the same grave in the cemetery of Angal.
Father Antonio was only fifty-three years old. The news of his untimely death reached Civitanova del Sannio on May 12, 1979. The whole town was deeply shocked and saddened. His fellow citizens had loved their ‘Missionary’ and had supported his apostolic work in Sudan and Uganda over the years. Though aware that their hero had always shunned publicity, they decided to erect a monument in his memory in the yard of a local primary school named after him. The plaque on the marble column that supports a bronze bust of Father Antonio reads, “Before medicines and bread, he offered kindness, friendship and a wonderful smile.”