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 Luigi Corsini — “If I remain silent, I will fail in my duty as a Priest”
In an anonymous letter Father Luigi was warned to stop speaking against certain people in Todos Santos (‘All Saints’) or he would be silenced for good. This was not the first such letter he had received but this time the warning could not have been more explicit.
Todos Santos is a small coastal town in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains on the Pacific shores of the Baja (Lower) California Peninsula. A Jesuit Priest, Father Jaime Bravo SJ, had founded a Mission there in 1723, and following the Jesuits came the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Missionaries of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and then Local Clergy. In 1948, given the difficulties of the apostolate in Baja (Lower) California, the area was entrusted by the Holy See to the Comboni Missionaries. The Apostolic Vicariate (a territory where a Diocese has yet to be established) of La Paz was established shortly thereafter. Twelve years later Father Luigi found himself appointed to the Mission of Todos Santos by fellow Comboni Missionary and Vicar Apostolic of La Paz, Mgr. Giovanni Giordani.
The call of the Americas
Luigi was born on December 15, 1928 at Erbusco in the Province of Brescia in Northern Italy. By the age of twelve he was already in the Junior Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in Crema, and from there went on to the Novitiate in Venegono near Varese where he took his First Vows on September 9th 1947. He continued on in Venegono with his philosophical and theological studies and was ordained a priest in Milan Cathedral on May 30, 1953 by Cardinal (later Blessed) Ildefonso Schuster. After his priestly ordination Father Luigi worked for seven years as a teacher and Vocations Promoter in the Junior Seminaries in Florence and then Crema and, although he had always dreamt of working in Africa, was assigned to the Missions in México. Father Luigi left for México in September 1960 and, after spending a year learning Spanish in México City, was posted to the Vicariate of La Paz. Bishop Giordani appointed him as a Curate in the Mission of Todos Santos.
“Tempted to despair”
Todos Santos is like an oasis in the midst of the surrounding semi-arid countryside, thanks to a rich source of water in the area and guaranteed sunshine all year long, with people working the rich farmland for vegetables, chilies, avocados, papayas and mangoes.
From his arrival in the town Santos, Father Luigi proved a very committed and active young priest who spent much of his time out visiting families. As religious instruction in schools was prohibited by law in México, he set about organizing catechesis in the Mission for children and adults alike. The fruits of his labors were not immediately evident. In a letter to a friend back home, Father Luigi described the pastoral situation in Todos Santos as follows: “In this desert, nothing grows if not watered. But the hearts of these people are more arid than the desert! If I look at the results of my work so far, I would be tempted to despair. Yet I trust in the Almighty who knows how to raise up children for Abraham even out of dry stones.”
Little by little his perseverance paid off. The youth in particular were becoming more and more involved in the life and work of the Parish. The tireless pastoral work and the uncompromising preaching of Father Luigi did not, however, please enemies of the Church who still abounded in México from the 1920’s when the Church in that country suffered open persecution at the hands of an atheistic and anti-clerical Government. Not only were they unhappy with the pastoral success of Father Luigi, they resented the way he openly expressed disapproval of their views and attitudes. In particular he was warned to be less vocal in his opposition to a group of local school teachers who were Members of the local Masonic Lodge. Father Luigi would not, however, remain silent in their regard, neither in private nor in his preaching. He began receiving death threats, but there was nothing he could do, except to continue working as usual. “If I remain silent,” he wrote, “I will fail in my duty as a Priest and become a hired hand who flees when he sees the wolf coming. I will not run away. I will confront the wolf who wants to steal my sheep from me, even if I have to give my life.”
Confronting the wolf
Father Luigi’s favorite pastime in Todos Santos was to go fishing at a freshwater pond near the sea shore. On the morning of May 7, 1963, at about ten o’clock in the morning, Father Luigi called on the Sisters in the Mission to enquire about the preparations for the celebration later that day of Mass for Mother’s Day, and then went to the Church to see how the work on the roof was progressing. He then set off for the freshwater pond.
At lunchtime there was no sign of Father Luigi. Late in the afternoon one of the Parishioners came to the Mission saying he had seen the Father’s car parked at a spot down near the sea shore, in the same place where he had seen it in the morning, but that Father Luigi was nowhere to be seen. Two other Members of the Community decided to go down to the beach and see for themselves. They found the shoes and socks of Father Luigi placed on a rock near the freshwater pond, but there was no sign of him. As it was getting dark, people came with torches and made a search around the pond but found nothing. Eventually two young men dived into the water and, four meters below the surface near where his shoes and socks were found, they discovered the priest’s body. It was brought out of the water, and taken to the local surgery. The doctor found that Father Luigi had suffered a broken collarbone and had significant bruising to the upper part of the body, which could all have been explained by his falling into the water, but then no water was discovered in his lungs clearly indicating that he had not drowned but was already dead before entering the pond.
Although foul play was suspected, it was decided to go ahead the following day with Father Luigi’s Requiem Mass, with many of the Parishioners in attendance, and his mortal remains were buried in the small cemetery close to the Church. The local radio station, ‘Radio La Paz,’ in reporting the incident, described the death of Father Luigi as murder and this led to much disquiet in the State of Baja (Lower) California. The police promised a full investigation.
The Governor ordered the body to be exhumed so that a proper post-mortem examination could be carried out. Although the subsequent report found that Father Luigi had died from a violent blow to the head and that his body had then been thrown into the lake, no one was ever apprehended for the crime. He was only thirty-four years of age. The investigation was quietly dropped after all the publicity surrounding the case had died down.
After the death of Father Luigi many in Todos Santos returned to the practice of the Faith. The Mission flourished and the Comboni Missionaries were able to hand it back to the Local Clergy in 1976 with the legacy of Father Luigi assured. The courage of one who had sacrificed his life in speaking out for the right to teach and preach the truth was not forgotten.