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 Silvio Dal Maso – Living through three wars
Father Silvio Dal Maso had been shot dead by a single bullet. The holes made by the bullet that had passed through his neck were visible on both sides. He had no other wounds. Not far from him was the lifeless body of his fellow Comboni Missionary, Father Antonio Fiorante. Father Silvio was sixty-four years old when he was killed. He had served in Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. His missionary work was interrupted by three different wars. His life was marked by a love of simplicity and an extraordinary resilience in situations that would have led others to have given up long before.
Father Silvio was ordained a priest on April 16, 1939 and six months later was assigned by the Italian Authorities as a Chaplain in Ethiopia as part of his compulsory Military Service. The city of Gondar was his first destination. The city is nestled among hills and rising above these are the walls of the famous castle built by the Portuguese in the 16th Century. Its fertile land produces teff, durra, chickpeas, carrots, chilli and coffee. When Father Silvio arrived in Ethiopia, however, Gondar and other towns and villages of the country were occupied by Italian troops. Father Silvio wrote to a friend, “I do not like this combination of the ‘sword’ and the ‘cross.’ It does not reflect the spirit of the Gospel … I do not know how it will all end up.” While serving in Gondar, he was on friendly terms with the local Christian Community and taught catechism to children and young adults preparing to receive the Sacraments. Later, after completing his Military Service, Father Silvio was sent to the Community of the Comboni Missionaries in Asmara. Although he would have preferred the rigours of life in a rural Mission, he worked hard to create an atmosphere around the Community in which the Gospel could be received. A newspaper in Asmara at the time attributed to him the merit of having founded a ‘Sports Association’ at the Genius Village of Asmara. There, many people would come together for sporting activities, and he had the opportunity of explaining the Faith to them. When the Italian troops were defeated, Father Silvio and the other Comboni Missionaries in Ethiopia and Eritrea were confined in a prison camp. “Have no fear,” he wrote to his Superiors in Verona, “One can do plenty of good here too. In fact I would say that there is more need for priests here than anywhere else.” This sentence summarized his programme of ministry among his fellow prisoners.
At the end of the Second World War, all the Italian Missionaries were expelled from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and forced to interrupt the work they had carried out in that land over many years. After a short holiday in Italy, Father Silvio was sent to Wau, in the heart of Southern Sudan, in 1947. It was in precisely that year when a Comboni Missionary Bishop, Edward Mason, was appointed to the Local Diocese, and the Bishop decided to send Father Silvio to the Dinka area. Father Silvio was delighted, “I have always dreamed of that land,” he wrote, “I have read the reports of our first Missionaries there, Father Olivetti and Father Nebel. That is the right place for me.”
Serving among the Dinka people of Sudan
The Dinka ethnic group inhabit a vast region in Southern Sudan that forms a seasonal wetland when the Nile River floods its banks with the onset of the rainy season around the beginning of May every year. Sorghum is the staple crop and planting begins with the arrival of the rains. August is the month of abundance for the Dinka people. Crops are harvested and the tributaries of the Nile are teaming with fish. The thatched-roof huts, made out of tree poles and mud, where the Dinka people live, are built on high ground to avoid the floods. This was the environment where Father Silvio lived for many years in the Missions of Mayen, Abyei, Thiet, Warap and Kuajok. The Dinka are a proud people and Father Silvio learned their language, traditions and culture. He used to visit their villages where he would stop to talk with people, and often remained talking with the elderly for hours under the shade of a tree. He traveled by foot throughout the region for fifteen days at a time, bringing with him only the essentials: a portable altar for the celebration of Mass, some medicines for the sick, snuffing tobacco for the elderly and some drinking water, food and a change of clothes.
After gaining Independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan experienced difficult times. The Government in Khartoum, consisting predominantly of Muslim Arabs, began to restrict the activity of Christian Missionaries. Their schools and clinics were nationalized, they were prevented from opening new Missions and then they were forbidden to teach the Faith or to baptize children. The Christians in the South of the country rebelled against the Government in Khartoum and a bloody civil war ensued until Southern Sudan gained its Independence from the North on July 9, 2011. In 1964, after sixteen years working in Sudan, Father Silvio was expelled from the country as, according to the Sudanese Authorities, there was no longer any reason for him to remain on. He was escorted to the airport in Juba by two policemen and summarily sent on his way to Italy; once again a war had interrupted his missionary work.
Assigned to Uganda
Starting over again at the age of fifty-three is not easy, but Father Silvio was ready to do it for love of the Missions. He was sent to work among the Alur ethnic group in North-western Uganda. Learning the language was facilitated by the affinity between the Alur language and the Dinka language he had learned in Sudan. He began his pastoral work as a Curate in the Missions of War and Zeu, but in 1972 found himself working in the Mission of Pakwach. Pakwach is on the banks of the River Nile and is the gateway to the Ugandan region of West Nile. It is acknowledged as an ‘inferno’ of stifling heat, high humidity, ever-present mosquitoes and many species of venomous snakes. As ever, Father Silvio was not deterred. Encouraged by his long experience among the Dinka people, he undertook long safaris visiting the local Christians of the area, village by village, homestead by homestead and family by family. Although the heat, the mosquitoes and the bats would prevent him from sleeping well for days on end, he never complained. He was renowned for constantly urging his Christians to keep helping those less fortunate than themselves, and there was always, he would insist, someone less fortunate than them.
The terrible night of Martyrdom
Uganda had meanwhile fallen into the abyss. Idi Amin had come to power in 1971, and widespread torture and killing were the order of the day. People lived in terror of being arrested and simply disappearing without trace. When, eight years later, the Tanzanian Army invaded Uganda with the aim of deposing Amin’s brutal dictatorship, soldiers of the regime fled north towards Sudan and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Such former soldiers of Amin had been in the area around Pakwach for several days when on the morning of Thursday, May 3, 1979, they arrived at the Mission to demand petrol, food and money. The two Missionaries appear to have given them everything that they had at their disposal. There were, however, no eye witnesses as to what happened next. All we know is that the lifeless bodies of Father Silvio and Father Antonio were found next morning in the Fathers’ house by the Local Sisters working in the Mission. Father Silvio was found sitting on the floor leaning against the wall, in a pool of blood, with his head up and his hands and feet tied with rope. He was wearing a t-shirt. The simplicity of his life and his total gift of self to the people to whom he was sent could not have been expressed more eloquently. Father Silvio and Father Antonio were buried together in the cemetery of the neighboring Mission of Angal.
Read Father Antonio Fiorante’s story here.