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 Serri – a man of his word
When he was a child, one of Silvio Serri’s favourite books was, somewhat unusually for a child raised in Sardinia, “The Twenty-Two Martyrs of Uganda” by Archbishop Henri Streicher. He read it over and over again – always dreaming of working one day in that far distant land. In 1958 Silvio was ordained a priest by the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal (later Pope and Saint) Giovanni Battista Montini, but he had to wait another four years before he was able at last to leave for the Missions in Uganda. His long dreamed of adventure had begun. It is said that it was in his native Sardinia that he learnt those qualities that would serve him so well in his work as a Missionary – he was a kind and gentle soul who possessed an extraordinary ability to get on with everyone he came across. Yet he was a resilient individual who was renowned for always keeping to his word and hence his nickname among the Logbara people: ‘The Man of his Word.’
Four years after his Ordination, Father Silvio left for Uganda and arrived in joyful times – only two months’ previously the country had gained its independence from Britain and he was able to witness at first hand the great enthusiasm of Ugandans for their new-found freedom. He was assigned to the Mission of Obongi in Northwestern Uganda among the Logbara ethnic group. After learning the local language, he busied himself with forming Catechists and preparing the ever-larger groups of catechumens who came to the Mission for baptism, together with building chapels and primary schools around the Mission. All was going well. At the end of a tiring day he would famously relax by listening to records of classic music, which he cheerfully recommended to other Missionaries as the ‘best medicine of all.’
Darker times ahead
Six years later in 1968 when he returned to Sardinia for a period of leave, his mother fell ill and died. A few months after his mother’s death, Father Silvio went back to Uganda and only returned home in 1975, just in time to administer the ‘Last Rites’ to his dying father. Darker times in Uganda also lay ahead. The brutal regime of Idi Amin was overthrown in April 1979. His soldiers, desperate but well-armed, were forced to escape before the advancing troops from neighboring Tanzania. They terrorized much of the country as they made their way to the Northwest of Uganda towards Congo and Sudan. On Holy Thursday some of these soldiers showed up at the Mission of Obongi and, pointing a rifle at Father Silvio’s chest, demanded his vehicle and food for the journey. “Here are the keys of the car, and have what is in the pantry,” replied the Missionary with Franciscan simplicity.
Some of the local Christians, however, decided to pursue the soldiers in order to retrieve Father Silvio’s car. The vehicle was essential for the work of the Mission. It was not only used to transport food and water, but was the only reliable means to take sick people to the nearest hospital, seventy miles away, in Arua. They were not going to give up on the only car in the Mission as easily as that! After an extensive search, the vehicle was found just across the border in Southern Sudan. It was taken to the Mission of the Comboni Missionaries in Yei, and was then returned to Obongi.
In spite of this success, however, Father Silvio’s Superiors thought it would be best for him to leave the more isolated Mission of Obongi and move twenty-five miles east to the Mission of Otumbari. The situation in Obongi had become too dangerous. But Father Silvio protested, “Why are you forcing me to betray my Christians here?” He did move to Otumbari but continued to visit Obongi on a weekly basis in order to celebrate Sunday Mass, distribute medicines and to reassure everyone that he would soon be back in their midst.
The fateful return to his beloved Mission
Father Silvio was aware that returning on a permanent basis to the Mission at Obongi was fraught with danger, but in conscience decided that he just had to be in the place where his people needed him most. He therefore went back to Obongi to stay. Some weeks later, on September 11, 1979, Father Silvio drove down the narrow road leading to the River Nile in order to collect water for the Mission, as he did every evening. He returned to the Mission at around 6:30 p.m., half an hour before dark. A man armed with a rifle was waiting for him at the house of the Fathers. Father Silvio stopped and got out of the vehicle. From the tattered uniform he realized that the individual was one of Idi Amin’s former soldiers. “Give me the keys of the car,” the man said. “Here they are,” replied Father Silvio, handing them over to him immediately. “Now give me a can of petrol,” the man ordered. “Come with me and I will give it to you,” the Missionary answered. And they went to the garage, collected the can of petrol and loaded it into the boot of the car.
At this point, a boy close by, seeing that the soldier wanted to steal the vehicle, went to raise the alarm by ringing the church bell. A crowd of people arrived at the Mission. Everything happened in an instant. As he saw the people approaching, the former soldier pointed his weapon at Father Silvio and fired several shots at close range. Father Silvio was hit in the arm and in the stomach, but a bullet had also pierced his heart. The people watched helplessly as the murderer jumped into the car and drove off at speed. Only then did they see that Father Silvio had fallen to the ground. He was still alive when he was taken inside the Fathers’ house, but died moments later. He was only forty-six years old.
The body of Father Silvio was taken to the Mission of Ombaci near Arua, the regional capital of West Nile. He was buried the next day in the cemetery there, mourned by many of those who had known him over the years. The local people had nicknamed Father Silvio “The Man of his Word” because he would always accomplish what he had decided to do and he always kept his word. One of the mourners at the Funeral Mass noted that Father Silvio was fond of repeating to the Christians in Obongi: “I will stay with you, whatever happens” and the man had kept his word.