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 onlinehere.
Father Mario Mantovani – a real ‘Gentle Man’
Father Mario spent forty-six years of his missionary life in Karamoja, in the Northeast of Uganda. The Karimojong people called him by his nickname ‘Apalongor,’ which means ‘the owner of the ash-grey colored bull.’ The Karimojong, semi-nomadic cattle-herders and shepherds, give everyone a nickname taken from the names used to describe their cattle. Father Mario knew the local language extremely well and over the years had written two grammars (the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases and words in a language) and published a study on the construction of Ngakarimojong verbs.
Father Mario was born at Orzinuovi, in the Province of Brescia in the North of Italy, on December 18th, 1919. He entered the Junior Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries at eleven years of age and entered the Novitiate in 1938. Two years later he made his First Vows and was ordained a priest in 1946. After eleven years of service in Italy, Father Mario left for Uganda. His first and only appointment was to the region of Karamoja, recognized by the Confrères as one of the ‘most difficult’ Mission territories ever evangelized by the Comboni Missionaries.
In a letter, written from the Mission of Nabilatuk in Southern Karamoja, Father Mario explained his work: “I have chosen twenty-five Catechists, each based about ten kilometers from the other. I have given each of them five assistants whose duty is to assist both Christian adults and children alike, and catechize the local villages of around fifty to sixty people each.”
A plea for help From a Mission near the town of Kotido he wrote: “Here in Losilang there has been no rain and the harvest has been very poor. However, it is worse to notice the air of political rivalry between those who command and those who would like to do so. We Missionaries are misunderstood by the Authorities because they think we are in favor of the Opposition. Instead, we keep completely out of politics. We are in the hands of the Lord and we go forward with faith. If you can, or when you can, please remember my forty-three Catechists, that is, send me something to give them, and also for the people who have no food. I have found many lepers in the District. We ought to help them as well.”
Father Mario was especially concerned with the victims of leprosy and never worried about being in contact with them. He would go into their huts, dress their wounds, and bring them food, blankets, soap and snuffing tobacco (or rather, in keeping with local customs, he would snuff tobacco in their company!). In this way he removed all barriers between himself and those afflicted by leprosy, mixing as easily with them as he did with everybody else. The slight build, the gentle demeanor, the disarming smile, the kind word, … .
Father Mario was also a man of prayer, always available and very understanding. Everyone felt comfortable in his company. Once he wrote: “The risen Christ is our only hope and therefore, even here in Karamoja, even if our life is always in danger, I have erased the word pessimism from my vocabulary. The Lord loves us and showed this by the mystery of His blood shed for all without exception. We have to follow the example of Christ and be available for everyone.”
Warriors armed with guns The difficulties of working among the peoples of Karamoja never discouraged Father Mario. He was always a source of encouragement and of hope to the younger Comboni Missionaries in Karamoja. Father Mario accepted what would turn out to be his last assignment in 2002 to the Mission of Kapedo in the very North of Karamoja which was about three hours’ drive from center of the Diocese in Kotido. At over eighty years of age, that Mission seemed to him to be rather isolated, and he expressed a preference to remain closer to Kotido. Yet, as he was needed in Kapedo, Father Mario humbly and bravely accepted this latest challenge in his long missionary life.
After arriving in the Mission of Kapedo Father Mario began to suffer recurrent bouts of malaria and so decided to seek medical attention from the Sisters in the Mission Health Centre in Kanawat near Kotido. After three weeks receiving treatment in Kanawat, Father Mario felt well enough to return home and so he sent a radio message to Kapedo asking the Brother there, Godfrey Kiryowa, to come and collect him so that he could celebrate the Feast of the Assumption for the Faithful around the Mission.
Brother Godfrey went to collect Father Mario on August 13, 2003. The following morning they left Kanawat on the journey home, and after about an hour’s drive in ‘no man’s land’ between the Dodoth and the Jie, they came across a group of well-armed Dodoth warriors. The Dodoth tribe are traditionally in conflict over grazing rights for their cattle with the neighboring Jie tribe who live in and around Kotido. There had apparently been a cattle raid the night before and the Dodoth had lost a large number of livestock at the hands of the Jie. It would appear the Dodoth warriors, angered by the loss of their cattle, shot at the car as it passed by on the road. Brother Godfrey was hit in the head and died instantly. A young man who was in the car with the two Missionaries managed to control the vehicle until it stopped. He then smashed the car’s window and succeeded in escaping, leaving Father Mario behind. Father Mario also apparently managed to get out of the vehicle and went to hide himself in the surrounding bush.
Alarm raised On the evening of the same day, Father Christopher Aleti, in the Mission of Kanawat, sent a radio message to the Comboni Missionaries in Kapedo to inquire whether the two Confrères had arrived safely. When he was told that they had not yet arrived, he went and informed the local police, but was told that it would not be prudent to go and search for them at night. The following day, the Feast of the Assumption, on August 15, 2003 Father Aleti accompanied by police and soldiers set off early in the morning and followed the road taken by Brother Godfrey and Father Mario. Along the road, near the mountain of Lobel, they found the car abandoned with the remains of Brother Godfrey still inside and immediately arranged for the body to be taken back to the Mission of Kanawat. There was, however, no trace of Father Mario. Father Christopher, with an escort of soldiers, set off on foot to search for him. From the place of the ambush they followed footprints, which appeared to be those of Father Mario, in the hope of finding him still alive. Instead the tracks led them to a local homestead and to the hut of one of the armed warriors who had apparently stolen the shoes of Father Mario and then put them on himself. After returning to the scene of the ambush with the suspect, the group discovered the body of Father Mario with several bullet wounds to the head, chest and legs. He had been executed in the place where the warriors had found him. The individual was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the murder of Father Mario and taken to the Police Station in Kotido. A couple of days later, and in rather mysterious circumstances, he himself was shot dead by the police whilst, allegedly, trying to escape.
The funeral The funeral of ‘Apalongor’ took place in the early afternoon of August 16, 2003 in the Mission of Kanawat amidst prayers, hymns and the wailing of many hundreds of the grief-stricken Faithful. Bishop Denis Kiwanuka of the Diocese of Kotido noted during his homily in the Requiem Mass that Father Mario had made Karamoja his true home and the Karimojong the very reason for his life, and as a result was revered by the people he served down the years. A fellow Comboni Missionary commented at the time: “Karimojong culture believes in sacrifices, so much so that, before setting off on a cattle raid, the warriors offer a head of cattle in sacrifice. In the light of faith and of the Gospel, it will now be the sacrifice of Father Mario who will earn for the Karimojong not herds of cattle, but their allegiance to Christ and to the Church.”
With the killings of Father Mario Mantovani and of Brother Godfrey Kiryowa, the number of Comboni Missionaries who have shed their blood in Uganda over the last fifty years has risen to thirteen. In keeping with his wishes, Father Mario was interred in a simple grave, by the Church in Kanawat.