The Institute of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus takes its origin from the charism of Saint Daniel Comboni who perceived that the time had come for the regeneration of the African people[i].
The Nineteenth Century, especially the pontificate of Gregory XVI, was distinguished by a great upsurge of missionary activity in the Church, particularly in Africa. The Vicariate of Central Africa was established in 1846 under the leadership of Bishop A. Casolani, of Father M. Ryllo and, later, of Bishop I. Knoblecher. The missionary initiative of the Mazza Institute of Verona, to which Daniel Comboni belonged, was directed towards this Vicariate.
Bishop Daniel Comboni was born in Limone sul Garda, Italy, on 15th March 1831.
As a priest of the Mazza Institute, he took part in the missionary expedition to Central Africa that reached Holy Cross mission, in the Southern Sudan, in 1858.
On September 15th 1864, during the triduum in preparation for the beatification of the Servant of God Margaret Mary Alacoque, while praying at St Peter’s tomb, he conceived the “Plan for the regeneration of Africa» [ii]. Daniel Comboni’s Plan, fruit of his contemplation of the mystery of the Heart of Christ the Good Shepherd, intended to involve the entire Church [iii], in a unified effort for all of Africa and proposed to make the Africans missionaries to their own people [iv].
Having tried in vain to involve different Societies in carrying out his Plan Daniel Comboni was led on 1st June 1867 to found in Verona the «Istituto per le missioni della Nigrizia[v]». It was an Institute of diocesan right, composed of priests and coadjutor brothers [vi] of different nationalities, without religious vows but bound by an oath of allegiance and loyalty to the Institute and the mission. Its purpose was the evangelization of Africa. The first rules date from 1871[vii].
Comboni’s entire life and activity were inspired by the vision of his Plan. The founding of his Institute, his Petition on behalf of the Africans at the First Vatican Council, his apostolate in Central Africa, his missionary promotion in the Church in the major European centers, the founding of the «Pie Madri della Nigrizia» and the rebirth of the Vicariate Apostolic of Central Africa were part of the realization of his Plan. In 1872 he was appointed Pro-Vicar and in 1877 named Bishop and Vicar Apostolic of Central Africa.
The Petition of 24th June 1870, signed by 70 Council Fathers and included in the agenda of the First Vatican Council, was never debated due to the interruption of the Council itself.
Bishop Comboni died at Khartoum on the 10th October 1881, before he was able to consolidate his institutions which he had envisaged on an international scale [viii]. After the destruction of the missions during the Madhi revolt, his successor, Bishop F. Sogaro, petitioned [ix] and received from the Holy See permission to transform the Institute into a religious congregation with the title of «Filii Sacri Cordis Jesu». The government of the Society was entrusted to a few priests from the Society of Jesus, who helped the Comboni Institute to strengthen the form of life consecrated by the vows. The first professions took place 1887. The Society was officially approved by a «Decretum laudis» of 7th June 1895. The first General Chapter of the Society was held in 1899.
On 19th February 1910 the Constitutions, which declared that the purpose of the Society was the conversion of the people of Central Africa and «of other peoples that might be entrusted to the Society by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith»[x], were definitively approved.
Because of tensions that arose within the Society, on 27th July 1923 the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith reluctantly decided to divide the Society into two Congregations, one predominantly Italian, which kept the original name «Sons of the Sacred Heart of Jesus» (FSCJ) and the other, predominantly German-speaking, which took the name Missionaries, Sons of the Sacred Heart (MFSC).
Both Societies developed on their own separate lines although the international thrust was weakened. However, the missionary purpose and vocation remained basically unchanged. New fields of work were opened in Latin America in obedience to the Spirit, who indicated that the time had come for that continent, and to the Holy See which had requested that the whole missionary Church be involved.
Under the stimulus of the Second Vatican Council, the growing awareness of the Founder’s living presence and the desire for reunion, which had never died out, were given fresh strength.
On 2nd September 1975 the two General Chapters, gathered in joint session at Ellwangen/Jagst, Germany, decided to reunite the two Congregations into one single Institute, on the basis of a special juridical ordinance. In a referendum this decision was ratified by an overwhelming majority of the members of both Societies.
On 22nd June 1979, Feast of the Sacred Heart, the opening day of the 12th Special General Chapter, the reunion of the two Congregations of Comboni was officially sanctioned by a decree of the S. Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The new name of the reunited Institute is Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus (MCCJ).
In reading their history, the missionaries of Comboni acknowledge the action of the Spirit [xi] from whom their Society has its origin through the Founder and who has led them to a greater understanding and realization of the original inspiration.
This history has been written by the humble sacrifice of the confreres who have dedicated their entire lives to the Gospel.
[i] Cf CEA, p. 236
[ii] Ibid. p. 215 ff.
[iii] Cf MDC, p. 280 ff (n. 116 ff).
[iv] Cf ibid., p. 294 ff (n. 131 ff).
[v] Cf ibid., p. 287 (n. 125).
[vi] Cf CEA, p. 252, 253.
[vii] Cf ibid., p. 250 ff.
[viii] Cf MDC, p. 304 ff (n. 142 ff).
[ix] Cf «La Nigrizia», year VI, Jan. 1888, p. 11 ff.
[x] «Costituzioni e regole», 1910, n. 1.
[xi] Cf AD 23