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 Antonio Zuccali — His Last Smile
He was never very strong, his health was poor and he was often sickly. Nevertheless, from his earliest years he was extremely lively and he could often be seen playing in the streets of San Gallo, a small village four miles to the north of San Giovanni Bianco in the Province of Bergamo. It was there that Antonio was born on July 11, 1922. It was a large family and his parents were very devout, so it was no surprise that Antonio, once he had finished primary school, entered the local Diocesan Seminary in Clusone.
The missionary vocation realized
On completing his secondary education, Antonio felt a growing desire to follow a missionary vocation rather than the secular priesthood in and around Bergamo. He confided in several people, but they all advised him to forget that ‘strange idea.’ Yet he could not, and although the decision was not an easy one, he eventually informed the Rector of the Seminary and his parents. It had become his heart’s desire and there was nothing left to discuss with anyone.
Antonio entered the Novitiate of the Comboni Missionaries on September 21, 1943, and two years later he took his First Vows in Verona where he continued his studies of theology until he was ordained a priest on May 1, 1947. For four years he worked in the General Administration of the Order in the Motherhouse in Verona and, in April 1951, he left for Juba in Southern Sudan. His first appointment was to the Mission of Isoke where he stayed until 1959. He wrote to a friend, “I have now been in Sudan for three months, in a Mission with about sixteen thousand Christians out of a population of eighty thousand inhabitants. We have a large number of catechumens and we run twenty primary schools. The missionary life is not just sunshine, mosquitoes, malaria, thirst and travelling by motor cycle. There is also an immense and advancing movement of the grace of God that enables one to overcome all obstacles. We Missionaries are just poor instruments, often unsuitable, but every day we witness the marvels God is doing. The satisfaction of being a Missionary is so great that it overcomes every difficulty.”
Increasing difficulties following Independence
Those years were particularly difficult for Sudan. With Britain and Egypt recognizing the Independence of the country on January 1, 1956, the National Unionist Party (NUP) under Prime Minister Isma’il al-Azhari came to power through its dominance of the first Parliament. After declaring Arabic the official language of the country, the Government in Khartoum reneged on promises to the South to create a federal system of administration in the country, and this led to a mutiny by Southern Army Officers that would spark seventeen years of bloody civil war from 1956 until 1972. The Authorities in Khartoum accused Missionaries in the South of siding with the rebels and assisting their cause, and so began to place ever-tighter restrictions on their work and ministry. At first the movements of Missionaries were curtailed and they were confined to the compound of their respective Missions, following which their schools and clinics were nationalized and they were prohibited from working in them, and then they were forbidden to teach catechetics or to baptize children. At the same time the Authorities were refusing to renew the residence permits of Missionaries living in Southern Sudan, particularly of those who left the country for any reason, or to grant new residence permits to Missionaries seeking to enter the South. The aim was evidently to reduce the number of Missionaries present in the country by stealth.
‘Come to visit my Mission’
Missionaries knew that if, for whatever reason, they had to leave Sudan, they would not be allowed to return and so many decided to remain at their posts and to ‘hold on to the end.’ Though tired and worn out, Father Antonio continued his missionary work. However, one day he was shocked by news from home telling him that his father was very sick and wanted to see him before he died. He wrote to his brother, “I had a sleepless night after I read your letter informing me of our father’s serious condition. I know how much you would like me to come home but I have to remain here.” He enclosed a letter to his father saying, “Dear Father, before you pass away I want to thank you, with all the love of a son, for all you have done for me in your life: you gave me life, brought me up, educated me in the Faith and you gave me constant good example which helped me to become a priest; for allowing me to join the Comboni Missionaries; and for all your prayers for me and for your support during all these years. As I write, I have to keep the letter at a distance because of my tears. You know how much I would like to be present, how much I am pained at not being able to see you and with what torment I spend my days. You and I have sacrificed these things for love of God.” The letter ends, “When you go to heaven, you must come to visit my Mission. Of all your children, I am the most needy, what with the storm clouds darkening over all our Missions in Sudan, anything can happen.”
Faith and hope in God
In May 1959, Father Antonio was transferred to the Mission of Torit. The situation was becoming more and more difficult. He wrote to a friend, “We believe that, sooner or later, the Government will expel all of us.” The following year Father Antonio was asked to go to the Mission of Kworijik. It was a difficult change for him, as he was to write, “I am alone, in a difficult Mission where I do not know the language. I had to obey the call of God, contrary to my own wishes. All I have left is my faith and hope in God.” At Kworijik there was a leprosy center with seven hundred victims of leprosy. Father Antonio always had a soft spot for victims of leprosy and derived great spiritual benefit from ministering to them, “I believe my work among the lepers is a very special grace from God. Humanly speaking, it is difficult to be with these people, but I have got used to them and take no notice. They trust Missionaries. They know we love them and are not afraid of contracting their disease.”
Father Antonio continued his work despite the loneliness, the fatigue, and the ever more stringent restrictions placed upon his ministry by the Authorities. In late 1962 his name appeared on a list of Missionaries who were to leave the country forthwith and he was obliged to leave the land of Sudan. Within little more than a year, the more than two hundred Comboni Missionary Fathers, Brothers and Sisters remaining in Southern Sudan were forced to follow suit.
A new challenge in the Congo
Father Antonio returned to Italy and, after a period of rest at home, begged his Superiors to allow him to return to Africa where he had left his heart. His wishes were granted and he was asked to join the first group of Comboni Missionaries who were assigned to establish a presence in Congo, close to the borders with Southern Sudan. The group of eight Missionaries, six Priests and two Brothers, left for Rungu in the Northeast of the country on December 8, 1963. In his first letter home Father Antonio wrote, “The Mission has ninety villages and more than seventy thousand inhabitants of whom only five thousand are Christian. The Belgian Missionaries have, however, left us a legacy of four thousand Catechumens.” Father Zuccali immediately set about learning the local language and within the first few months had already travelled hundreds of kilometers around the Mission by foot in order to get to know the local people, their customs, their traditions and their way of life.
The country was, however, in the midst of a bloody civil war. On August 2, 1963, on his return to Congo from exile in China, Pierre Mulele, the former Education Minister of Patrice Lumumba, had launched a rebellion against the ‘imperalist’ Government in Léopoldville (now known as ‘Kinshasa’). Within a matter of months, the so-called ‘Simba Rebels’ had conquered nearly half of the country. Everywhere they went they targeted expatriates whom they regarded as enemy collaborators, and many including nearly one hundred Catholic Missionaries lost their lives. On August 5, 1964, the rebels captured Stanleyville (now known as ‘Kisangani’), proclaimed the ‘People’s Republic of Congo’ and took hundreds of expatriates living in Eastern Congo prisoner.
His presence betrayed to the rebels
The rebels attacked the Mission of Rungu on October 29, 1964 and held the eleven Missionaries they found there captive. Nearly a month later on November 25, 1964 the rebels fled the Mission upon receiving the news that Belgian paratroopers had reached the neighboring city of Paulis (now known as ‘Isiro’) with the aim of crushing their revolt. The Missionaries took refuge in the relative safety of the nearby forest. Belgian troops, however, never advanced beyond Paulis which allowed the rebels to re-group and return to continue their murderous campaign of terror in Rungu. When the rebels discovered that their prey had escaped, they threatened to kill all the local inhabitants, if the Missionaries were not returned. In order to avoid a bloodbath, the Missionaries decided to return to the Mission and surrender to the rebels. It was the first day of December 1964.
Father Antonio was not with the group of Missionaries when they decided to surrender to the rebels as he had gone earlier in the day to assist a young Belgian farmer who was reportedly very sick. The following morning, Father Antonio decided to go to a local village with the young Belgian to look for medicine. Unfortunately, someone betrayed their presence to the rebels who arrived with their guns at the ready. The wife of a school teacher, risking her own life, tried to save them but to no avail. Father Antonio just had time to hear the confession of the Belgian, to give the woman his blessing and smile at the rebels. A volley of shots brought him tumbling to the ground. His body, together with that of the young Belgian, was thrown into the Rungu River, and their bodies never found. Father Antonio was forty-two years old, and had been in the Congo for less than a year.