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 Egidio Ferracin – “As I have loved you”
His attackers seized him roughly, bound him hand and foot and then, raining down blows and insults, dragged him into the bush. Forty yards in, they tied him to a tree, stabbed him a number of times and finished him off with a rifle volley. Father Egidio Ferracin was dead, murdered at fifty years of age, after more than twenty years working as a missionary in his beloved Uganda.
The Little Seminarian
Egidio’s love of Africa began when he was a young child in Malo, in the Province of Vicenza in Northern Italy. His small town looked out over the plains to the city of Padua. Often Missionaries would preach in the Parish Church of Malo, speaking of the faraway continent of Africa. Lively and intelligent, little Egidio was fascinated by the stories he heard. He begged his mother and father to let him enter the Junior Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in Padua. His insistence won through, and after finishing primary school at the early age of ten, Egidio was allowed to join the Seminary by his parents.
But Egidio’s enthusiasm did not mean that life in the Junior Seminary was easy for him and his capacity for being distracted easily certainly did not help matters! Even though he found things difficult, he would often say to the Fathers running the Seminary and to his companions, “I feel a great desire to dedicate myself to God and give my life for Africa.” When Egidio completed his secondary school education, he was more determined than ever to become a missionary and on September 24, 1955 he entered the Novitiate of the Comboni Missionaries in Florence. Egidio was often corrected by the Novice-Master for his behavior but he was never abashed. “If God has made me like this,” he would respond, “What can I do about it?” On September 9, 1957, the Feast of St. Peter Claver, Egidio consecrated himself to God for the Missions by taking his First Vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.
He then went to Verona for his philosophical and theological studies. “I find studying very hard,” he wrote, “but I want to prepare for the Missions as best I can.” A classmate said of him at the time, “Egidio was very distracted. He even seemed to be doing it on purpose.” But in spite of his academic struggles, no one doubted his dedication, and on September 9, 1963 Egidio took Final Vows. “This was a very important step for me,” he wrote at the time, “and I beg the Lord to give me the strength to give my life willingly for the Missions.” Nine months later, on June 28, 1964, Egidio was ordained a priest in the Cathedral of Verona. Father Egidio was assigned to Uganda and arrived there in early August 1965. His first appointment was to the Mission of Aboke, followed by time in the Missions of Dokolo, Alenga, Alito, Amolotar, Minakulu and a final return to Alenga in March 1986.
The travails of the ‘Pearl of Africa’
Father Egidio witnessed at first hand the intense political rivalry in Ugandan politics. Coming to Uganda just three years after independence, he shared the pains of a country struggling to establish peace and democracy. He wrote home, “Our work has become more difficult in recent years. Once it was the climate that decimated the Missionaries and caused their worst sufferings, but now it is politics that makes our work so difficult. I know the Lord will not abandon us though, and the people appreciate our apostolate.” These were steps along a journey filled with joy and enthusiasm, despite the turmoil of the country to which he had been sent.
Father Egidio faced all the troubles bravely and entered unreservedly into the sorrows as well as the joys of the people he served. People along the roads would greet him as he passed, knowing he would almost certainly stop for a friendly chat. Victims of leprosy, in particular, knew Father Egidio well and were very fond of him. And all the while, the political situation in Uganda worsened.
Those were terrible years. President Idi Amin had declared war on Tanzania in 1978 and invaded the country. The Tanzanian army repelled the invasion and entered Uganda with the purpose of removing Amin from power. On April 11, 1979, Kampala, the capital of Uganda, fell to Tanzanian troops. What followed was terror and chaos: an unending litany of revenge killings, violence and robbery as marauding soldiers of the Amin regime fled north towards Sudan and Congo. Many Missions and Churches were attacked and looted.
On December 10, 1980 elections were held (the validity of which were questionable) and the ‘Uganda People’s Congress Party (UPC),’ led by Milton Obote, who had been living in exile in Tanzania, took power. Now it was enough merely to belong to a certain tribe to merit imprisonment or disappearance and execution. In the North, former soldiers of Idi Amin were attacking and destroying wherever they went. In June 1981, Father Egidio was transferred to the Mission of Minakulu. He wrote, “My work consists in getting these people to accept the idea of forgiveness as something sacred, but this is extremely difficult with people who instead see revenge as sacred.”
On July 27, 1985 the Acholi Generals Tito and Basilio Okello deposed President Obote. All the Opposition, with the exception of Yoweri Museveni leader of the National Resistance Army, joined the new government. Just before Christmas in 1985 a peace accord was signed in Nairobi between Tito Okello and Yoweni Museveni but only a month later Museveni reneged on the agreement and occupied Kampala. The soldiers of Tito and Basilio Okello took to the bush and waged a guerrilla campaign against the new regime. In March the following year, Bishop Cesare Asili of the Diocese of Lira decided to re-open the Mission of Alenga that had been closed for security reasons. In the midst of all this turmoil, Father Egidio was one of those asked to go there to restore a degree of peace, stability and optimism. Amazingly he seemed to have succeeded. He wrote from Alenga, “Here there are many wounds to be healed and this calls for much patience and compassion, but I can already see the fruits of my labors and I know all will be well in the end.”
It was a beautiful morning in Alenga, on August 4, 1987, but for the occasional sound of automatic gunfire. Although he was concerned about the possibility of being attacked on the way by robbers, who liked to take advantage of the prevailing anarchy, Father Egidio decided nevertheless to set out on a prearranged trip to visit the outlying chapels of the Mission around the shores of Lake Kioga. He reached Alwala School near the Masindi Port, without incident. There he celebrated Mass and prayed at length with the people. Soon after midday, taking the road along the Lake, Father Egidio set out for the Chapel at Kwuibale, with the intention of travelling on to the Chapel at Akòkoro. He had planned to meet the catechumens preparing for baptism at Kwuibale and inform the people that he would be coming to celebrate Mass there on the following Sunday.
About five miles before Kwuibale, along a section of thickly-wooded forest, armed bandits had stopped and robbed a group of people walking along the road. The group included three girls whom the thugs were intent on abducting and taking away with them. The terrorized girls were shrieking and protesting. It was at this moment that Father Egidio passed by on his motorcycle. He stopped, dismounted and tried to reason with the brigands, but to no avail. They began to threaten him and pointed their rifles at his face. Father Egidio calmly insisted that they release the girls. Instead of agreeing to do so, the bandits seized him and took him into the forest. A short while later shots rang out and then all was silence again. In the meantime, the girls and the other victims managed to flee their tormentors.
The Confrères in the Mission were not unduly concerned when Father Egidio failed to return home that evening as he would often extend his trips by a day or two, as circumstances dictated. However, the following day, with still no sign of Father Egidio, they began to be concerned for his safety. They knew he was often distracted and forgetful, but it was unlikely that he would stay away so long in such dangerous times, without informing his Community.
So one of the Fathers set out by motorcycle to follow the road Father Egidio would have taken, carefully looking for any sign of him near the road as his motorcycle might have broken down, forcing him to seek shelter in one of the local homesteads. He inquired from the people he met along the way if they had seen Father Egidio. No one had seen or heard anything of him.
When the Father returned to the Mission, he heard the reassuring news that before leaving Alenga Father Egidio had spoken with a local teacher about going to Kigumba, a Mission fifty miles further west, a spot beyond Lake Kioga on the road to Kampala. Everyone was relieved at this explanation. Yet it was not until four days later, on Saturday, August 8, that the Missionaries in Alenga heard that Father Egidio had never in fact reached Kigumba. This was terrible news. Father Egidio had simply disappeared and no one seemed to know what had happened to him. To make matters worse, cattle raiders had arrived from Karamoja and were spreading terror in the surrounding villages with the result that no one dared to travel on the roads.
The awful discovery
It was not until a week later, when the threat of the Karimojong raiders had passed, that two Comboni Missionaries from the neighboring Mission of Aduku, together with a group of Christians, made their way along the road from Akòkoro to Alwala, searching every bush and ditch as they went. At last in a deserted spot in the forest between Kwuibale and Alwala they discovered the motorcycle of Father Egidio in long grass by the roadside. The mirrors, the lights and the battery were missing but there were no signs of an accident. Searching the area, they found the scattered contents of the Father Egidio’s portable ‘Mass Kit.’ A further search revealed his body tied to a tree. One of the Missionaries who found Father Egidio commented that he looked like an image of Jesus on the cross with his head leaning to one side.
A few days later the Funeral Mass took place in the presence of the Local Bishop, Ceasar Asili; many Comboni Missionaries; Local Priests; and Members of the Faithful who had come to know and love Father Egidio over the years. The Italian Embassy in Kampala arranged for his remains to be returned to Italy and he was buried with his late parents in the cemetery of his home Parish Church in Malo.
In the small chapel of the Mission in Alenga, on the very evening of the funeral, one of the Confrères was looking at the empty chair where Father Egidio would sit and pray. Taking Father Egidio’s breviary in his hands, a small prayer card fell to the floor. It was a card commemorating Father Egidio’s First Mass on Monday, June 29, 1964 showing Christ dead on the cross with his head leaning on his right shoulder. Egidio suffered a similar fate to his Master: brutally tortured, tied to a tree and dying with his head in exactly the same position.