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 Giuseppe Santi — Life is so beautiful
It was Holy Saturday, at about four o’clock in the afternoon of April 14, 1979, and Father Giuseppe was making preparations for the Easter Vigil at his Mission in Aloi, twenty-five miles from Lira town in Northern Uganda. Two young men suddenly appeared at the door of the sacristy. They had fled from Patongo, a village in the neighboring District of East Acholi, where the soldiers of Idi Amin were conducting a reign of terror. They begged Father Giuseppe to take them by car to the town of Lira where they believed the Tanzanian Army had already arrived. The two young men had fled by motorbike but it had broken down. If captured, they would surely be killed. Father Santi thought for a moment: it didn’t seem right to skip the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday Night but these young men were on the run and he had to get them to safety. He decided that the liturgy could wait while he helped them to escape. He immediately set off with them but was never seen again.
Developing a sense of responsibility among the Laity Father Giuseppe had first come to Uganda twenty-eight years previously on September 1, 1951. He was assigned to the Missions among the Acholi ethnic group in the North of the country. He dreamed of going to work in the open countryside among the rural population, but was instead appointed to the Cathedral Parish in Gulu town. Without delay, he threw himself into the work of instructing the catechumens, with visits to the many chapels around the town. During his safaris he would visit people house by house. He wanted to get to know everyone personally, to speak with them, understand their problems and try to help them. He clearly understood his mission, which he saw as being there for people and having a robust commitment to them. He wrote in one of his many letters, “I have a very efficient Parish Council of twenty people, chosen by the Parishioners; they meet every month and discuss various matters (liturgy, schools, recreation, the youth, …). The administration of the Parish is also in their hands. I do nothing without their approval. In this way, their sense of responsibility as members of the laity in the Church grows.” And, in another letter, he writes, “It is not just a matter of baptizing and hearing confessions, but of imparting the best Christian formation possible. I attend especially to the formation of the laity, who find it hard to see themselves as the Church. I have been doing this for years but it can be difficult to get the message across.”
Despite developing problems with his kidneys, for which he later underwent an operation, he refused to slacken the pace of his work. After sunset, when it was impossible to visit his Parishioners, Father Giuseppe would go to pray: that was how he rested and the time when he reviewed his day and brought all before the Lord. The Confrères appreciated Father Giuseppe for his good nature, his serenity and his industriousness. As a result, in 1956 he was elected Provincial Superior of all the Comboni Missionaries in Uganda who at that time numbered one hundred and thirty-seven: one Bishop, ninety-two Priests and forty-five Brothers. Three years later in 1959, he went to Italy for the Chapter and the election of the new Superior-General, Father Gaetano Briani. Although Father Giuseppe was tasked with coordinating the Seminaries of the Comboni Missionaries in Italy, he could still hear the voice of Africa calling and returned there a year later.
The development of work by ‘Catholic Action’
Father Giuseppe returned to work in Gulu where he was placed in charge of ‘Catholic Action,’ a lay movement of Catholics which was organized in groups along Parish lines and dedicated to prayer, social activities and charitable work. Apart from attending prayer meetings and assisting with the liturgy, Members became the ‘right hand man’ of the Missionary in undertaking works of charity especially among the sick and the elderly. In their free time, they would bring food to the needy, visit the sick and accompany them to the local Health Clinic, build huts for those who were unable to do so by themselves, and so on. Father Giuseppe organized the first Diocesan Meeting of ‘Catholic Action’ in the Diocese of Gulu, and buoyed by that success, began organizing yearly Meetings of ‘Catholic Action’ for the Dioceses of Northern Uganda in the Seminary of Aboke near Lira. Members of ‘Catholic Action,’ accompanied by their Priests, would arrive by pick-up, bus or lorry, from even the remotest Missions and for the five-day Meeting the Seminary was transformed with strikingly colorful decorations, folk costumes, traditional music and dancing, storytelling, competitions, games and the like. After working in Gulu for a number of years, Father Giuseppe went on to minister with his usual enthusiasm in the Missions of Awach, Aber and Lira before being assigned to the Mission in Aloi.
The worsening political and security situation
Meanwhile, things were changing for the worse in Uganda. On January 25, 1971, President Milton Obote was overthrown in a successful military coup led by the army commander, Idi Amin. The expulsion en masse the following year of the Asian Community, the mainstay of the country’s commercial life, brought about widespread economic collapse, with the wholesale closure of factories, shops and offices. The dictator’s powerbase lay with the army, but with income from the export of coffee, tea, sugar and tobacco drying up, Amin found it increasingly difficult to pay their salaries. In order to pacify the army through the ‘spoils of war,’ and thereby help foil any coup attempt against himself, Amin sent troops to invade and annex part of the Kagera Region of neighboring Tanzania, which he claimed belonged to Uganda. In the campaign the area was pillaged and thousands of innocent civilians massacred. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania ordered a counteroffensive and a few months later the territory was re-taken and the Tanzanian Army invaded Uganda in an effort to liberate the country from the murderous dictatorship of Idi Amin. Amin fled to Libya before the advancing Tanzanians, while his troops made good their escape, robbing and killing as they went, through the North of the country and on to exile in Congo and Sudan.
A Common Grave
Late into the evening the Confrères and the Christians in the Mission of Aloi waited anxiously with no news of the whereabouts of Father Giuseppe. Around the Mission of Ngeta, on the outskirts of Lira, there were reports of a violent clash near the barracks in the town and one of the victims was said to be a white man. The Missionaries were deeply concerned it was one of their number but it was impossible to venture into the town as Amin’s soldiers were shooting people at will. Local Priests and Sisters had to take refuge with the Bishop of Lira, Cesare Asili, in the Cathedral. A further report arrived in the Mission of Ngeta with the news that someone has recognized Father Giuseppe among a group of dead bodies dumped near the Army Barracks.
It was only three days later on the morning of Easter Tuesday, when many of the soldiers of Amin had left the area, that it was possible for the Missionaries to go into Lira. The bodies of Father Giuseppe and six other people were discovered, just outside the barracks, thrown into a hole in the ground. The Missionary had been cut down by a burst of automatic fire. His body was quickly brought to the Cathedral where, due to the insecurity, a short Funeral Service was performed. He was buried in the Cathedral Cemetery, beside the grave of a Local Priest, Father Anania Oryang, who had been killed by soldiers in his Parish two weeks before. During the burial of Father Giuseppe, a lorry laden with soldiers arrived and stopped close by, with the result that everyone fled from the cemetery. It was only after the soldiers had left that the burial could be completed. Father Santi was fifty-nine years old. A few weeks previously, Father Giuseppe had written to a friend, “Our duty is to work. We must spend our lives doing good for others, without worrying for whom we do it, and without seeking thanks or looking for results. That way, life is so beautiful.”