e 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 Lorenzo Piazza – “Experiencing the joy of my vocation”
Looking out over the sea, Lorenzo often dreamt of sailing far away, to explore new lands and meet new peoples. One day he said to his father, a captain in the merchant navy, “Take me with you. I am grown up now (he was just seven years of age!) and I am not afraid of the sea.” Lorenzo was born in Varazze in the Province of Savona in North-western Italy on August 14, 1915. He decided to become a priest and completed all his studies up to First Year Theology at the Diocesan Seminary in Savona. Increasingly fascinated by the biographies of some great missionaries, he asked to join the Comboni Missionaries and, on October 29, 1939, he entered their Novitiate in Venegono. He was ordained a priest in Verona on June 9, 1948 and was sent to the Junior Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in Crema where he was much appreciated as a very gifted teacher.
Father Lorenzo left for Africa in 1955, but his departure was a sorrowful one, as he left his mother alone at home. His only other brother had died in the war and his father had died some years before. He was assigned to the Mission of Mupoi in Southern Sudan. To some friends he wrote, “When we arrived in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, I immediately boarded the steamer ‘Fatima’ which, under the command of a Missionary Brother of ours, was due to sail south towards Wau. The trip by boat took eight days. In some places, with its broad majestic course, the Nile gives the impression of being like the sea; elsewhere, it is just like a Venetian canal, but with banks, which lead onwards to an untamed wilderness. Lake No is a mosaic of small islands, where the tall grass conceals groups of sleek hippos, ready to dive underwater at the least sound of machinery; reappearing shortly afterwards among frothy fountains of water. Lake Ambadi has an underwater network of grasses and plants, with lotus flowers emerging here and there, where our helmsman is obliged to steer a skilful and cautious path. I pass the time looking at the endless varieties of birds as we pass through hordes of crocodiles. After sailing for eight days, we tied up at Meshra-el-Req, a port on the River Jur. From there we continued by motor-car. We had to cover about one hundred miles, with six people aboard, on roads that cut through swamps, over the savannah and through the forest. On our way we were captivated by giraffes, antelopes, gazelles and ostriches. After many hours, we reached Wau, the Capital of Bahr-el-Ghazal. There we stopped for a few days after which we took a different vehicle and set out again on our journey. This time it was only a matter of three hours before we finally reached our destination at Mupoi.”
The formidable task in a deteriorating situation
Father Lorenzo immediately understood the extent of the work that awaited him. The Mission of Mupoi was founded in 1905 and had grown enormously. The Missionaries there were administering eight rural hospitals, six orphanages and three leprosariums. There were also seventy-six primary, secondary and technical schools with around three thousand pupils, as well as 242 schools for catechism with seven thousand pupils. There was also a monthly magazine entitled ‘Ruru Gene’ (‘The Straight Road’) with a printing run of nearly three thousand copies. After some years in the Mission, Lorenzo wrote to a friend, “My life is one of experiencing every day the joy of my vocation.”
At that time, however, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon for Missionaries in Southern Sudan. The ‘Anyanya Movement’ of Black, mainly Christian, Southerners were intensifying their guerrilla war against the Arab, and predominantly Muslim, North. The Missionaries were accused by the Islamic Government in Khartoum of siding with the rebels in the conflict. Father Lorenzo commented wryly in one of his letters, “We Missionaries are believed for what we do rather than for what we say and the people really appreciate our presence among them.” In 1963, together with some other Comboni Missionaries, he was expelled from the country. A year later, on February 27, 1964, the Authorities in Khartoum would expel the remaining two hundred or so Comboni Missionaries from Southern Sudan. The expulsions would leave just one local bishop and twenty-eight local priests to minister to all the Faithful there.
It was hard for Father Lorenzo to forget Africa and he kept asking his Superiors to let him return there. The opportunity arose when it was decided to open a presence in Congo near the border with Southern Sudan at the end of 1963. Even though his mother had asked him to stay a little longer with her, in February 1964 he left for the Mission of Rungu in the Diocese of Niangara (now known as ‘Isiro-Niangara’) in the North-East of the country. The Simba Rebellion had just begun. Although the rebel movement started in Kwilu in the Region of Bandundu, it would be in the Eastern Province of Congo that the revolt would claim the most of its victims. Father Lorenzo had only been in the country for eleven months when his life was abruptly cut short. He was shot and his body thrown into the Rungu River, never to be seen again. He was 49-years old.
Offered in sacrifice – a fitting tribute
A few months later, a Belgian Sister wrote a letter to Father Lorenzo’s mother in Varazze. In it she wrote: “Due to the work of Father Lorenzo and his Companions, Father Antonio, Father Evaristo and Brother Carlo, our Mission in Rungu had made more progress in one year than in many years previous. These holy Missionaries really changed the face of the Mission. Father Lorenzo, especially, had great influence in the local schools. The male and female teachers were very fond of him and the school children adored him. The Sisters experienced his great paternal kindness and concern. From August 20, 1964, when the rebels first came to Rungu, he would come to visit us every day to hear how we were getting on and to comfort us in our difficulties. Despite all the troubles the rebels were giving him, he thought first of us. All of us, Fathers and Sisters, had to flee to the forest where we felt safer. On Sunday, November 29, 1964 Father Lorenzo said Mass for us. I believe he felt that he was going to die. The following day before leaving the forest I made my confession to him: he spoke to me about trust, in words I will never forget. The following day we had to give ourselves up. As I followed him along the path that led to the Mission, I reminded him of what he had said about trust. He gazed at me with a profound expression on his face without saying a word. I am sure he had already offered himself in sacrifice. Later, when we were still under guard at the Mission, he came to us in tears saying, “The rebels have come between me and my mother” for he had found a photograph of you with him torn in two, right down the middle. I was the last of our group to speak to him before we were separated: he was serene, not resigned, but ‘offering himself in sacrifice,’ submitting himself to the will of God. Dear Mother, I am sure you are weeping as you read this letter … just as I am weeping as I write it, but I believe you will be glad to have a memento of your dear son. I pray to him as a saint, I speak to him and ask his advice. That is how close he is to us. I am sure that you, too, feel he is close to you. He loved you greatly and always spoke of you with great tenderness and affection.”