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 Marco Vedovato – “In death his face seemed so peaceful”
Mirador is a small town in the State of Maranhão in the northeast of Brazil. That Saturday night in October was hotter than usual. In the town square in front of the Parish Church, the silence was broken by a group of three young men who started shouting, singing and playing a harmonica. It was after midnight. Father Marco was tired and the following morning he had a busy schedule of Sunday Masses. From his window he could see the rowdy young men. He eventually decided to ask them to keep quiet as there were many people living around the square who needed to sleep including himself! Opening the front door of the Presbytery he approached the young men and asked them to stop all the noise and allow people to sleep. They agreed, but as soon as Father Marco turned to go back to the house, one of the three drew a .38 caliber pistol and shot him in the back. A few minutes later, Father Marco died from the resultant blood loss, all the while forgiving his assailant. He was only thirty-eight years of age.
“One in the family is enough”
Father Marco Vedovato was born in Sant’Eufemia di Borgoricco in the Province of Padua on April 25, 1930, the third of four children. His family ran a restaurant and grocery store there. Their adjacent home was a meeting place for regular customers coming to town from the surrounding countryside and the atmosphere was always very lively, especially on market days and public holidays. From time to time, Comboni Missionaries from Padua would go by bicycle to Sant’Eufemia di Borgoricco to lend a hand to the Parish Priest. Giovanni, the second eldest child, decided to join the Junior Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in Padua as soon as he finished his primary education. Marco liked to sit by the banks of a nearby stream drawing trees and birds. Nature was his passion and he had what it took, his parents thought, to become an artist. And so when Marco asked to join his brother in the Junior Seminary, his mother refused telling him, “One missionary in the family is enough.”
Marco was though, from his earliest years, a fairly determined individual and he eventually managed to persuade his parents to allow him enter the Seminary in Padua. In September 1944 in the midst of the Second World War he went on to the Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in Brescia to complete his secondary education. Due to the subsequent heavy bombing of Brescia by Allied Forces, the Superiors decided to evacuate the Seminary and send all the boys home. Back in Sant’Eufemia di Borgoricco, the two brothers found that there was a guest in the house: a University Professor had taken refuge there because of the Allied bombing around Padua where he had been living. The man offered to teach the boys Latin, Greek and the Classics. With the encouragement of the Comboni Missionaries in Padua two other students joined the brothers in Sant’Eufemia di Borgoricco, and all four returned to the Seminary in Brescia at the end of the war.
In 1948 Marco, now eighteen years old, joined the Novitiate of the Comboni Missionaries in Gozzano, and two years later took his First Vows on September 9, 1950. He was then sent to the Scholasticate of the Comboni Missionaries in Venegono Superiore near Varese to continue his theological studies, and was ordained a priest in Milan Cathedral on June 15, 1957 by Cardinal (later Pope and Saint) Giovanni Battista Montini. His brother, Giovanni, had also studied in Venegono Superiore and been ordained a Comboni Missionary priest four years earlier in Milan by Cardinal (later Blessed) Schuster on May 30, 1953.
Visits to the Leprosarium – the start of his missionary life
Father Marco was assigned to the Missions in South Sudan and arrived in Juba on November 30, 1957, just in time to witness the nationalization of all the mission schools by the Islamic Government in Khartoum. He was one of the last Comboni Missionaries to receive permission to enter Sudan. His first appointment was to the Mission of Kworijik, eight miles from Juba, a town with eight thousand inhabitants. He wrote home, “My work consists in assisting the Catechists who are instructing those preparing for baptism as well as administering the Sacraments. On Sunday afternoon I visit the leprosarium … What surprises me is the uncomplaining way those suffering from leprosy put up with their suffering and disfigurement.” After a period at Kworijik, Father Marco went to the Mission of Lirya for one year, spent a further year at Lafon and then went to Talì, a Mission on the western bank of the River Nile, about one hundred and fifty miles North of Juba.
Unfortunately the political and security situation in Southern Sudan was deteriorating by the day. Attempts by the Arab-led Government in Khartoum to Islamize the whole country had led to armed rebellion by African Christians in the South. The Authorities responded by trying to violently suppress the insurgency through the indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of many innocent civilians and by adopting a ‘scorched-earth’ policy throughout Southern Sudan. Missionaries, as eye-witnesses to such wanton violence and destruction, were naturally looked upon with grave misgiving by the Government in Khartoum. In a letter to Giovanni, Father Marco wrote, “The Authorities place all sorts of obstacles in our way. We have to ask permission from the Police three days in advance before we plan to leave the Mission compound, informing them where we are intending to go, who we are planning to visit and when we are proposing to return, and then await their response. More often than not permission is refused with no reason given.”
On the evening of December 30, 1962, a vehicle arrived at the Mission of Talì carrying five policemen. They arrested Father Marco and took him to the local Police Station where he was charged with possession of a radio transmitter for the purposes of communicating with the rebels. Despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever to substantiate the charge (the Mission only had a wireless radio), Father Marco was brought before Court the following morning. He was found guilty and sentenced to two days in prison and one hundred days of house arrest under close police observation. This meant that the Police lived in the Mission.
With the continuing refusal of the Government to renew residency permits, many Missionaries were forced to leave the country. Those who remained had increasing numbers of restrictions placed on their movements, then on their pastoral ministry and finally on their work in health-care, education and development. The fear was that sooner or later all the Missionaries would be sent away from Southern Sudan and so it came to pass. On February 27, 1964 the Government decided to expel the last two hundred or so Comboni Missionary Bishops, Priests, Brothers and Sisters en masse from Southern Sudan. The country was left with just one local bishop and twenty-eight local priests to minister to all the Faithful there.
An instrument of God’s grace
After a period of rest at home with his Family in Sant’Eufemia di Borgoricco, Father Marco was appointed to a new Mission. This time it was in Latin America. On December 3, 1965, Father Marco arrived in Brazil. He was appointed to the Diocese of Balsas, two and a half thousand miles from São Paolo, and spent the first year there as Secretary to the Local Bishop, himself a Comboni Missionary, Rino Carlesi.
In March 1968, Father Marco was assigned to the Mission of Pastos Bons, a town in the State of Maranhão in Northeastern Brazil, which was also responsible for the Parishes of Sucupira and Mirador. Father Marco would later be appointed Parish Priest of Mirador. He wrote to a friend: “I have visited some areas where the people last saw a priest fifteen years ago. I had to baptize babies, teenagers and even adults. This work of mine takes a lot of patience and a lot of effort but we Missionaries are instruments of the grace of God and it is the grace of God that counts. I am planning to build twelve chapels with schools and to organize and train a group of women teachers and catechists as I did in other Parishes. I have also started courses in cooking and hygiene to help the women folk.”
On the evening of Saturday, October 19, of that year, Father Marco returned from Pastos Bons to Mirador where his death awaited him. He went straight to the Church to celebrate the vigil Mass for Sunday which a good number of people attended. When Mass was over, the Missionary withdrew to the Presbytery, telling the Sacristan that he was very tired and needed to rest. Three young men later appeared in front of the Parish Church. It was after midnight when the shot rang out fired by the man playing the harmonica. Although people living around the square immediately went to the aid of the stricken priest, Father Marco told them that he was dying but that he forgave his assailant. Eye-witnesses at the scene said that Father Marco bore an expression of great peace and, while gazing at the starry sky, passed away.
The body was taken into the Parish Church. Early next morning, Bishop Rino Carlesi arrived and decided to take the body of the slain Missionary to the Cathedral in Balsas. All along the two-hundred-and-fifty-mile journey, people lined the road to honor Father Marco. The funeral party reached Balsas at midnight on Sunday October 20, 1968. The Requiem Mass took place soon after in the presence of a large gathering of the Faithful who then followed the funeral procession to the cemetery just as dawn was breaking.
The infinite love of God
The mother of Father Marco, on receiving her son’s missionary cross from Bishop Carlesi, wrote movingly to Giovanni: “My dear son, we have just received your brother’s cross and now he is resting in peace. You can imagine with what feelings I clasped that Crucifix to my breast, the Crucifix which his Superiors gave him when he took his First Vows; that same Crucifix that the Sudanese people kissed during his eight years of apostolate there and his beloved Brazilians during his three years of work among them; that same Crucifix that brought such consolation to the lepers and to the dying. Now it is for us to receive and to carry it, as it is the greatest sign of the infinite love of God. It is our strength and only hope.”