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 Osmund Bilbao – Traditional Enemies United in Grief
The inscription on the headstone raised by the local Madi people in the Mission of Moyo in Northwestern Uganda, reads: “To Father Osmund Bilbao, who gave his life for those he loved. He was a friend and servant of the Madi and these people swear to keep alive the memory of his wonderful example of love and service.”
It was eleven o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, April 20, 1982. Father Osmund, along with Father Torquato Paolucci, had just left the ‘Marianum Printing Press’ in the town of Kisubi laden with books for the Mission of Moyo and were heading home by car to the house of the Comboni Missionaries in Kampala. At a certain point Father Osmund realized that their car was being followed by three armed men in a white sport-utility vehicle. The road from Kampala to Entebbe was notorious at the time for robberies and car hijackings, and so Father Osmund accelerated in an attempt to shake off the vehicle behind. The other car was unfortunately much faster, and as the thugs overtook Father Osmund and Father Torquato on the road, they opened fire. Father Osmund was struck by a bullet and killed outright. As a result the car swerved and ended up crashing into a tree by the side of the road. Although Father Torquato was uninjured in the attack he was covered by the blood of his slain Confrère and, as the robbers rifled the vehicle to steal anything they could lay their hands on, he pretended to be dead thereby saving his own life. After the thugs had made their escape local people arrived at the scene and called the police. The police arranged for an ambulance to take the body of Father Osmund to the house of the Comboni Missionaries in Mbuya, a suburb of Kampala.
A fitting tribute
A Mass for Father Bilbao was celebrated that same evening in the Chapel of the Community there presided over by fellow Comboni Missionary, Bishop Angelo Tarantino of Arua Diocese. The Diocese of Arua included the Missions of Metu and Moyo where Father Osmund had worked in Uganda.
Two days later, at noon, a Funeral Mass was celebrated in the Parish Church of Mbuya. The Cardinal Archbishop of Kampala, Emmanuel Nsubuga, presided over the ceremony, which was attended by eleven local bishops who were in Kampala for a Meeting of the ‘Ugandan Episcopal Conference,’ fifty religious and diocesan priests, many Religious Sisters and a huge crowd of the Faithful including many members of the Madi Community living in and around Kampala. Three government ministers, from Northwestern Uganda, who knew Father Osmund personally from his ministry as a priest in the Missions of Metu and Moyo also attended the ceremony. The huge crowd, the lamentations that were performed according to African tradition, the outpouring of grief, and the copious tears demonstrated just how loved and esteemed Father Osmund was.
Educating an industrious people
Father Osmund Garamendi Bilbao was born in St. Julian de Musques, near the city of Bilbao in Northern Spain on November 7, 1944. After attending the local Diocesan Seminary, he asked to join the Comboni Missionaries. He was ordained a priest in Moncada on April 6, 1969. A few months later he left for the Missions in Uganda. Speaking about his experience as a Missionary Priest in Uganda, Father Osmund wrote, “I work in the Northwest of the country, on the border with Sudan, in the Mission of Metu which serves the Madi ethnic group with a population of about twenty thousand people whose main source of income is from tilling the land. Members of this tribe are often referred to as the ‘Germans of Africa’ due to their striking work ethic and I can tell you they are very proud of their reputation. They are noble, sincere and hard-working people. As Missionaries, our main work focuses on the religious, social and economic formation of local communities. Educating people into a communitarian sense of life is not always an easy task, nevertheless over the past five years, this has been our goal. We hope to imbue this spirit into local Madi culture. Today, the presence of seven local priests, one of whom is a bishop, and fifty Religious, would seem to illustrate that the Church in the area has succeeded in creating such a sense of community and service.”
The value of the presence of Missionaries
After spending a brief period of time in Spain, Father Osmund returned to Uganda in 1977 and was assigned to the Procure in Mbuya. Father Osmund wrote at the time, “My feelings for this land and its peoples have played a decisive role in my decision to return to Africa. I was not able to resist the temptation. I am aware that we Missionaries take risks … but ‘risk’ after all is the common denominator of every choice we make. We must accept it with realism and trust in ourselves, our abilities but above all in the One who has promised to remain always with us.”
Father Bilbao returned to Uganda while the country was going through the most tragic moment of its history. The situation was chaotic and Comboni Missionary Priests, Brothers and Sisters felt that they represented a reason for hope for the people of Uganda who were experiencing a moment of great despair and suffering. Father Bilbao was one of this courageous group of Missionaries who wanted to stay on in the country, not because they felt safe there or were not aware of risks, but because they wanted to share in the plight of the local people they were called to serve.
In early 1980 Father Osmund was sent to the Mission of Moyo, not far from the Mission of Metu (where he had worked from 1969 until 1977), which had unfortunately become a ‘theatre of war.’ The region was fought over by Idi Amin’s former soldiers, who had settled in the thickly-forested area to the north, and the regular troops of the newly-installed Government of Milton Obote. For two years Father Osmund helped protect many desperate people who were victims of violence from both sides of the conflict. Though he was repeatedly advised to leave the Mission to avoid being killed, Father Osmund always refused, “If I leave, who will defend these people? I just can’t leave!” He was convinced that the presence of the Missionaries contributed to avoiding even greater bloodshed. In October 1980, violent clashes, which resulted in a large number of victims, took place in Moyo. Father Osmund, commenting on the situation, said, “During the recent wars in Uganda, I have come to realize just how important the presence of Missionaries is to people who wonder why we do not leave the country to get to where we can be safe. Local people really care and worry about us, but are very grateful we have stayed.”
The local population had become the hapless victims of ferocious rebels on the one side and undisciplined government troops on the other. Father Osmund faced the situation with resoluteness and determination. Everyone – the poor, the vulnerable, former soldiers, the Civil and Military Authorities – experienced his friendship, his hospitality and his assistance along with his firmness in denouncing all forms of violence. Even representatives of the United Nations were amazed by the great respect given by local people to Father Osmund. One of his Confrères at the Mission wrote, “I can testify that there were no major massacres in Moyo thanks to the tireless efforts of Father Bilbao.” He remained deeply hurt, nonetheless, by the ongoing tragedy of the attacks, the killings and the anguish of those affected by the wanton violence, and for which in his preaching he constantly entreated people to pray for an end to all hatred and revenge.
One of Us
The news of Father Osmund’s death spread throughout the villages of Madi. So many people had known him. A group of Parishioners from Moyo, drove more than four hundred miles by truck to Kampala to carry the body of their ‘Father’ home in order to bury it in the Mission. They were deeply saddened when they were told that, at the request of his Family, his body was to be taken to Spain for burial. In their disappointment they wrote, “Father Osmund’s remains belong to the country and to the people for whom he has given his life. Even if he is not to be laid to rest in Moyo, his memory will abide in the minds and hearts of the Madi for generations.” In fact, the Madi raised a magnificent headstone in his memory in the cemetery in front of the Church in Moyo. A Minister in the Government of Uganda, bidding farewell to the slain Missionary, said, “Father Osmund was one of us because one not only belongs to the place he was born, but he also belongs to the place where he lived, died and where he was loved.”
Cardinal Nsubuga, Primate of Uganda, commented at the Funeral Mass in Mbuya, “Father Osmund’s death has wrought a miracle of uniting in grief enemy tribes that are separated by ancient hatreds. The Missionary’s blood, and the blood of other Martyrs, is not shed in vain.”