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 Remo Armani – “We will stay at our post”
When Father Remo was a Curate in Carisolo, a small town in the Province of Trento in Northern Italy, what he liked the most was to be with the people. And so every evening he would go to a local bar where he would play cards. He was remembered for his friendliness, openness and kindly way of speaking. Life was hard in Carisolo during the war years and the conflict seemed to be edging ever closer to the valleys of Trento, but with his cheerful and lively personality he succeeded in giving the Parishioners a ray of hope in otherwise bleak circumstances. But more dramatic conflict awaited him when, after seven years as a priest of the Diocese of Trento, he decided to become a missionary. This decision would take him to the heart of two of the most violent conflicts in recent African history, but Father Armani was not a man to desert his post.
Remo was born on October 7, 1917. He soon learned how to work hard in the fields like all his family. Love for the land was something that stayed with Remo all his life. After finishing primary school he asked his parents to let him enter the Diocesan Seminary in Trento. He was ordained a priest in Trento Cathedral on June 29, 1941. His Bishop, Carlo De Ferrari, appointed him first as Curate to Grigno and then to Carisolo, and as Parish Priest to Campi di Riva. Father Remo’s decision to become a missionary in 1948 caused his parents some concern, but they eventually agreed. Little did they know what lay ahead.
The early missionary years
He joined the Novitiate of the Comboni Missionaries in Gozzano in August 1948 and took his First Vows on June 4, 1950. That same year, before the end of November, he was already in the Mission of Yubu among the Azande people in Southern Sudan. Two years later he went to Naandi and then to Tombora, but only in preparation for the opening of a new Mission in Rimenze. Noticing the vast quantity of sand along the river bank near Rimenze, Father Remo decided it was an ideal place for brick making. The bricks were used to build two school blocks each able to accommodate two hundred and fifty children. They were the first brick-built classroom blocks in the whole area. To a Confrère, he wrote, “I am still amazed at how we managed to set up the two schools in such conditions. It was all achieved thanks to the efforts of the people around the Mission.”
Unfortunately things were changing in Southern Sudan and not for the better. Sudan had become independent and attempts by the Arab-led Government in Khartoum to Islamize the whole country led to a rebellion in the Christian and Animist South. The Government 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. This resulted in the wholesale destruction of villages and towns and laying waste to the surrounding countryside. Missionaries, as witnesses to such wanton destruction firsthand, were naturally looked upon with grave misgiving and alarm by the Authorities in Khartoum. Restrictions were first placed on their movements, then on their pastoral ministry and then on their work in healthcare, education and development. Father Armani returned to the Mission of Tombora in late 1959 uncowed by the difficulties and determined to persevere whatever. Notwithstanding a Government edict prohibiting the baptism of infants and children, even in cases where the baptism was expressly requested by the parents, Father Remo continued to baptize in secret under the cover of darkness. One evening he was discovered in the act, immediately arrested and imprisoned. The Authorities ordered his expulsion on the grounds that, “The reasons for his entry into Sudan no longer exist,” and he was deported from the country just before Christmas in 1962.
The plea to return to Africa
Not one to waste time, he threw himself into ministry and mission promotion in the many Parishes in the Region of Trento in Northern Italy, but he continued to entreat his Superiors to allow him return to Africa. If he could not go to Sudan, then maybe somewhere else? Things began to move. It was decided to open a Comboni Missionary presence in Congo in the Diocese of Niangara (now known as ‘Isiro-Niangara’) near the border with Southern Sudan. On December 8, 1963, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Father Remo with seven other Comboni Missionaries, five Priests and two Brothers, left for Congo and traveled to the Northeast of the country. The Bishop of Niangara, François Oddo de Wilde, assigned them the running of the three Missions of Rungu, Ndedu and Tora. Other Confrères were meant to join them the following month, but sadly it did not turn out that way.
The downward spiral into confusion and chaos
It was a particularly difficult time for the country. Followers of the former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, ousted from power in 1960 by President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and the Army Chief Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, had launched the ‘Simba Rebellion’ in the East of the country against the ‘imperialist’ Government in Léopoldville (now known as ‘Kinshasa’). The rebels were initially successful and within a matter of weeks had captured much of Eastern Congo. After the regional capital, Stanleyville (now known as ‘Kisangani’), fell into their hands on August 5, 1964 they proclaimed the ‘People’s Republic of Congo’ and carried out a reign of terror in the areas under their control. Tens of thousands of Congolese were executed with extreme cruelty by the rebels in systematic purges. Civil servants, provincial and local police, school teachers, and others believed to have been Westernized were deliberately targeted. Mass killings and chaos were the order of the day.
In a letter written on September 2, 1964, from his Mission in Ndedu, Father Remo wrote: “There is total confusion. The rebels have occupied the whole of the Northeast of the country which includes our Province. Massacres have begun. The rebels came to the Mission and threatened us. We will have to see whether government troops will attempt to re-take the positions or whether the party leaders will come to an agreement. The schools are closed and the Catechumens are all at home; it is not possible to go around visiting the Christians.” In another letter he wrote, “The Belgian Missionaries at a nearby Mission have been badly beaten and their Mission ransacked. I fear the worst is still to come. The rebels have set up a new government in the occupied Provinces. Every day we hear news of destruction and massacres. No matter what, we will stay at our post; the Lord knows we are here and the local people love us.”
The final journey
At the end of October Father Remo had to go to Paulis (now known as ‘Isiro’) on behalf of the Mission. He went to the District Administration in Dungu, thirty miles from Ndedu, to request the necessary permission from the rebel authorities to be able to travel to Paulis. He was issued with the required travel permit and given a military escort for his safe passage there. Father Armani concluded his business in Paulis on November 6, 1964 and was planning to return to Ndedu early the next morning when he was taken hostage by rebels and confined under guard with other Missionaries and Europeans in a Convent of Sisters in the town.
News of the advance of the Congolese Army, assisted by Belgian troops and by French and South African mercenaries, spread rapidly. The already appalling violence escalated further and large numbers of people suspected of being loyal to the Government in Léopoldville were murdered by the rebels. On Monday, November 23, 1964, Belgian paratroopers reached Stanleyville, and in a final radio communique over ‘Radio Stanleyville,’ one of the rebel leaders gave the order for all hostages to be killed. By the following day all the hostages in Paulis had been murdered. Father Remo and the other Missionaries were ready to die. They knew their hour had come. There was no panic. They had prayed together. The hostages were ordered to kneel down and then their hands were tied behind their backs. A rebel Colonel ordered for them all to be executed. Father Remo was killed with a single bullet to the head from a pistol and died on the spot. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Mission in Paulis. He was just forty-seven years of age.