St Daniel Comboni was a very complete man. He shows that it is possible to transform some human traits of character, and those which seem not so conducive to holiness, such as a fiery temper, into instruments of salvation for all
When we think about spirituality, we often imagine something sublime and not always connected with our daily endeavours and what we are. We need to remind ourselves that true Christian spirituality is holistic, e.g. it is manifested through what we are as a whole. In March, we celebrate the birthday of St Daniel Comboni—he was born 185 years ago—even though, in the Church, we tend to consider that the birthday celebration of a canonised saint is less meaningful or important than the day of his death, his “dies natalis”, the day of his eternal birth and entrance in communion with God. The fact is that the celebration of a birthday—but also the anniversary of a death— makes us remember the person’s human journey, with his/her strengths and weaknesses. Both matter, because qualities and ‘imperfections’ are not irrelevant or spiritually unworthy in the journey to holiness. A person does not always have a docile character, but the limitations of one’s personality can be opportunities for personal growth and great achievements.
Yes, even a tough character does not impede holiness. When the Church proclaims someone blessed, it is not passing a verdict on a “pure angel” but it is declaring that the person has lived the cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love heroically. No doubt, Daniel Comboni was extraordinarily endowed with uncommon human abilities which he developed throughout his life. Physically, he lived on a ridge beyond which it was difficult to even think of being able to push further. It was that capacity that allowed him to face the most daring obstacles: he crossed the Mediterranean Sea many times, threatened by terrible storms and shipwrecks; he ‘cruised’ the Nile before it was made fit for the tourism industry; but his most dreadful experience was crossing the Nubian Desert, where it never rains and the temperature reaches 60oC. Comboni rode on a camel, the unique means of transport available, sometimes for an uninterrupted sixteen hours. He described that inferno when he narrated the travel between Cairo and Khartoum which was able to kill a person or make him/her handicapped forever. He spent long journeys, up to seventy-eight days of heat and fatigue, crossing the Nubian or the Bayyudah Deserts, drinking water as dark as ink, and having stones as a pillow. Even more astonishing is that many times, even without sleeping, he found enough strength to be always faithful to his prayers, reciting the divine office, and to write to his friends and benefactors, keeping them informed about the progress of his mission.
Comboni, however, was not only endowed with the gifts of physical strength and perseverance; he was also granted an outstanding intellectual aptitude which was a great boon for the advancement of the Kingdom. He studied Africa’s geography and history, tropical medicine and African music as part of his self-imposed training. He read all the books he could lay his hands on, written by explorers and others who knew the continent and its people and was in correspondence with anyone who could be of help. He was able to draw maps and he pictured the nature he encountered on his trips in a very poetic way. Comboni’s capabilities are numerous and he didn’t see any conflict between technical progress, natural human curiosity and faith. On the contrary, he saw everything as a means for spreading the Kingdom of God. We know also, as his writings show, that Comboni was endowed with an extraordinarily passionate character—he was a firebrand.
It could have made him an explorer or a dissolute man wasting his life in lustful adventures—but he became a missionary by subordinating it to faith and love. His passion was Christian, altruistic, selfless. He loved Africa and its people and spent all his life struggling for them so that they would experience the dignity of a proper life as the children of God. That passionate love started when he was only 17 and it never died. For Africa and its peoples, he underwent long journeys, endured terrible illnesses, and faced perils of every kind. He wrote thousands of letters to draw attention to the pitiful conditions the continent was experiencing. His short life was consumed by this overwhelming passion. Daniel Comboni’s life is a living example of how we can reap fruits by working on the human gifts that God bestows on us. Comboni shows how it is possible to transform simple human traits—and even those which seem not so conducive to holiness, such as a fiery temper—into instruments of salvation for all. This is the spirituality that is available to everybody and the one that we want to celebrate, remembering the day of the birth of this great missionary who put his extraordinary humanity at the service of the integral development and salvation of Africa. He wrote that he wanted his missionaries to be both “holy and capable”—as he indeed was.