All the photos of Daniel Comboni that exist, show him in a serious mood. It was the style of “posing” of that time: the person should not move and was invited to look at the magic box—no relation, therefore, to his temperament and even less to his human and spiritual qualities!
BY FR NENO CONTRAN, COMBONI MISSIONARY, EDITOR OF AFRIQUESPOIR, DR CONGO
In fact, Comboni during his life knew how to laugh. At the time of the misunderstandings with Fr Mazza, the priest who had brought him up and prepared him for the African mission in 1865, Comboni spoke of his own character in these terms: “God has given me a cheerful nature, and such that I am always rejoicing and feeling happy and perhaps there are very few people in the world happier than I.” Many times, he showed that he didn’t like missionaries who were pessimistic, gloomy, like “those who see all blacker than hell, criticise everything and everybody, dream of catastrophes and are so stubborn that not even the Holy Spirit is capable of making them change their judgment”.
In many of his writings, we again and again find the invitation, for those who needed it, to keep up the spirit, not to allow pessimism to get hold of them. Speaking of people who had dealt unjustly with him, he wrote to his father: “God will console me, disappointing those who made me suffer unjustly. So, let us be cheerful!”
He made witty remarks and jocular sayings about himself and others. He often willingly made jokes about himself. To the superior of the community of Verona, Fr Sembiante, he apologised for his letters written in a disorderly fashion: “Don’t think that to important people I write so carelessly, without re-reading it, but to you, I appear to be what I am, just an average guy. With you, I have confidence; if you don’t give it to me, I’ll take it all the same. But with big people, with kings (yesterday, I got a beautiful letter from the king of Belgium), with cardinals in Rome, I write as if I were a serious guy and I succeed in making them believe that I am.”
He laughed at himself in order not to deprive other people of their merit. Concerning his Plan for the evangelisation of Africa that he had put down inwriting and in which he believed his whole life, he said of a missionary: “Carcereri understands my Plan better than what I do myself!”
He nominated his Vicar General: a choice that most of his missionaries didn’t like. Comboni tried to explain: “It is true that in Central Africa we may all be jackasses”, he wrote to Fr Sembiante, “but you must grant that being myself the first of the jackasses, I could not do better than choose among all my jackasses as Vicar General, one who was less of a jackass than the others.”
A source of inspiration was often Cardinal Barnabò, the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, with whom he dealt at length and whom somehow he considered as the “father” of the Central Africa mission. It is Barnabò who contributed with his slightly paradoxical utterances to mark the way for Comboni. “Our jocular cardinal has often made these phrases resound in my ear: ‘Either you bring me a certificate that assures me that you are going to live another 35 years or you must establish the college of Verona very well. If you meet with an accident that takes you to the other world, we must fear that your work will end with you’.”
Referring to Comboni’s and another of his missionaries’ enterprising spirit, Cardinal Barnabò noticed one day: “I must tie both of you with 24 chains because if you disentangle yourselves, nobody will keep you back, and you will end up in the Cape of Good Hope,” and he burst into huge laughter.
About a religious congregation that was ready to send missionaries to help him but with rather heavy financial conditions, Comboni observed, thinking of the cardinal’s reaction: “If in the mournful circumstances in which France, Europe and Rome find themselves, I would present Cardinal Barnabò with such a contract for approval, he would burst into solemn laughter and would assign me to an asylum like the utterly crazy person that I would be.”
About the “terrible Roman laziness”, about the “systemic and proverbial eternity of Rome”, but also about “its justice”, Comboni spoke on several occasions. He learned to manoeuvre in the course of his visits to the Italian capital and, at a certain time, he felt that his position was becoming even comical, since he was of humble origin and yet he was received repeatedly by the Pope and elected as bishop: “A poor son of farmers from Limone, born in caves and accustomed for many years to eat the traditional porridge with the sauce of the farmers.”