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On Vocation

Comboni > Comboni's Writings


One of eight children in a poor family in Limone on the (then) remote western shore of Lake Garda, Comboni was educated at home, then admitted to the Mazza Institute in Verona. Here he got a good education, and was able to fulfill the two great desires in his life: to be a priest and a missionary. At 17 he was allowed to make a solemn promise to dedicate his life to the conversion of Africa.

But when he was ordained, Daniel was the only survivor of the eight children: and he wanted to become a missionary, overseas! It was an agonizing decision that he and his parents had to face.

From Daniel Comboni to Fr Pietro Grana (Parish Priest of Limone) from Verona, 4 July 1857

Your kind letter spurs me to inform you of the true state in which I find myself; indeed it is a great relief for me to be able to reveal to you the turbulence which presently agitates my spirit. As I seem to have told you a few times already, I am inclined to pursue my career in the Missions, however arduous this may be, and for the last eight years at least my mind has been set on Central Africa, to which I have directed a part of my studies. The Superior, aware of my intentions, has always counted on being able to make use of me in the foundation of his Mission in those barren and scorching deserts; and to this end, since last year, he has decided to send me there with the next expedition due to depart at the end of this coming August or the beginning of September.

I had been yearning for this moment for a very long time and with more passion than two ardent lovers longing for the moment of their wedding. But two serious difficulties frighten me, which I cannot leave unresolved while departing for the Mission, and they are both formidable.

The first is the thought of abandoning my poor parents, who have nothing else on this earth to comfort them but their only son.

It would not be a total neglect. It would be like not seeing them for a year or two, though regular correspondence could sweeten any separation. This, as I have said, is not my most serious concern, especially as they have already written to say they are resigned to accepting Providence and are prepared to submit, painful as it may be, to a temporary separation. The other difficulty is that before I leave I want to ensure the comfort of my parents' life.

Fr Melotto is in the same situation. Not knowing what is going to happen. It is certain that this uncertainty, and much more so the thought of leaving my parents even momentarily, in the throes of the present family circumstances that you know, and especially thinking of my mother, disconcerts me greatly.

... I have decided to go on retreat so as to implore help from Heaven. If I abandon the idea of consecrating myself to the foreign Missions, I will be a martyr for the rest of my life to the idea that germinated in my mind at least 14 years ago, and always grew, as I discovered the loftiness of the apostolate. If I embrace the idea of the Missions, I make two poor parents martyrs.

Neither can I contemplate that once my parents die, I might then think of the missions; for would I not then have to be wishing them dead? Such an idea is neither Christian nor priestly, it is a vandal's and a cannibal's; and I have always wanted and always will want to die first, before they do. On the other hand, if one does not go to the missions under thirty, one may as well abandon the idea, because once age advances one cannot even learn the unknown languages of the African tribes where we have to go, and because experience shows that tackling those regions any older than that age is certain to lead to a quick death.

If Providence smiles upon my wishes, having arranged everything, having assured easy maintenance for my parents in the future, I will fly happily to the great undertaking: if God does not want this work from me, I shall bow my head and sorrowfully bless the hand of Heaven.

Comboni's spiritual director was certain that he had a true Missionary vocation.

To Fr. Pietro Grana from Verona, 13 August 1857

I have at last finished my spiritual exercises; and after seeking the advice of God and of men, I saw that the idea of the Missions is my true vocation: indeed Fr Marani told me that after he had got the picture of my life and the past and present circumstances, he assures me that my vocation for the African Missions is one of the most clear and obvious; and therefore, despite my parents' circumstances, which on this occasion I candidly put before him, he said: "go, I give you my blessing, and trust in Providence, for the Lord, who inspired you with this magnanimous plan, will know how to console and protect your parents". So I have therefore absolutely decided to leave this coming September.

Now I warmly implore you to employ all your efforts to dispose my disconsolate parents with all your art, and with the help of God and of Mary, choosing the right moment, once and then again, until they resign themselves to the will of the Lord.

Oh, how afflicted I am by the sacrifices these two poor souls are making to separate themselves from me! What sacrifices the Lord taxes this vocation with! But I have been assured that the Lord is calling me; and I go with certainty.

Comboni was sustained by the life-long certainty of his vocation. His recollection of the decisive moments remained vivid right to the end of his life -and helped him to persuade his friend and collaborator in Verona to continue as Rector of the Missionary Institute

To Fr. Giuseppe Sembianti from Khartoum, 16 July 1881

…Remember a maxim inculcated in me by Fr Marani, who was rougher than you. I had recourse to Fr Marani as a Seminarian, I made my general confession with him, and he gave me the definitive advice on my Vocation (on that morning, 9 August 1857, Fr Benciolini was outside, waiting to hear from me of Fr Marani's decision). He said to me: "I knew you as a seminarian, I have advised you as a seminarian and a priest in all your affairs, I have in my mind as in a mirror your affairs, your principal fault, all you have done to overcome it, etc., etc. I began in 1820 to discern vocations and I have done so for many years... Well, be comforted and do not be afraid (I was trembling like a leaf because I feared he might tell me that I had no vocation for Africa, a fear that on the morning of the 9th I had confided to Fr Benciolini who had answered, "You will do what the Lord wills, go and see Fr Marani and do as he says"). "I have been examining the vocations of Missionaries and priests and friars, etc. for many years, your vocation to the mission and to Africa is one of the clearest I have ever seen... I am old, I have grey hair and sixty-seven, almost sixty-eight, years behind me. Go, in God's name and rejoice". I knelt, he blessed me and I thanked him, crying with consolation, and ran to tell it all to Fr Benciolini (who was laughing).

... Dear father, you should remember a maxim inculcated in me by Fr Marani, and it was: "Those who trust in themselves trust in the greatest ass in the world", and he added: "we must put all our trust in God".

... I am so oppressed and upset that I get off track without realizing it. Do you know why I have quoted Fr Marani's judgment on my vocation to you? Certain mad pinheads in Verona do not understand and want to spit out judgments and decide etc. on what regards their neighbor. But you are a man who understands. Let's go on. I spoke of this for no other reason than to tell you that in the course of my hard and wearisome enterprise it has seemed to me more than a hundred times that I have been abandoned by God, the Pope, the Superiors and by all men (when I was burdened by the most tremendous afflictions and sorrows, a single soul did not abandon me when she could speak to me and encouraged me to place all my trust in God, the only protector of innocence, justice and God's work, and that was the Virgin Mary).

Finding myself so abandoned and distressed, a hundred times I had the strongest temptation (even suggested to me by pious and respectable men, but men without courage and trust in God) to give up everything, hand over the work to Propaganda and offer myself as a humble servant, at the disposal of the Holy See, or of the Cardinal Prefect, or of some Bishop. Well, what helped me not to fail in my vocation (even when I was accused before the highest authority with, so to say, twenty capital sins, when in fact there are only seven) and even when I had debts of 70,000 francs, the Institutes at Verona were in confusion, there were many deaths in Central Africa with no prospect of light, but everything was dark and I had a fever at Khartoum - what sustained my courage to hold firm at my post until death or some decision from the Holy See was the conviction of the certainty of my vocation. It was always toties quoties because Fr Marani told me on 9 August 1857, after a serious examination, "your vocation to the African mission is one of the clearest I have ever seen".

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