He is no longer “the same person who left” in 2017, Simone Parimbelli, 38 years old, Comboni Lay Missionary of the Diocese of Bergamo, who returned in September 2020 from Mongoumba in Central African Republic. Because, as he says with light in his eyes, “the mission opens the heart and the horizon and being outgoing changes you: from the conception of the missionary style to the relationship with time and space, with oneself and with God”. It happens when you are “in close contact with the sufferings and joys of the other” and live for three and a half years in the heart of the tropical forest, in the diocese of Mbaiki, in Mongoumba, where the Comboni Fathers have been working with the AKA pygmies for more than 30 years.
“It seems absurd, but these people are not recognized by other ethnic groups and have no access to education or health care; enslaved by the Bantu masters and without a birth certificate, they are ghosts in the flesh,” says Simone, denouncing a country that, despite many riches, lives in a condition of colonialism and misery.
“Being next to them, you become a door to knock on”, continues Simone who, as a layman, has sometimes “managed to enter into the concrete lives of people much more than priests, divided between the administration of the parish and the Eucharistic celebrations over a vast territory”. When he arrived in Mongoumba, he proposed several activities of animation, transforming for example the school of Ndobo, close to the pygmy camps, in an oratory, like the one of his parish of Osio Sopra, where growing up, at a certain point, he asked himself “what is the use of my faith?”.
From the question about vocation to the answer to a call, the step is, so to speak, short: it’s 7,500 kilometers along with everything else. But “when you have perhaps intuited what you can be in the world and for the world, you have to prove it”.
So, the diocese of Bergamo, Bishop Francesco Beschi, the Missionary Center and the international movement of the Comboni Lay Missionaries give him “the possibility and the grace to live this experience: 1,300 days of fragility and brotherhood” in a young Church “that knows how to generate children in faith and where joy prevails”.
Sent and welcomed: in a continuous cycle that, in the future, perhaps, will push him elsewhere, where the Holy Spirit blows, which, in Sango, the language of the Central African Republic, is called Yingo-Gbya.
(By Loredana Brigante, POPOLI e MISSIONE magazine. February 2021)
The parish of Saint George in Mongoumba runs a small dispensary to help the structural deficiencies of the Central African health system and the non-existence of the welfare state. Here the Comboni Lay Missionaries carry out the service of welcoming life, “to make common cause with the most abandoned”, “to embrace the whole human family…, to hold in our arms and give the kiss of peace and love to our unhappy brothers and sisters”, would say St. Daniel Comboni. Newborns, children of all ages, young people, mothers, fathers, elderly people, find in the small dispensary a point of reference, a home more than a hospital, where they can be recognized as human beings, listened to in their pain, cared for in their suffering. Every day, day and night, at all hours, we met the mystery of our human fragility, we experienced human limitations and we returned to the great existential question: “Where is God in suffering and pain, when we need Him most??”. Even doing the best of our abilities and possibilities, sometimes, not to say often, we lost the battle with life, we had to surrender to the awareness that we were not omnipotent. There is a human limit that we cannot overcome, we are fragile, however… faith remains… in other, Other with a capital O, and when we touch the bitterness of defeat only tears and prayers to God, Father of all humanity, remain…
St. George’s Parish in Mongoumba runs a school to support the Central African educational system, which is cancelled every time war breaks out, in order to guarantee a minimum of education for the new generations. St. Daniel Comboni writes: “…I think it is more useful to invoke the action of the missionaries for the education of the young blacks of both sexes in various institutes… this education must aim to prepare in the pupils to become the future apostles…”. As a Comboni Lay Missionary, I have tried to transform the school into a small oratory, especially the one in Ndobo, 5 km from the center, near the pygmy camps. The oratory is a house of regeneration, a space of brotherhood, even without having mega-structures, and mixing school lessons with dances, manual workshops, games, music, the school of Ndobo, a small red brick building surrounded by forest, had become a place of social promotion, human growth and evangelization. The transformation in oratory style worked, “…the Plan works…”, being present every day, and almost all day long, working on time and not on space, created relationships and bonds, we became a big family, we all became brothers and sisters, and we were able to talk about Jesus, our Brother, and to witness God, Father of all humanity: “an infinite myriad of brothers and sisters belonging to our same family, having a common Father up in heaven” …
The day began early: 5.30 am wake up, just enough time to wash my face, have breakfast and then I leave, at 6.30 am already out of the house on the road to Ndobo, on foot, with the backpack, the radio for dancing, the football bag, frequently with the computer to watch movies, on Monday with the box of clean aprons to start the week. While people were having breakfast on the side of the road, before going to work in their fields, I walked through the village and after about 50 minutes, I arrived at the school and we started the day by playing ball, dancing and jumping with the music blaring, blasting through the forest. If during the week I went to see the children, on Sunday they would take the opposite route, they would come to the parish; and if it rained, they would arrive all muddy, soaking wet and shivering with cold. We had time to wash our hands, faces and feet, to put on clean shirts and shorts, to receive from Cristina (CLM from Portugal) talcum powder and a splash of perfume, and off we ran to church, leaving behind us a trail that spread through the air. After Mass, we had breakfast together with hot milk, cocoa and cookies, the place was filled with the sweet aroma of chocolate, then we continued with music, dancing and games: “it was an attempt to find a probable way in order to begin a measure of regeneration” would say St. Daniel Comboni, it was our look of closeness and proximity to make present the joyful and tasty fragrance of Jesus, our Brother, and of God, the Father of all humanity…
On June 13, at 8:30 in the evening, the diocese of Bologna, with a Mission-sending Mass celebrated by Bishop Zuppi, sent me off as a Fidei Donum missionary.
This second tour Ad Gentes was born within the diocesan mission center, to which I belong, that decided to start a partnership with the diocese of Salvador, opening new ways of cooperation between the two dioceses.
This pleased me immensely because it would make it possible to open a new window on the Latin American reality, in this case on Brazil, for the missionary center that is currently only involved with the diocese of Mapanda, Tanzania.
It is also an “unusual” sending for the CLM, because this is not a commitment of the CLM or of the Comboni Missionaries, but rather the result of an external cooperation which could produce new openings in the future.
I will continue to belong to the Comboni Family as a CLM, keeping my contacts and ties with its organization, with the various groups and the central committee that approved my choice by stating that “mission belongs to God and not to human beings.”
I will be part of the Community of Trindade, that welcomes street people, and I will be involved in welcoming and listening to the people who are welcomed, besides taking part in workshops and services, including a street newspaper published by the Community.
It will be a totally new, hard, concrete and authentic experience, including sleeping on the floor, sharing common street problems arising from marginalization, dependence and resurrection but, as Comboni says, lived with daring and perseverance in the journey. And I add: with feet firmly on the ground and eyes gazing up to heaven.
“I wish you to wear a dress that will never be fashionable;
I wish you strong hope in your feet,
Pants of commitment and two-color sweaters:
The color of freedom and the color of co-responsibility.
And wear a beautiful hat, the one of knowledge and of a critical sense.
We must dress up this way all the time.”
(Fr. Luigi Ciotti)
Between the weekend meeting of the General Councils of the Comboni Family and the next weekend, when we will meet as Central Committee in Venegono, north of Milan, I had a few days left to move around in Italy.
I asked Mark to contact the groups in the North to see if some could receive me and so spend some time together.
The answer was very positive and we were able to organize a good week visiting various CLM groups in northern Italy.
The program was pretty much the same for all. In the morning I traveled from one city to the next and in the afternoon, we shared a time for prayer, supper and a chat together. It was all done in a pleasant familiar style.
I am grateful to all for the effort it required in getting together on a week night with work, children and everything else. This includes each one of the MCCJ I met who welcomed us in their houses as a family and those who follow our groups, plus those who approached us to talk about our reality as CLM both locally and at the international level.
The first group I visited was in Padua, a group with many years of experience. They told me how the group started, their activities and what they organized in the course of many years, including many activities that later branched out in different directions.
I already knew some of them for having met them at international gatherings. They were very interested in knowing how other groups got organized and the type of activities and meetings they have. We also had the opportunity to talk a bit about the recent assembly in Rome.
I see that there is a growing interest in mutual cooperation, in order to go beyond what each one does locally and cooperate with others, learn from the experiences of others, share concerns and other things. May this move them to read the conclusions, that they seem to be too many, but if we take the time we will see their richness and the many ideas they generate for concrete activities for each one of our communities and in order to accomplish the common goal that we chose together.
The following day I went to Verona. They met me at the station and they took me to the Comboni community to greet Fr. Tacchella and then to the Sisters’ house to see Sr. Esperanza, who also deals with our group.
Afterwards, we had a wonderful meal together, meeting again those we had known in 2012 during our European meeting in Verona, and others.
We talked a bit about Spain and Italy, the beautiful places, and during supper we started our conversation to know what the group is doing, the challenges it faces and more.
We also gave a good amount of time to talk about the situation of other groups. We covered the challenges that the past assembly has given us, recognizing that often we concentrate ourselves in what is going on in our own local CLM group, the concreteness of our community. It is normal that our daily fare be our vital reference, as we pray and work together, but keeping in mind what other CLM communities are doing gives us new ideas and helps us grow. I also saw the challenge of reading all that we share, but at times the interest in wanting to understand the content and what we are requesting…
The next day I was able to take a short bicycle tour of Comboni’s city, to remember the most important spots, and then board another train, this time for Milan.
Again, I was met at the station and we met as a group. But not before taking a quick tour of the main attractions including the museum of the Risorgimento.
We had time for supper, meet again a few people, know some new ones and have a conversation. There is always time to get to know what has been done and a time for questions. Among them the topic of formation came up again: A formation that will help us grow in our vocation; the importance of prayer and of growth in our spiritual life as support and foundation of our missionary activity, together with the challenge of opening the groups for new people to join; the importance of knowing well our identity in order to present it and to help us discern our vocation and its consequences.
Then, the moment comes to ask for paths to help us move forward and my answer is always the same, that it is easy to read the agreements we reached in Rome. Our famous 96 conclusions have a lot to tell us, both in what to do, but above all in what to Be. They are the fruit of all these years of work and the contribution of the many countries and continents where we are present.
The following morning, again by train, we reached Venegono. Once again, we met at the station and then we talked about many important things.
The day just flew by and, at the end, we shared our supper and a good time of conversation, more informal this time and in small groups, but always interesting.
The concern for new vocations and the arrival of new people in the groups. The difficulties of the generation gap or how to render the groups appealing to the young when we are made up of families with children and with different rhythms.
We must continue to think and keep alive, believing in what we do and ask for help from others. We are not in a store window so that other may see us, but we are in the street, with people, and we need new hands that with clasp together in order to act, protect, caress, lead whomever is in need. We need new heads to give new ideas and solutions to the difficulties of daily life. We need new hearts that will give hope in difficult times.
We share a wonderful vocation, a gift of God that we must share with our neighbor. This is part of our responsibility.
Italy is getting ready for its national assembly in August. May it be an important moment of meeting again personally, but above all in order to continue to dream together, to turn into reality the common dream we shared in Rome, as the point where we place ourselves into service, to open our groups to new people who feel this missionary vocation and offer them a place where to grow, be formed, feed spiritually, prepare themselves to go forth, turn into reality the missionary dream of Comboni wherever we may be, aiming always at the “poorest and most abandoned,” as Comboni used to say.
Thanks for having me feel at home!
Alberto de la Portilla (CLM Central Committee Coordinator)
My decision comes from a personal journey that started with the various experiences of volunteer service I had in Tanzania and in Ethiopia with the Comboni Lay Missionaries group, of which I am a member.
This journey through time ripened in me the idea of embarking in a long-term missionary commitment, so in December 2013 I left for Brazil, headed for Minas Gerais where I remained until December 2016, three years! Those three years literally changed my life, because mission changes you, if you allow it. What you see, what you touch, what you feel, what you live through, transforms you and leads you to discover a God who wanks through your steps, a God who has the face of the people and the histories you meet, an extraordinarily beautiful God in the defense of Life and for Life and in a commitment to serve and share so concrete and strong, that you fall in love with it, I did!
I lived for three years in a violent and poor neighborhood, in the periphery of an existential and structural world, but full of humanity and strength. Besides the various pastoral activities connected with the parish, carried out by the Comboni Missionaries, I got involved specifically in the prison ministry of the diocese of Belo Horizonte. I had never been in a prison and Brazil was my first time, a place where the prison situation is one of the worst in the world, made worse by violence and criminality, abuses of power and violations of human rights. Our job was to follow the inmates both spiritually and humanly and often to denounce situations where human dignity was not respected. Most of the Brazilian prisons’ population comes from situations of life where the family and the social structure are fragile and vulnerable.
They all come from favelas or other very difficult environments. The inmates and the families I met, all of them carried the deep wounds of violence, lack of opportunities and poverty. This pastoral work taught me that no one is beyond redemption, because only Love heals, only those who are accepted and loved can be reborn, because no one can escape Love, I am convinced of it!
Mission for me was above all sharing, walking together with others and share problems and hopes. It is not in doing great things, but above all, in Being present with the heart, the head and the hands!
Needed are a heart for loving, a head for understanding and interpreting without prejudice, hands to lead and build together. Today, my missionary commitment makes me leave for a second time, again for three years and again in Brazil, in a new experience, in a new city, Salvador Bahia, where I will live in a community that gives shelter to moradores de rua, street people. Last year, with our mission center, we went to visit this community and the project was born to share experiences with them, helping those who take care of the re-insertion of the street people who decide to get hold of their own life and start from scratch. I am ready to start again and to live the joy of meeting and discovering, but above all the joy of sharing and walking together.
Emma Chiolini, CLM
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