The media has a vital role in the prosecution of our mission, especially in promoting missionary animation and justice, peace and integrity of creation – a commitment that emerged only in the last years
In this text, I would like to state that our work in the media is “a precious inheritance,” from our Founder – a media-minded person – who availed himself of the means at his disposal to bring mission farther and reach virtually a greater number of people.
Comboni, a great communicator
St Daniel Comboni was a great communicator. He believed in the power of information and, all his life, he used his eloquent words – spoken and written. Whenever he was in Europe, usually to recover from his infirmities, he would not miss the opportunity to travel and meet as many collaborators, friends and benefactors as he could to inform them about the misfortunes of Africa, his tireless efforts to alleviate its misery, and to stir their faith and generosity. He even had programmed a trip to America in 1871 to ask for aid and for Black missionaries to help him. He was stopped by the Prefect of Propaganda Fide, Cardinal Barnabò, afraid that Comboni would channel, to Africa, funds that were sustaining the Roman offices.
Besides, he would use pen and paper – the means at his disposal in the XIX century, because the telegraph was invented only some years after his death – to promote mission awareness, make known his work in African soil, and raise funds to support his projects. Every day, he would write many and extensive letters in different languages. Let me to give just two examples. In May 1871, he confided to the Bishop of Verona, Msgr. Luigi de Canossa, that he had written 1,347 letters in the previous five months. In another letter, while talking about his multiple commitments, he mentioned that he had “more than 900 letters to write.” During his life, he wrote thousands of letters.
But his “lively and diligent correspondence with Europe” included many papers and magazines which multiplied with the spreading of the printing press after 1820. In a letter to the editor of the paper Libertà Cattolica, he stated: “I have to write all the time as a correspondent for 15 other German, French, English and American journals which send me fine sums of money. In Italy, I have relations with nearly all the Catholic papers … as well as my own Annali del Buon Pastore in Verona, which is a quarterly.” The latter became the prestigious Comboni magazine Nigrizia. Its first issue came out in 1872 and was the first of the Comboni magazines which define also our way of doing mission.
Comboni had an encyclopedic knowledge and was interested in all matters pertaining to Africa – people and their vicissitudes, history, geography, fauna, flora, discoveries, exploratory expeditions, customs and culture, trade, development… He wrote chronicles about his trips, ethnographic, geographic and biographic articles, historical essays and, especially, annual reports about the progress of his mission and asked for prayers and financial aid. It seems he believed in the power of communication as much as in the power of prayer.
In addition to writing, he read and subscribed to a great number of Italian, German, French and English periodicals, especially, Catholic papers. The reason he gave was: “because I want the Institutes and the many establishments I direct to think properly today, and I thank God that they all do.” In his Writings, he mentioned more than 40 papers and magazines. One wonders how, in the middle of his strenuous labors, exhausting trips through sickening swamps and scorching deserts, he could still have time to read and write so much.
The means of transportation then were the camel and the steamer. One can only imagine how the great mission animator, Daniel Comboni, would use modern means of communication, especially phone and Internet, to communicate in real time and how he would put electronic media at the service of mission promotion and evangelization!
An unavoidable challenge
Mission is communication – mainly of our perception and experience of God. Besides, we communicate what we are, the experiences we make, the work we do. There’s no communication without contents – otherwise, that is pure entertainment! The missionary is a communicator. The quality of his communication depends on the quality of his experience. The words may be poor and the technique may be inadequate, but the message would certainly get across.
On the other hand, communication is mission. The media are simply a tool – ever more indispensable and precious. Our mission is a source of beautiful stories – or should be – with which we touch people and help to create a better world. Some involvement in the social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is not enough. Besides, we should remember that our more or less sophisticated gadgets (cell phones, computers and cameras) should not be so much for personal enjoyment but for the service of mission.
The Congregation’s involvement in the media – “a precious heritage” – is faltering. In the 60s, we were ahead of times in missionary animation (using slides and Super 8 projector machines); today, we are clearly behind the times. The world evolved but we didn’t. More and more, we find it difficult even to keep the existing magazines. Not enough personnel have been prepared for the job, not mentioning the challenges of the new media. The shrinking personnel calls for strategic decisions in key sectors, such as in this multi-faceted areopagus of the mass media.
News – more than any other journalistic genre and in another context, sermons – have the power to change people’s way of thinking and mobilize their will to do good. Therefore, it is not easy to understand the Congregation’s reluctance in committing more people and resources to the media sector. Surely, our mission at the service of the Good News of Jesus deserves much more courage and dedication.
BY FR. JOSEPH REBELO COMBONI MISSIONARY