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from issue no. 12 - 2003

The new is simply discovering a treasure that’s already there

«The treasure is that of our roots, the missionary passion of Comboni, of the faith lived and communicated by him... an inexhaustible font and a path already marked out».An interview with Father Sebastiano Serra, Superior General of the Combonians

by Stefania Falasca

Teresino Sebastiano Serra in Khartoum , on the occasion of the celebrations in honor of Saint Daniele Comboni

Teresino Sebastiano Serra in Khartoum , on the occasion of the celebrations in honor of Saint Daniele Comboni

The nineteenth successor of Comboni is called Father Teresino Sebastiano Serra. His election to Superior General of the Combonian Missionaries, that took place just days before the canonization of the founder of the Congregation, comes at a particular moment in the history of the Institute. A fifty-six year old Sardinian, Father Serra, after training in the United States, was concerned with the pastoral mission and taught novices for twenty years, first in Kenya and then in Mexico. A long experience of the mission along with a fine shrewdness, the kind that belongs to those who knows immediately how to distinguish the essential things from the secondary. We met him on his return from a trip to Khartoum, the historic heart of the Combonian mission. He tells us of those moments without concealing his subtle and good-natured humor...

Father Serra, the sixteenth General Chapter of the Combonians, which closed on 2 October, voted for you with a full majority. So the task of leading the Congregation for the next six years is yours...
FATHER TERESINO S. SERRA: Eh, it’s too late now... The “nominee” is always left a bit of time after the results of the vote to think, whether to accept or no. They left me all night... I spent it counting the tiles along the corridor: they were seventy. I phoned my confessor at eleven thirty in the evening to ask counsel, but since I woke him up, he even got angry... Then I explained, he understood and answered me with: «Well then, it means I won’t be giving you penance for the next six years since you’ll have plenty...». The following morning I “gave in”, thinking of what he’d told me: « If the Chapter Fathers, the eighty delegates from thirty countries, said yes to you, you say yes to them and get yourself help...». I trusted. I gave faith. And so far, I must say, I still haven’t lost my peace of mind.
You may not have lost it yet... but the Chapter minutes indicate an intense program for the future of the Institute. Training and methodology were discussed, there was insistence on the need for a new mission... On that, what does it mean?
SERRA: There was insistence on the point, it’s true. But I find it difficult to give definitions. One also has to consider and keep in mind situations, places, timing, contingencies... and first you have to ask yourself what “mission” means; and what does “new” mean?... What comes in to your mind? One can end up saying everything and more. The new, I think instead, is very simple: rediscovering the treasure that is there already.
SERRA: The treasure is that of our roots, the missionary passion of Comboni, of the faith lived and communicated by Comboni... an inexhaustible font and a path already marked out. For me the new is going back to the origins of that path and going back to discovering that legacy, that wealth, that we often think we know and that perhaps we’ve taken for granted, or we haven’t used. There are many volunteers going ahead with work, but communicating a lived, genuine faith, is another story...
And that has been your vocation...
SERRA: That is our vocation. The new is also those missionaries, those missionaries who have written beautiful pages on brotherhood, on dedication, on passion for the mission, on the love to God and on sharing up to the last breath of their lives, that have given and give a testimony of total giving, and following in their footsteps without reservations... the footsteps of our martyrs. And they are not few.
A combonian missionary in a school in Pau da Lima in Brasil

A combonian missionary in a school in Pau da Lima in Brasil

From 1964 up to today 27 Combonians missionaries have been killed, in Africa for the most part...
SERRA: Just when we were in Rome for the Chapter, the news came of the killing of two Combonians in north Uganda, Father Mario Mantovani, an elderly priest in Africa for fifty years, and Brother Kiryowa Godfrey, a young newly professed Ugandan. Their deaths was as if Him upstairs meant to face us again with the fact that mission and martyrdom are vocations that often go side-by-side, especially when one decides to stay in the midst of our poorest and abandoned brothers to make common cause with them.
“To make common cause with the poor, the outcast”... Forgive me, but often these expressions sound like slogans by now...
SERRA: That’s true when they’re turned into banners, for the battles on paper. Taking center stage. And even among missionaries there’s the danger at times.
You, too, are in the mood for a bit of “whip-cracking”... To what were you referring exactly?
SERRA: To those who don’t pick up on the sign of the times and want to get everything... they get over-excited. The passion for a cause can lead to not backing off, to wanting to save the world... forgetting at times that it is Christ that saves. And I’d like to add another point.
What point is that?
SERRA: It’s absolutely fine to inform, to denounce and give voice to those who don’t have a voice, but what counts more for us is the willingness to live with them. Without spotlights and powerful means. With the facts, physically, with difficult and courageous choices. To stay with the disposition of those willing to become hidden stones, of those who work like humble workers knowing they won’t see the outcome. In southern Sudan for example, we had built churches, schools, we built them when we could, now it’s all destroyed, there’s nothing left, the people move continually from one place to another... what can one do in such situations? Some of us stayed with them, they live there, they move with them, they have nothing else, and those people know they have not been abandoned... Each of us, where we find ourself, is the Church.
You returned recently from the Sudan. Does Africa remain a priority for you?
SERRA: Comboni left us a legacy. He told his missionaries to love this abandoned land with passion. A land that continues to be abandoned, forgotten, ransacked, enslaved. There are so many dramatic, extreme situations, just in the Sudan for example. We must choose and live in these poorest and forgotten parts. But the option for Africa is not either exclusive nor excluding.
Some have written: «The Combonians are a free family»...
SERRA: Well, I could also say variegated: there are those who live in the past, those in the present, those who already live in the future... From the Council of Trent to Vatican Council IV, to make things clear... But has there ever been a family where there wasn’t diversity?
Your founder managed to put together missionaries from different training backgrounds...
SERRA: Exactly. At the start he wasn’t thinking of founding his own Institute and perhaps wouldn’t have done so if Cardinal Barnabò hadn’t asked him to. His first missionaries in Africa came from different backgrounds: religious, diocesans, laypeople of different cultures, different spirituality, and let’s admit that some were by no means “perfect”; others he tolerated, some put up with, though they brought a good deal of trouble and bother. He valued the bit of good they could give to the mission and he held them together by getting them to love what he loved.
So, that means?
SERRA: That if there is this essential epicenter, there is also already a unity. In Paul’s Epistles authority is called «paraclete», a word not much liked today, but« paraclete» comes from «parakalein» that means animate, give soul, give trust, direct toward the good. Though not hesitating to chastise, when necessary, Saint Paul never says «I command you» but says: «I exhort you».
What would you like to recommend to your missionaries?
SERRA: To go ahead with courage. Conscious of our limits and frailty but without making obstacles for God. Courage comes from that faith which tells us that our work is His. Then I urge to beg more. Otherwise all is nothing. The mission is made by prayer; it’s strictly linked with prayer. Never neglect it. Comboni wanted his missionaries to be «saints and capable», not «men with twisted necks». Those who don’t pray, don’t think. Those who don’t think, don’t reason. And those who don’t reason, aren’t of use to the mission.

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