Home > Archives > 04 - 2003 > Miracle in Khartoum
from issue no. 04 - 2003

The canonization of Daniele Comboni

Miracle in Khartoum

It was a Sudanese woman, a strict Muslim, who opened the way for the canonization of Daniele Comboni, the apostle of Africa

by Stefania Falasca

Monsignor Comboni
in a photo of 1873 which shows him wearing an Arab turban

Monsignor Comboni in a photo of 1873 which shows him wearing an Arab turban

The documents of the canonical process speak clearly. It was a Muslim, a strict Muslim who opened the way for the canonisation of Daniele Comboni, the apostle of Africa. The consultative assembly of the theologians of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints had no doubts about it. The miracle which happened to this woman occurred because of the intercession of Blessed Daniele Comboni and on 5 October next he will be proclaimed a saint. She is called Lubna Abdel Aziz. She is thirty eight years old. Five children. She lives in Khartoum. Since 1986 she has been with Khedir El Mubarak, an official in the regime of Omar al Bashir and general of the governing army of Sudan, one of the African States where the sharia, the Islamic law, is in force. A law which has contributed to the outbreak of bloody civil wars and profoundly marked the fierce divide between the Arab north and the south of this tormented country. But Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, was also the location of the work of one of the greatest missionaries in the recent history of the church. It was here that on the evening of 10 October 1881 Daniele Comboni, the mutran es sudan, «father of the blacks», as he was called by all, the first bishop of Khartoum, died, worn out by fever and toil, after a life entirely devoted to the welfare of the African peoples. The first to have set up fixed mission points in these remote and difficult lands, opening the way to the evangelization of the continent. The first also, with what a bold move for the time, who succeeded in bringing nuns into central Africa. And not only did he have the courage to denounce to the powers of half of Europe the vile traffic in slaves, dedicating himself entirely to their ransom and training, he also had the intelligent realism not to hesitate in making friends of the Turkish leaders, the important pashas and mufti of the place. His mortal remains lie beneath the building of what is the actual seat of government in Khartoum, there where the old Catholic mission founded by him once stood. His portrait, with an Arab turban on his head, now has an honoured place in the schools of the Combonian missionaries, attended mostly by Muslims, as in the hospital of Khartoum run by the Combonian Sisters, Pious Mothers of Negritude: Saint Mary’s Hospital.
But let’s get on with the facts of the case.

Story of a miracle
It was just here, to Saint Mary’s Hospital, that Lubna Abdel Aziz came on 11 November 1997. She had to undergo a caesarian section for the birth of her fifth son. The operation took place at 7.30. The baby was born, but the woman, on the evening of the same day, was dying. «Very serious hemorrhages caused by antecedent placenta overgrowth», the medical bulletin said, for which the woman underwent two other surgical operations one after the other in an attempt to block the heavy loss of blood. But immediately after the second intervention the doctors became aware that the blood was not coagulating and that the numerous transfusions to which the patient was subjected weren’t helping at all. In technical terms, as the clinical reports testify, «a CID ( widespread introvascular coagulation) and fibronolisis were ascertained with consequent irreversible hypovolemic shock, cardiac collapse and pulmonary edema». In short, there was nothing left to do. So the doctors in charge passed judgement: «An unfortunate prognosis quod vitam within a short time». The rigorous clinical documentation is reported in the acts examined by the medical council of the Congregation called upon to judge the case. In the Positio, apart from the reports and the depositions of the doctors involved, the interrogations and the testimonies of the nuns who tended the patient as nurses are also recorded.
Sister Maria Bianca Benatelli, responsible for the maternity department of the hospital, reports as follows: «At two in the afternoon the woman was taken once again into the operating theater to remove the cause of the hemorrhage. But at five she got worse. Blood issued from every where .... it was like water, it didn’t coagulate anymore. In the emergency she was given blood that was not fresh, and also not checked for AIDS. Her husband, who had no difficulty getting whatever was needed for transfusions, succeeded in getting even two vials of fibrinogene, a pharmaceutical product necessary to enable coagulation, but it was insufficient. The doctors finally gathered around the patient and Doctor Tadros, shaking his head said: “Hopeless”».
«How and when did you begin to pray for the recovery of the patient?», the sister was asked during the course of her deposition at the hearing.
«The woman again and again said: “Help me”. I then felt such pity for that mother who was dying, leaving five little creatures in the world», the sister affirmed. «Had she been a Christian, I’d have called a priest for the sacraments, I’d have prayed along with the woman telling her to trust in the heart of Jesus, to ask the help of some saint .... but she was a Muslim. There and then, Monsignor Comboni came to my mind. He was also the only one I could have named to the woman. Here in Sudan he’s known to everyone, to Muslims as well. I appealed to him, placing that mother in his arms: “Look, only you can do something now .... there is nothing more to do, we can’t do anything more.... But you can do it .... help her! She’s Sudanese, one from your land, a Muslim. You did so much good to them .... did you not love them greatly? .... Have they not perhaps a special place in your heart? Save her, don’t let her die!” Beside me there was sister Orlanda, I turned and I said to her: “Have you faith? Let’s pray to Comboni so he’ll save this poor mother”. I then hurried to get his little picture and, while I was returning to the room, I also asked Comboni for the right words to say to the woman. I went to her and said: “Lubna, the doctors say that your condition is unfortunately serious .... Lubna, perhaps you know Comboni .... if you don’t mind we would like to entrust your case to him”. She asked: “Comboni, isn’t he the one who founded all the schools in Khartoum?” “Yes,” I replied to her, “but he is also a friend of God and being close to Him he can do better than all of us. Do you want me to leave his photo here with you?”. “Yes”, she said. Her mother was at the foot of the bed, she too a Muslim, she saw and nodded. I then placed the little image of Comboni under her pillow. With the face turned towards her head so that she could look at it. And while I put the photo underneath, I looked at it and told him silently: “Don’t make a bad impression now.” »
Sister Silvana Orlanda La Marra, one of the other nurses present, testified at the hearing: «The woman lost consciousness. The heartbeat became imperceptible. Her husband came in, holding one of the children by the hand. The doctors had explained to the man the desperate conditions of his wife. He remained silent. Then, taking the child in his arms, he approached me and said: “Sister, you pray to your God also for the mother of this child”». The sister with delicate tact, replied: «If you will give us your consent, we intend to do so through Comboni». «The husband», continued the sister, «knew who he was and there was no need to add anything else. He only said: “Yes, he was a great man here”». All the missionaries then began the triduum of prayer for the woman to be healed through the intercession of Daniele Comboni. The Catholic doctor who had operated on Mrs. Lubna and the three Coptic obstetricians went with the sisters into the hospital chapel.
Even though the inevitable exitus was expected, the woman didn’t die and got through the night. In the morning the doctors were more than a little surprised to find her still alive, and not even when, in that extreme and irreversible condition, she was operated on for the third time, did she die. On the contrary. Under the stupefied eyes of the doctors, the woman regained consciousness and in a very short time, recovered, so much so that after a few days she was actually discharged, completely cured. Two Muslim doctors also examined the woman afterwards, and their report is included with the records of the hearing.
«Everyone said», recalls sister Bianca Garascia, the superior, «“how is it possible that that woman already dead could have returned to life?” They all said that it was an inexplicable and phenomenal case.» «When I saw that Lubna was completely recovered,» sister Maria Bianca Benatelli continued, «I said to her: “God loves you, Comboni has helped you. We prayed a great deal for you because you are the mother of five children and no one could take care of them better than you.”»

With delicate respect
«An unexpected, complete, and lasting cure, without sequel of any kind, scientifically inexplicable», the medical council unanimously acknowledged on 11 April 2002. And on 6 September of the same year, the council of theologians unanimously acknowledged the miraculous cure through the intercession of Blessed Daniele Comboni. The exceptional case of this miracle which happened to a person of the Muslim faith is the only one of its kind which has ever come before the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints. In the publication of the decree, the promoter of the faith of the Congregation wished to underline «how providentially significant and eloquent this extraordinary event may be at this time, a time in which the relations between Islamic and Western countries are becoming ever more difficult».
«Lubna and her husband, however, were not heard in the course of the diocesan hearing super asserto miro which took place in Khartoum in May of 2001», Father Arnaldo Baritussio, postulator of the cause, explains. «The tribunal did not consider it opportune to call on them to testify, both because the technical texts and the documentation relative to the case appeared more than sufficient and because, being strict Muslims, it was thought better not to call them for reasons of delicacy and prudence. We know that after the event they went on a pilgrimage to Mecca,» the postulator continues, «but we also know that they still keep up very good relations with the nuns, towards whom they have shown themselves to be very grateful.» Sister Assunta Sciota, who has worked for 44 years at Saint Mary’s Hospital, and who was present during the treatment of Lubna, confirms: «We have remained friends. From the beginning both Lubna and her husband did nothing but thank us for what had happened, with great gratitude. They are practicing Muslims, but not fanatics». «It must be said, however, that in Khartoum», she continues, «ordinary relations between Christians and Muslims are good, we sisters particularly enjoy great respect from the Muslims. And the respect is reciprocal. This hospital has existed from the beginnings of the twentieth century. In 44 years of work there, I have never had a problem with them. And on not a few occasions they said to me that they preferred our hospital to theirs because “it is like being at home here.”»
The faithful during holy mass in the cathedral of Khartoum, Sudan

The faithful during holy mass in the cathedral of Khartoum, Sudan

The Apostle of Africa arrived in Sudan, then an Egyptian dominion, for the first time in 1858. He returned there setting out from Cairo in 1873. Going up the Nile and the desert, in the midst of dangers, mortal fevers and the harsh climate, he arrived in Khartoum after a journey that lasted almost three months. Along with him there were the first five European women missionaries to set foot in these lands. No priest had dared take any with him till then. It took all Comboni’s strength of character to achieve it, in the clear, convinced intuition that without them it was «unthinkable to become part of those peoples».
«Yesterday the great muftì, the Islamic head in Sudan, came to me to express his joy that I had brought the sisters to Khartoum», Comboni wrote to the Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda Fide Alessandro Barnabò. «And as regards their incomparable presence here, I will tell you what I have ascertained through long experience. When the sisters visit the harems either for the exercise of charity, or to baptize children in articulo mortis , or out of good manners and to maintain good relations with the women of the powerful, the Catholic faith always gains, not least because the good example and the conduct of the sisters is a most eloquent lesson for the Muslims, who are always struck with admiration for them. And so great is the respect gained and the esteem for the good that they do», he continues, «that they even accept that some people convert. A lovely proof of this is the fact, of which I have spoken to you, of the most solid conversion of the young Muslim woman who in holy baptism wanted to take the name of Vittoria.» In another letter, he wrote as follows: «His Excellency Ismail Pascià, Governor General, whose writ runs as far as the sources of the Nile, came to visit me to offer me his friendship and all of his support to fulfill my desires regarding the Catholic mission. He is an educated Turk, an old fox, a cheat, but supremely benevolent towards the mission. He gave me his steamboat to go on the White Nile so as to push more easily south. Also my position regarding the authorities, as bishop and apostolic provicar, could not now be better. I am actually in a happy situation here in Sudan».
On the day of his first mass in Khartoum, there were many Muslims, as well as the missionaries and Christians, to assist him. The chapel, the porticos and the courtyard of the mission were full. Speaking in Arabic, he addressed everyone: «I return among you, never again to cease to be yours and completely consecrated to your greater good for ever. Be assured that my soul feels an unlimited love for you. I undertake to have common cause with each one of you, and the happiest of my days will be the day in which I will be able to give my life for you». That day arrived eight years later when he was mortally stricken by black fever and grief at the looming tragedy of the Mahdi war, (one of the worst to hit the Sudan). As the danger threatened he wrote to his missionaries: «All say: “The finger of God is here”. I am confused and see that He always uses the weak for the most difficult tasks .... All our confidence is in Him who uses mercy. Don’t be afraid .... When we are in Paradise then, we will with our incessant prayers put Jesus and Mary on the cross, and we will pray to Him so much until, either through love or force, he will be constrained to work miracles».

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português