A letter from Alfonso Poppi, written shortly after the disappearance of Father Pietro Tiboni, Comboni missionary, and his witness of a long friendship.

Kahawa Sukari, July 1st, 2017.

Thanks a lot, Paolo, for the words you wrote in occasion of Fr. Pietro Tiboni’s funeral.

On Monday, the Bishop celebrated a beautiful funeral mass in the crowded Cathedral of Gulu, where I was ordained a deacon the feast of the Sacred Heart in 1979. There were people coming from every part of Uganda, from Tororo to Kasese, Kampala to Mityana, Masaka to Arua. Besides myself, that arrived with Ivone from Kenya, there were Liberata and one person from the Movement of CL from Rwanda and many people also from Italy.  The day after, in Kitgum, the Archbishop Odama wanted to honour this great missionary even more, before his burial, by celebrating a solemn mass in the square where I was ordained priest on the day of the Assumption in 1980. My brothers from the Kitgum seminary where also there and it was a great feast. You can only imagine what kind of emotions and memories I lived in those moments, in a place and with the people I never stopped loving and to whom I have entirely and sincerely donated myself and my life.

In Gulu, they asked me to talk: I was so certain of His victorious presence that I wasn’t even scared.  Afterwards, the Archbishop pointed out a few of the things I referred to. He told me that through the different witnesses, he understood that “Tibo” had left us a story and that we, as his spiritual children, had to take over it and re-live it. He invited everyone to write down their own witness and encounter with him and to send it to the Provincial of the Combonians in Uganda or to the Chancellor of the Diocese of Gulu, Fr. Martin Agwee. He was one of the orphan boys in Palabek and he became a great priest and now lives with the bishop. Once again, they asked me to talk in Kitgum. In front of the great amount of people, whose many faces I still recognized, I couldn’t but say a few words in Acholi, the language spoken in the north of Uganda. I particularly repeated that great proverb that says: “Aboko kot mupwoda!” which literally means “I will tell you about the rain that drenched me.”

This is the Acholi way to refer to an experience one had, that overwhelmed or “drenched” them, precisely for this. It was like an eruption: I was really communicating with those people. At that point, given the huge amount of emotion, I had to limit my speech a little bit. I explained that the “rain that drenched me” was the encounter with Tiboni, in that parish and in that building, because the rain – just like Giussani said and as Carron continues to repeat – this is a particular story, with a name and a surname, a face and an ID card, with a time and place in which the word was made flesh and came to live among us. It’s the same person from 2000 years ago that happens again for me and for everyone in the different times and spaces in history, through a mysterious and providential design that we can’t get forget about in any way. It happened! But how did it happen? I used another Acholi proverb that says “Opata ma tugo!”

This way of saying is connected to the Borassi family’s tropical palm trees, which become very high and have such a soft stem that even Africans have a hard time climbing them. The ripe fruit is orange, sweet and filamentous, very much loved by the people and by the animals of the place, especially loved by the elephants, that swallow the entire thing. Close to Gulu, a large tugu palm forest was formed. Their fruits, known as tugu, can’t be picked: they fall by themselves when they are ripe. If you happen to walk by there and you see one all, it’s all yours! You were lucky! This was the for sure the best way to describe my encounter with Tiboni. We can say that my vocation as a priest and missionary was a grace that fell like a tugu on the very first day I arrived to Kitgum, when I was drenched with tropical rain and with the grace of my encounter with Tiboni.

As soon as I heard about his death, I called don Massimo to personally inform him about the news.

I was already in Uganda. I perfectly remember that in 1994 when I got to Rome to make my promises to the Fraternity, don Massimo celebrated a mass in which he repeated with great precision that with me, the Fraternity opened its doors to an entire missionary African history, born from the encounter between Fr. Tiboni and CL and don Gius. He insisted on this point, on the fact that the Fraternity, with my incorporation, gained an entire life born elsewhere and that entered our story. From don Massimo’s words we could perceive that Tiboni himself, in some way, entered the Fraternity and changed it.

In a few days I will be 70 years old – it’s an occasion to stop and silently contemplate the work of Another in my life for His mission in Africa and in the world – passing through Tiboni at first, then the Fraternity, don Massimo and, in the recent years, you, Paolo, and Mimmo.


In the picture, Alfonso Poppi, Parish priest of St. Joseph in Kahawa Sukari, Nairobi (Kenya), with two parishioners.

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