RUMBEK, South Sudan – Italian-born Bishop Cesare Mazzolari, known for rebuilding church structures and communities in the Diocese of Rumbek, died July 16 while concelebrating Mass.
The bishop, 74, fell backward, clutching his chest and gasping for air, at the beginning of the consecration. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital, reported Father Don Bosco Ochieng, director of the diocesan Radio Good News.
Catholics from the diocese recalled Bishop Mazzolari as a zealous worker who reopened missions and negotiated humanitarian assistance for the diocese which, in 2004, was home to tens of thousands of refugees from the Sudanese region of Darfur. He also promoted education and health care and “passionately responded to human need at every level,” they said.
“Like St. Paul, Bishop Mazzolari spent his life at the service of the Gospel, always assuring us that God was journeying with the people of South Sudan,” said a statement released by diocesan Catholics. “His fatherly care and compassion, generosity and selflessness were sources of hope and comfort to all those he encountered.”
They recalled how the bishop presided over the opening prayer of the Independence Day Celebration in Rumbek July 9.
He later told Catholic News Service that he was “moved with tears of joy to see the jubilation of the people of Southern Sudan at the (January) referendum.”
The bishop added that at the core of the referendum was “a quest and a longing for peace that most people elsewhere in the world cannot even begin to imagine because they have not known what these people have suffered.”
Born in Brescia, Italy, Feb. 9, 1937, Cesare Mazzolari was ordained a Comboni priest in San Diego March 17, 1962. He spent 19 years working among African-American and Mexican mine workers.
In 1981, he moved to the Sudanese Diocese of Tombura-Yambio, in what is now South Sudan. For three years he worked as a parish priest and spiritual director at a minor seminary. In 1984 he moved to Juba to serve as Comboni provincial of southern Sudan.
Pope John Paul II appointed him apostolic administrator of Rumbek in 1990, and he was consecrated bishop in January 1999.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a message of condolence, thanking God for the bishop’s “lifelong dedication as a Comboni missionary and for his selfless service to the people of Africa.”