Roman Catholic Bishop Caesar Mazzolari of South Sudan’s Rumbek diocese died suddenly on July 16 at the age of 74, one week after the mainly Christian and animist region celebrated its independence from the mainly Arab and Islamic north.

“He died in his mission in South Sudan. He leaves behind a legacy of a life well lived,” said the Rev. Andrea Okello, Vicar General of the diocese.

Pope Benedict XVI expressed sadness at Mazzolari’s death, according to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State. “With gratitude to the almighty ... for the late bishop’s lifelong dedication as a Comboni missionary and for his selfless service of the people of Africa, his Holiness commends his soul to the loving mercy of the heart of Jesus,” said Bertone.

Mazzolari collapsed during morning mass at Holy Family Cathedral in Rumbek and was rushed to Rumbek State Hospital, where it was confirmed he died of a heart attack.

“His contribution towards an independent Republic of South Sudan cannot be questioned,” said Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio diocese in South Sudan, where Mazzolari served for nearly two decades. Hiiboro said Mazzolari managed gains in infrastructure, civic awareness, education and agriculture and raised the image and dignity of the people of South Sudan.

Born in Brescia, Italy in 1937, Mazzolari was in 1962 ordained a Comboni priest in San Diego, CA. For 19 years, he worked among African-American and Mexican mine workers. In 1982, he was appointed by his order to the diocese of Tombura-Yambio. In 1999, he was consecrated bishop of Rumbek.