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  • Writer's pictureSue Alexander-Barnes

Charity and mercy, Palermitan values

by Enzo Scalia

There is a typical Palermitan way of relating to other people. It is expressed in the local term Mischinu’ (poor thing). In Italian the same word (meschino: petty, mean-spirited) has a completely different meaning. It is almost a swear word, and refers not to a merit but to a defect in the other person. In palermitano, the word is almost a caress for someone who has undergone some misfortune. Palermitans, at least in the recent past, show solidarity with others. They feel their suffering. They want to help, now. They even risk being intrusive. I remember my mother who, instead of gloating when a bothersome neighbour suffered a misfortune, straightaway said Mischina! I understood then that people tended to show solidarity with others. And those who didn’t were looked upon with suspicion. The culture of helping others goes back a long way. In Palermo the passages in the Gospel about the Good Samaritan, and Simon of Cyrene who carried Christ’s Cross, were very well known. The city teemed with religious orders of nuns helping the unfortunate. On the doorstep of every convent there was always a ‘Ruota degli Esposti* where newborn babies were placed whose mothers were unable to care for them. Padre Puglisi grew up in this culture. His father was a cobbler, and they lived in a rough area (the same Brancaccio where he was killed). In Palermo this way of relating with others can lead to a close involvement in all their affairs, almost a feeling of responsibility for them. As I have mentioned, people risk being intrusive. Sometimes it’s as if they were saying: don’t you realise you need my help? From this moment on I will look after you. Well, perhaps these are the extreme cases. 3P could only have become a priest. Seeped in this culture, through the example of his parents, who loved each other very much, he walked through the streets of this city he knew so well. His smile, as his photos testify, is warm, not forced. His eyes are eloquent: they shine with happiness. They express his joy. He sees others and he immediately goes forward to help them. I can testify to this with a little story, vividly engraved on my mind, about an experience we had with 3P. We had decided to get our son Davide baptised by him in San Gaetano church. 3P had asked us to meet him in the sacristy the afternoon before the baptism, for an informal pre-baptism session. We arrived on time, as requested. But when we sat down in front of him, we noticed that he seemed distracted. He had a worried look in his eyes. Suddenly he got up and said: wait here, I’ll be back shortly. He went out through a door behind him. My wife and I wondered what had happened. Eventually we went to the door, opened it and…there was 3P, trousers rolled up, playing football with two or three children. When he saw us he apologised, explaining that these children were waiting for their catechism teacher in the garden, but that she was running late. And he didn’t want them to feel abandoned. We discovered afterwards that he had had to fight hard to convince their mothers to let them come for the classes, so they could be taken off the streets and attend the Catechism course so necessary for them in that area. There you have the Charity of 3P: permanently at the service of others.

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