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  • Writer's pictureSue Alexander-Barnes

“Poor priest who died for the poor”

by Francesco Deliziosi (published in Giornale di Sicilia, 27 May 2018)

See original here Pope Francis would have liked a priest like Pino Puglisi, a “poor priest who wanted a Church for the poor”. And that 25 years ago his blood was spilled on the pavement beneath his house, like the good shepherd guarding his sheep who does not flee before the wolves. The priest knew “the smell of his sheep” (another splendid expression of the Pope’s) and he knew where to look for them: in grimy alleyways, in slums with open sewers. He loved the “rejects” of society, like the migrants that Francis went to Lampedusa to commemorate during his first trip to Sicily and indeed to anywhere; it was the dawn of his revolutionary Pontificate, and perhaps for this reason the visit was so hotly discussed. His was a magisterium that invites us each day to make the Church a “field hospital” which sees the face of Christ in the faces of the poor and suffering. Father Puglisi chose to live poverty with a Franciscan awareness, not ‘on display’ but evident to everyone. He had no bank account, he lived in a rented council house full of books and nothing else (now it is a museum, which Bergoglio will probably visit), and he owned a second-hand, battered red Fiat Uno. His salary as a teacher went mostly towards the mortgage on the ‘Padre Nostro’ centre. The remainder was divided among the thousand needs of his parishioners. The tank of his car was always full (so he could go quickly to the aid of anyone who needed him, even at night). And his fridge was always empty. But Providence unfailingly manifested itself in the form of a hot meal offered by a neighbour or a couple of friends. The rest of the time Father Pino ate tinned food. Or rather he ate out of the tins, without even emptying the contents onto a plate (so as to save time, he explained). And how moving it is to read about Bergoglio’s eating habits in Buenos Aires: he too ate out of tins … And now, at the Vatican, he sometimes drives a very old white R4, just like the one he had in Argentina. And we can point to another parallel: Pope Francis encouraged priests to “wear out the soles of their shoes”. Father Puglisi died in worn-out shoes. His friends who saw his body on the street still remember the holes in his soles. His father was a cobbler and he could easily have repaired those old shoes. But all his time was given over to others; he didn’t take for himself even those few minutes necessary to mend his worn-out moccasins. Father Pino, an unknown priest from the outskirts, far from the limelight, quietly gathered together young people in Brancaccio and brought them to the ‘Padre Nostro’ centre. He gathered the volunteers and went to the City Council or the prefect to request a middle school [for ages 11-14], sports facilities, social services. And he said, simply: you shouldn’t have to ask as a favour something that is your right. To everyone he proposed the Christian values of love and solidarity as an alternative to the mafia values of violence and oppression. With great courage and integrity, Father Puglisi turned away from his door the people who organized pseudo-religious feasts that cost tens of millions of lire (“Here people are dying of hunger, and your ideas have nothing to do with religion”). He altered the route of the procession to avoid passing under the balcony of the Graviano brothers’ house where they had always shown their respect with a bow; instead he stopped the statue of San Gaetano [the patron saint of Brancaccio] in front of the humble houses of the poorest people. The politicians who had been using the parish as an electoral mouthpiece met the same fate (“How dare you show your face in this area where you have done nothing for the needs of the local people …?”, as he said to them once). He refused offers from rich business associates of the mafia, and he organised events to commemorate the murdered judges Falcone and Borsellino. In Brancaccio holiness and lawfulness went hand in hand. Moreover, there emerges from Father Puglisi’s writings and interviews an astute and prophetic analysis of the essence of the mafia: “Despite all its camouflage, Mafia culture and mentality is anti-evangelical and anti-Christian, even (in many ways) Satanic: it falsifies terms indicating positive Christian values such as family, friendship, solidarity, honour, dignity; it distorts them and invests them with meanings diametrically opposed to the Christian ones”. It was only many years later that the bishops, in official documents, would arrive at the same conclusion regarding the “bows” during the processions and the severe judgment on the mafia, declared to be incompatible with the Gospel (how things have changed since the 50s, the 60s and later, when the Church tended to keep the peace and look the other way!). Because of his tireless work evangelising and educating young people, Father Pino was killed by the mafia on September 15, 1993. The murderers “hated his faith”. And this priest became the first victim of organized crime to become a martyr of the Catholic Church. Padre Puglisi’s beatification ceremony took place five years ago, on 25th May 2013, at the Foro Italico on the Palermo seafront: a huge celebration with 80 thousand people attending. Probably it will be here that Bergoglio will recall this event, on 15th September this year [the 25th anniversary of Padre Pino’s martyrdom]. 15th September 1993 was a turning point. To arrive at the proclamation of martyrdom, it was necessary to establish that the mafia (with its rite of passage, the “punciuta“) renounced their Christian baptism and became part of “another religion” in which the Godfather replaced the Father. The martyrdom of 3P has finally thrown the mafia out of the Temple. He has swept away the intricate web of pretence of the “men of honour” with their paraphernalia of plaster saints, annotated bibles and fake Christian practices. Therefore, in eliminating Father Puglisi, the bosses are comparable to the Nazis who starved Father Kolbe, the African tribes who slaughtered missionaries, or the Emperor of Rome’s militiamen who put to death the first Christians who refused to bow down to their ruler. Two thousand years later, it was gentle Father Puglisi’s turn to meet the beasts – in appearance more human, but no less ferocious. Immediately after the beatification, on Sunday, 26th May 2013, Bergoglio spoke at the Angelus, inviting all mafiosi to conversion: “Don Puglisi was an exemplary priest, especially dedicated to youth ministry. By educating the youth in the ways of the Gospel, he rescued them from the underworld, and so they tried to defeat him by killing him. In reality, however, it is he who has won, with the risen Christ”.

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