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  • Writer's pictureSue Alexander-Barnes

Snapshot of 3P, first mafia martyr

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

by Sue

From ‘Se ognuno fa qualcosa si può fare molto’, edited by Francesco Deliziosi:

He had big ears, big hands and big feet. He was cheerful and could laugh at himself. Padre Pino Puglisi explained to the young people around him that his big ears were for listening better, his big hands for caressing more tenderly, and his big feet for walking quickly to people’s aid. “What about your bald head?” we cheeky schoolkids used to ask. He would run his hand over his bald patch and reply “for reflecting the Divine light better…” He was tone deaf, but sang anyway. He made appointments and was reliably late. He had gastritis and ate out of tins to save time. He used to say “petrol is my bread” because he preferred to fill the tank of his car (an old banger) rather than his fridge, so that he could get to anywhere he was needed, even during the night. Then, because he was always rushing, and amid a thousand concerns, he would lose his keys, he was careless, he drove recklessly, he forgot priorities at junctions. He rose at dawn to pray, and at night he would fall asleep from exhaustion while reading in his armchair. He was a priest with no bank account, empty pockets and a (council) house full of philosophy and psychology books. He gave all his time to others, his heater was broken, his taps sprayed water everywhere. He was offered the worst jobs, which no-one else wanted, and he accepted them. In fact he arrived in Brancaccio in 1990 after six other priests had said no. But when he was offered prestigious churches in rich areas, he refused: “I’m not up to it, I’ll stay here with the poor people.” He would go to ecclesial reunions and sit on the back row. He was a refined intellectual, but he didn’t let it show. Instead of making erudite quotes at conferences, he used to speak in dialect with the workmen.Francesco Deliziosi (my translation) This little priest was martyred by the Mafia 25 years ago this Saturday. His murder, along with the murders of antimafia judges Falcone and Borsellino the year before, horrified Italy and caused a turning of the tide against the bosses and against the mafia mentality. The very hitmen, haunted by Padre Pino’s welcoming smile (“I’ve been expecting you!”) later repented and became ‘pentiti’, one converting to Christianity.

The longstanding local-level ‘agreement’ between the churches and the mafia, whereby priests used to encourage their congregations to vote for the bosses’ choice of candidate in exchange for financial support, became the exception instead of the norm. In May 1993 Pope John Paul II declared mafiosi to be anathema and urged them to repent. The Church in Sicily has since specifically declared any collusion with mafia activity to be excommunicable.

The Padre Nostro centre, set up against all odds by Padre Puglisi to serve the needs of the desperately poor and neglected local people, has gone from strength to strength. All the dreams of its founder are being fulfilled, according to the Centre’s director, Maurizio Artale: there is a refuge for mothers and children, a centre for elderly people, a multi-sport complex and children’s playground, an after-school club, soon to be a nursery…. A middle school has been built bearing Padre Pino’s name, in honour of his untiring campaigning. In fact the last morning of his life was spent at a meeting with the local council trying to get permission for the school. There was none in the area and this meant many young people ended up on the streets, prey to unscrupulous local gangs.

Above all, Padre Pino Puglisi touched the hearts of all those he knew. It’s moving to read the testimonies of young people at the high school where he taught for 15 years: one young woman began “What can I say, except that he was my dearest friend?” and went on to explain how, with the utmost respect and affection, he had gently led her away from thoughts of suicide. I’ve seen for myself the effect he had on a wonderful person I recently met in Palermo, Marina. She is the wife of Enzo Scalia (contributor to this website) and we arranged to meet at Padre Puglisi’s tomb in Palermo Cathedral. She used to be a helper at his camp-schools in the mountains, and he remained a family friend until his death (see Enzo’s post here). Even after 25 years, Marina was visibly moved when speaking about the little priest of Brancaccio.

‘If everyone does something, then together we can achieve a lot’ 3P

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