Padre Pino Puglisi, affectionately known as ‘3P’, spent the last three years of his life in a poor area of Palermo dominated by a Mafia clan. He had been offered parishes in more elegant areas of the city, but had turned them down. Like Pope Francis he was a hands-on priest, dedicating his life to those on the margins: the poor and downtrodden people in his parish.
He was not an anti-mafia priest as such, as he said he was never ‘anti’ anything. But the local bosses were in no doubt that his actions were far more dangerous to them than any political speech or rally. He refused to kowtow, he really tried to live the Gospel, and he clearly loved the people around him, fighting unrelentingly for their dignity and civil rights.
He had set up a social centre (the ‘Centro Padre Nostro’) to take the local children off the streets, and in his last recorded interview he stated that the children were “beginning to glimpse new horizons, to understand that life isn’t only about violence and degradation; that such values exist as peace, brotherhood and collaboration”.
The local bosses, the Graviano brothers, had him assassinated on his 56th birthday, September 15th 1993. In May 2013 Padre Puglisi was declared Blessed by the Catholic church.
Giuseppe (‘Pino’) Puglisi was born on September 15th in Brancaccio, a poor area on the eastern edge of of Palermo between the mountains and the sea. His father was a cobbler and his mother took on work as a seamstress to help put food on the table. Pino had two brothers, Gaetano and Francesco (both still living) as well as another brother who was sickly and died young. This event made a great impression on the young Pino and he was always thankful for his own good health.
Pino felt very early on that he had a calling to work with young people, and he spent two years training to be a teacher; then following a casual question from a priest he realised that his mission was elsewhere, and he entered the seminary in Palermo at the age of sixteen. He was ordained on 2nd July 1960 by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini. Padre Pino became assistant priest of Santissimo Salvatore parish in Settecannoli, next to Brancaccio, as well as rector of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi (St John of the Lepers).
After ten years in Palermo, during which he showed an especial concern for young people and the poor and marginalised, Father Pino was given his own parish — in Godrano, a tiny mountain village some way out from Palermo where a bloody feud had been going on for decades between two families. Some believe he was sent out into the sticks as a punishment for his unorthodox, hands-on way of doing things. In fact he was only following the recommendations of the recent Second Vatican Council, which chimed perfectly with his own feelings about the ministry, but many of the clergy found it hard to adapt. In any case, Father Pino was happy to accept the position (“are the people of Godrano not also children of God?”)
The first years in Godrano were so tough that Father Pino almost gave up in despair, feeling he could no longer carry out his work as a priest. But he persevered, beginning with activities for the children, and eventually also reaching the hearts of the adults. By the time he left, in 1978, the warring factions had made peace. Padre Pino had achieved the seemingly impossible, and it began with a woman whom he accompanied in her path to forgiveness towards the mother of her own son’s killer.
From 1978 until his death in 1993 Padre Puglisi taught in various schools, mainly the Liceo Classico ‘Vittorio Emanuele II’, first mathematics and then religion. He was also responsible for the training and development of priests, as director of the diocesan and later of the regional Centre for Vocations. Over the years don Pino organised many ‘camp-schools’ for the young people in his charge, unforgettable days spent in the beautiful mountains near Palermo where they would go on walks, watch the sunrise, see the stars, work, eat, sing and laugh together (see this post). 3P would celebrate Mass in the open air and he would talk with each of the young people about anything they wanted, leading them gently to discover their path in life; he had a huge interest in psychology as well as education and theology, and he was greatly influenced by the client-centred methods of Carl Rogers and the humanistic school of thought.
As well as all his other commitments, 3P was chaplain at a women’s refuge from 1989 up to his death — his last sermon was there, the day before he was killed — and he was instrumental in forming and animating many groups and associations, among them Catholic Action, Presence of the Gospel, FUCI (the university Catholic association) and Equipes Notre Dame (for married couples).
On September 29th 1990 Padre Pino became priest of San Gaetano, Brancaccio, a parish it seems no-one else wanted.