Italian Inspirations

Hi I’m Richard

Some of you will already know that I love Italy and so it may be no surprise that just before lockdown, in late February I escaped to Palermo in Sicily with my son Fred in search of culture and the best street food!

One of the first places we headed for was the impressive Palermo Cathedral.

We even walked on top of it!

Inside Palermo Cathedral my attention was drawn amongst all the history and lavish artworks to a very new and modern Tomb, which a young man was polishing to perfection with a strange look of deep devotion in his eyes.

When I read the inscription, I discovered it was the Tomb of a priest from a nearby working class neighbourhood called Giuseppe Puglisi (better known as ‘Pino’ Puglisi) who had been murdered by the mafia in 1993. Learning his story really moved and inspired me.

You see, unlike many of his colleagues at the time (including many of his seniors in the church!), Pino, a kind and gentle man of great faith and integrity, strongly believed that the church should speak out against the Mafia whatever the cost. It was a stand that set him dangerously against not only the men of violence but also against the complicity of powerful men in his own church hierarchy who would not support him.

One of my favourite Puglisi quotes I discovered was that he said it was OK to criticise your Church, but if you do so, it should be as you would criticise your mother – and not as you would criticise your mother in law!

Pino had been offered other parishes in less troublesome Palermo neighbourhoods, but in 1990 he opted for a very tough one, San Gaetano. Here he spoke out against the Mafia who controlled the area and opened a shelter for underprivileged children.

With very little support from the Palermo Archdiocese, Pino tried to change his parishioners’ mentality, which was conditioned by fear, passivity and imposed silence. In his sermons, he pleaded for his congregation to give leads to the authorities about the Mafia’s illicit activities, even if they could not actually name names. He refused Mafia monies when offered for the traditional feast day celebrations, and would not allow the Mafia’s “men of honour” to march at the head of religious processions.

He tried to discourage the children from dropping out of school, from stealing, drug dealing and selling contraband cigarettes. He ignored a series of warnings and declined to award a contract to a construction firm which had been “strongly recommended” to him by the Mafia for the restoration of the church, when the roof was collapsing. A small group of parishioners brave enough to support his plans for social improvement found the doors of their houses torched, their phones receiving threats, and their families put on notice that worse things lay in store.

On 15 September 1993 – Pino’s 56th birthday – he was killed outside his home by a single bullet at point-blank range. One of the hitmen later confessed and revealed that the priest’s last words as his killers approached had been a calm “I’ve been expecting you”.

In that grand cathedral I felt very humbled by the example of a simple, small-town priest whose faith and obedience had been more important to him than his own life. Also, the profound, positive effect that his death had on the whole of Italy and on loosening the grip of the men of violence on Sicily. What’s more, that powerful church that he had once had to bravely stand up to – often leaving him unsupported and some branding him a fool – have now beatified him. And the Mafia have been officially ex communicated by the Pope. Sicily is a safer place because of his faithfulness.

Let us pray:

“Lord, thank you for the example of courageous people like Pino Puglisi who have been obedient to you despite their fear and despite the human cost.
Please give us the confidence and knowledge to discern what is evil and stand up for what is right. Help us to listen to your wisdom and to have the strength and conviction to challenge the complicity of those around us – even when it is far easier and safer to turn a blind eye to what we know is wrong in our community or in our world. Lord thank you that through you, we, like Pino can act without fear to glorify You – in the total assurance that in the face of our obedience, death has lost its sting”