By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis and Robin Gomes
The faithful of Alessano, numbering about 20,000 welcomed Pope Francis singing “Oh, Freedom”, a song beloved by Fr Tonino Bello. The Pope began his discourse defining Fr Tonino as someone who knew that understanding the poor was “true wealth”.
At the side of the poor
Fr Tonino imitated Jesus by drawing near to the poor to the extent of “dispossessing himself,” Pope Francis said. In order to promote peace on a global level, he acted locally. He was convinced that “the best way to prevent violence and every type of war, is to take care of those in need and promoting justice”, the Pope said.
Peace begins at home
For Fr Tonino, peace “is constructed beginning at home, on the street, where people work” upholding the dignity of the worker over profit. Quoting Fr Tonino Pope Francis summed up his reasoning, “From the office, as one day from the workshop of Nazareth, the word of peace will go forth and make its way through the streets thirsting for justice.”
A Church that wears an apron
Fr Tonino had an “allergy for titles and honors”, the Pope continued. Like Jesus, Fr Tonino stripped himself of every “sign of power in order to make way for the power of the sign….” The Pope then invited the faithful to “find the strength” to be divested of everything that inhibits putting on aprons, which Fr Tonino called “the only priestly garb recorded in the Gospel”.
Your land produced a saint
In conclusion, Pope Francis reminded the faithful of Alessano that “from your land, God raised up a person: a gift and prophet for our time. God wants that gift to be welcomed, and his prophecy to become reality”. He encouraged the faithful not to be content with the nostalgia of his memory but rather, “imitating Fr Tonino, may we be swayed by his young Christian ardor and hear his urgent invitation to live the Gospel without diminishing any of it.”
Bishop Tonino Bello was born in Alessano, Province of Lecce on 18 March 1935. After attending school in his hometown from 1940 to 1945, he entered the seminary in Ugento and then at the Pius XI Regional Pontifical Seminary in Molfetta.
He then proceeded to Bologna for higher studies and completed his theology course at the Benedict XV Ponticial Seminary.
After his priestly ordination Bello was appointed vice-rector at the seminary of Ugento. He later studied at Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University from where he obtained a doctoral degree. He then served as an assistant to the Catholic Action organization, rector of the seminary and administrator of the Sacred Heart parish of Ugento and parish priest in Tricase. Meanwhile he was collaborating with Caritas.
Pastoral outreach and works of peace
In 1982, St. Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Molfetta and Ruvo. Bishop Bello renounced all signs of power and tried to help the most disadvantaged. He ensured Caritas groups were established in every parish, founded a community to help people with addictions.
His pastoral zeal took him to Australia, Argentina and Venezuela where he visited immigrants from his diocese.
Bishop Bello is greatly known for his work with Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace movement. He was appointed the president of Pax Christi Italy in 1985, a position he held until his death. An outspoken critic of the Gulf War and other conflicts, he even rallied against the NATO. In December 1992, he led a group from Italy across the Adriatic to Sarajevo where he headed a peace march.
Bishop Bello envisaged the Church in “apron”, evoking the image Christ at the Last Supper who tied a towel (apron) around his waist, got down on his knees to wash the feet of his disciples in a symbolic gesture of humble loving service.
Known for his frugal ways, Bishop Bello preferred to take a bus and often used a bicycle since he felt cars added to air pollution. He often went out to the streets, bars and restaurants to interact with people.
He died of stomach cancer in Molfetta on 20 April 1993. He was 58