Pope Francis made a brief trip to southern Italy on Friday to commemorate the 25th death anniversary of a popular Italian bishop known for his pastoral zeal and works of peace. The Pope flew to the towns of Alessano and Molfetta associated with Bishop Tonino (Antonio) Bello of Molfetta-Ruvo-Giovinazzo-Terlizzi, whose cause for beatification was opened in 2007.
The Pope left from Rome's Ciampino Airport to the Galatina military airport, on the heel of Italy, from where he boarded a helicopter to Alessano, the town where Bishop Tonino was born and later buried. Pope Francis visited the tomb of the bishop and met some of his relatives.
After addressing the faithful of Alessano, Pope Francis flew north to the port town of Molfetta, where Bello was bishop and where he died. He celebrated Mass in the cathedral and then headed back to Rome.
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, 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 and 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.
Pope Francis visited Alessano and Molfetta exactly on the 25th anniversary of the death of Bishop Tonino Bello.