By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Pope Francis has chosen another significant place and date from which to proclaim the Gospel of Joy. The place: Palermo, on the Italian island of Sicilia—home to Cosa Nostra, one of Italy’s most notorious mafia groups. The date: September 15, 2018—the 25th anniversary of the day that Fr Pino Puglisi was murdered on orders given by Cosa Nostra. Here, the Pope will celebrate Mass in his honor in the Foro Italico, he will visit the parish of San Gaetano where Bl Puglisi lived and died, he will meet with priests, religious and seminarians in Palermo’s cathedral, and with young people in Piazza Politeama.
Who is Bl Pino Puglisi?
Giuseppe (Pino) Puglisi was born on September 15 in 1937 and was murdered the same day 56 years later. He entered the seminary at the age of 16 and was ordained in 1960. His first assignments were to parishes in Palermo where he ministered particularly to young people. In 1970, he became pastor of a parish in Godrano, about 40 km from Palermo. Here he developed a ministry directed toward reconciliation in families. He returned to Palermo in 1978 and took up duties in the seminary, as well as promoting religious and priestly vocations on the diocesan level. In 1990 he began his last assignment as pastor of San Gaetano, in Palermo’s rough Brancaccio neighborhood. Fr Puglisi is recorded as having said, “I have become the pope’s pastor”, referring to Michele Greco, who called himself “the mafia’s pope”.
The “Our Father Welcome Center”
Fr Puglisi founded a center in 1991 which was inaugurated in January, 1993, called the “Our Father Welcome Center”. It was his response to the pastoral situation he inherited in which the elderly were often abandoned, and adolescents and young adults were illiterate, due to the absence of a secondary school. Poverty and high unemployment left most of Fr Puglisi’s parishioners easy prey to the local mafia. The services provided were, and still are, directed toward providing the material and cultural benefits lacking in the lives of the people living in the area.
“I’ve been expecting this”
Fr Puglisi soon exerted a tremendous Christian influence over his parishioners. He thus became a target of the mafia who saw him as a real threat. Even after several incidents which were clearly meant to intimidate him, Fr Puglisi resolutely continued his fight against the mafia. Besides celebrating two weddings, and his own birthday with friends, on the day he died, Fr Puglisi had also gone to a meeting at Palermo’s city hall to ask that a middle school be built in Brancaccio. For all that he had done for his flock, the mafia responded by sending a hitman the evening of his birthday. According to the gunman’s testimony, Fr Puglisi greeted him with a smile and the words, “I’ve been expecting this!”
Fr Puglisi died according to words he himself had spoken:
Holocaust means to burn one’s entire existence on the altar of the cross. For those who are angry toward a society they view as hostile, it is above all necessary to be witnesses. Witness must instill hope in that person, making him understand that his life is worth something only if it is given.