First appointment of Francis’ visit in Puglia region: in Alessano, he prayed on the tomb of the bishop of Molfetta and greeted his family. “He teaches the Church not to side with the powerful or seek privileges. “The Mediterranean is an ark of peace”
He stands with his head bowed, a bouquet of white and yellow flowers in his hand. Francis presents himself as a “pilgrim” to the cemetery of Alessano where Don Tonino Bello, the bishop of Molfetta and president of Pax Christi, was buried 25 years ago. Bergoglio pays homage to him praying for about five minutes, silently, on the bare marble slab that houses don Tonino’s remains, which bears the inscription “Don Tonino Bello, tertiary Franciscan”. Next to the tomb stands an olive tree, a sign peace: Don Tonino’s priority in this shattered world. From the tree branches, rainbow flags wave the inscription “Pax”. Peace.
Francis arrives in procession, accompanied by the Bishop of Ugento-Santa Maria di Leuca, Monsignor Vito Angiuli, and by the substitute at the Secretariat of State, Angelo Becciu. After praying before the tomb of the Servant of God, the Pope briefly visits the tomb of Antonino’s mother Mary, buried a few steps away according to Monsignor Bello’s wish: he said he wanted to “be close to his mother”.
In the same cemetery, the Pope greets a group of Don Tonino’s relatives: his brother, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all bring him gifts and letters. Bergoglio kisses the children and exchanges some words, thus interrupting the silence with which he began this pastoral visit to Puglia, where he returned less than a month after his trip to visit Padre Pio’s hometown.
The embrace of the blood family followed that of Bello‘s “extended” family, the people of Alessano who awaited the Pope in the square adjacent to the cemetery. They are about 20 thousand. With them Pope Francis – who arrives on the Pope mobile – shares his emotion for the prayer at the tomb, which, he observes, “does not rise monumental upwards, but it is planted in the earth: Don Tonino, sown in his land, seems to tell us how much he loved this territory.
“Thank you, my land, small and poor, you delivered me poor like you but precisely for this reason, you gave me the unmatched richness of understanding the poor and of being able to serve them today”, were the words of the bishop.
For him the poor were “true wealth”. And “he was right”, the Pope comments, “because the poor are the true wealth of the Church”. Then Francis addresses the Servant of God directly: “Remind us again, Don Tonino, in the face of the recurrent temptation to side with the powerful, to seek privileges, to ease down in a comfortable life”. When instead it is the Gospel itself that calls to “an often-uncomfortable life”.
“A Church that cares about the poor always remains tuned on God’s channel, she never loses the frequency of the Gospel and feels that she must return to the essential for consistently proclaiming that the Lord is the only true good,”the Pope says.
Don Tonino therefore calls “not to theorize closeness to the poor, but to actually be close to them”. He did it, “he got himself involved in first person, until he stripped from his own self”. “He didn’t mind the requests, what hurt him was indifference. He was not afraid of lacking money, but was concerned about the uncertainty in the labor market, a problem that is still so topical today. He took every opportunity to say that workers with their dignity came first, and not profit with its greed. He never sat on his hands: he acted locally to sow peace globally, in the conviction that the best way to prevent violence and all kinds of wars is to take care of the needy and promote justice.
In fact, the Pontiff observes, “if war generates poverty, so poverty generates war. Peace, therefore, is built starting from the houses, the streets, the shops, where communion is handmade”. Don Tonino used to say, “hopeful”: “As one day from the workshop of Nazareth, from today’s workshop the Word of peace will come out to direct humanity, thirsty for justice, towards new destinies”.
This vocation for peace belongs to the land of Alessano, “a marvelous frontier land – finis-terrae – which Don Tonino called “land-window”, because from the South of Italy it opens over the many Souths of the world, where the poorest are become more and more numerous while the rich become richer and less and less”, Francis notes. And he adds: “You are above all a window of hope for the Mediterranean, a historical basin of civilization, for it may never be a taught arch ready for war, but an ark of welcoming peace”.
In this land, “he was born Antonio and later became Don Tonino”. A “simple and familiar” nickname that, however, speaks to us telling us of “his desire to become small to be closer, to shorten distances, to offer a helping hand. To all, none excluded. Don Tonino always recommended his priests: “Love the world. Let us love it. Let us take it under our arms. Use mercy. Let us not always oppose to it with the rigors of the law without having tempered them first with doses of tenderness.
Words that, according to Francis, “reveal the desire for a Church for the world: not worldly, but for the world. A Church cleaned from self-referentiality, that is extrovert, outstretched, and not enveloped within herself; not waiting to receive, but to provide first aid; never slumbering in nostalgia for the past, but lit up with love for today”.
The name of “Don Tonino”, moreover, gives the size of a man, and of his “healthy allergy to titles and honors”, of his “courage to free himself from whatever the signs of power remind, so to give space to the power of signs”. “Don Tonino certainly did not do so for convenience or for the search for consensus, but moved by the example of the Lord”; he showed “the strength to divest from one’s own clothes that hinder the way to clothe us in service, to be the Church of the apron, the only priestly garment recorded in the Gospel”.
The Pope, interrupted several times by round of applause, concluded by exhorting us to be «contempl-attivi» a play on words which means “active contemplators”. That is “people who start from contemplation and then let its dynamism, its commitment to action flow out”. People who “never separate prayer and action”.
“Dear Don Tonino”, Francis adds addressing directly to Don Bello, “if you asked us, we should feel ashamed for our immobility and our continuous justifications. Let us then return to our high vocation; help us to be more and more a contemplative Church, in love with God and passionate about people! Hence a recommendation to all the faithful, from Alessano and the world: “Let us not be content to keep record of good memories, let us not be bridled by past nostalgia or even by idle talk of the present or fears for the future. Let us imitate Don Tonino, let us allow ourselves to be carried away by his young Christian ardor, let us feel his pressing invitation to live the Gospel”. And to do so “without reserves”.
Finally, looking at the icon of the Madonna of Leuca, Virgin of finibus-terrae,placed on stage where stands a giant picture of Don Tonino Bello, Pope Bergoglio says off the cuff: “We shall now pray together with Our Lady, then I will give you the blessing. Agree?” There were numerous gifts, among which a “pumo”, an oval-shaped ceramic object usually placed on balconies to protect the house, and a reproduction of the winged cross, symbol of Alessano that Don Tonino wanted as his coat of arms.