By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Saints and bishops, as any student of church history knows, often have a curious love/hate relationship. Saints can be irritating figures, with a single-minded focus and a capacity to arouse controversy that rarely makes life easy. Bishops, likewise, can sometimes inadvertently become obstacles to sanctity rather than conduits for it, with their management concerns and a desire not to “rock the boat.” (This notwithstanding the fact that many bishops have themselves been saints.)
At the end of the day, bishops and saints need one another – bishops, to remind saints that no force in the church ever exists for itself; and saints to remind bishops that ultimately the church exists for the gospel, and not the other way around.
Though collisions between bishops and saints can be combustible, when they connect, the results can also be remarkable.
We had a reminder of the point this week with the death on Dec. 10 of Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo at the age of 88. Pappalardo, who led the Archdiocese of Palermo from 1970 to 1996, was known far and wide as Italy’s “anti-mafia bishop.”
By all accounts, Pappalardo’s leadership was instrumental in galvanizing anti-mafia resistance in Sicilian society. He was the driving force behind the memorable declaration of the Sicilian bishops in 1994: “The mafia is part of the reign of sin, and those who belong to it are agents of the Evil One. Whoever is part of the mafia is outside ecclesial communion.”
This marked a break from the historical quiescence of the Sicilian bishops; one of Pappalardo’s predecessors, Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, who died in 1967, once famously remarked, “The mafia is an invention of the Communists.” On another occasion, asked what the mafia really was, Ruffini responded, “As far as I know, it could be a brand of detergent.”
For his efforts to break that silence, Pappalardo was constrained to spend many years under constant armed escort, driving around in bullet-proof cars. He amassed too many death threats to count.
Yet it did not always seem that Pappalardo was destined to be an anti-mafia hero. During much of the 1970s and 1980s, while the mafia’s dominance of Sicilian politics, finance, culture, and even the judiciary remained an open secret, Pappalardo was not outspoken. He was never in the mob’s pocket, but neither did he make many waves, no doubt calculating that doing so would make life worse for the church. Pappalardo was always a pastorally sensitive figure, at one point giving a used church to Palermo’s tiny Muslim community to use as a place of worship. But in the central Sicilian struggle of his day, for many years he was considered a secondary player.
Then, along came Fr. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, pastor of San Gaetano’s Parish in the rough Palermo neighborhood of Brancaccio.
Puglisi, currently a candidate for formal beatification, is already widely regarded as a saint in Sicily, with many calling him the Italian version of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero. His favorite rhetorical question – “And what if somebody did something?” – is scrawled on walls all over Brancaccio.
In the 1960s, Puglisi began his career as pastor in the tiny town of Godrana, in the hills 40 kilometers outside Palermo. When he arrived, there had been 15 murders in this village of scarcely more than 100 people, all related to a feud between two rival clans. Puglisi started going door-to-door, reading the gospel with people and talking about forgiveness. He encouraged small groups to meet together to pray and read the Bible, at first once a month, then every 15 days.
Eventually one of the women who had been hosting a group said to Puglisi that she did not feel she could carry on until she had forgiven the mother of her son’s assassin. After much time, effort and prayer, Puglisi arranged a reconciliation between the two women, which endured despite strong disapproval from many in the village.
“Peace,” Puglisi said, “is like bread — it must be shared or it loses its flavor.”
After his transfer to Brancaccio, Puglisi was relentless in his battles against the mob, attacking the drug trade and persuading young people not to become mafia foot soldiers. It was his success in drying up the “talent pool” for young recruits that especially enraged mafia figures. Puglisi shrugged off death threats with the comment that everyone had to die.
Puglisi was shot to death in 1993. One of the hitmen who killed Puglisi, Salvatore Grigoli, later confessed and revealed the priest’s last words as his killers approached: “I’ve been expecting you.”
It was the death of Puglisi, along with the spectacular slayings of two anti-mafia judges in 1992, which transformed Pappalardo from a sympathetic but largely second-tier figure into a titan of the anti-mafia crusade. As late as 1992, at the funeral of one of those judges, Pappalardo avoided mentioning the mafia by name.
But at Puglisi’s funeral, Pappalardo dropped the euphemisms: “The Mafia can be eradicated only if the whole people of Sicily rise up in solidarity against its power,” he said. Pappalardo would later say that he didn’t want the spirit of “Don Pino” to be buried along with his body.
Pappalardo went on to engineer John Paul II’s famous 1994 visit to Sicily, when the pope’s outspoken criticism of the mafia ended forever the tacit understanding between the mob bosses and the island’s hierarchy, that they would largely stay out of one another’s way. After 1994, it was clear the church had taken sides.
To be honest, Pappalardo and Puglisi didn’t always enjoy the best of relationships. Puglisi used to describe himself as a “ball-breaker,” and he was often seen as a cantankerous and divisive figure. He was never one to follow orders just because the archbishop issued them; he once said, “We can, we must criticize the church when we feel it doesn’t respond to our expectations, because it’s absolutely right to seek to improve it.”
Then, with his trademark humor, Puglisi added: “But we should always criticize it like a mother, never a mother-in-law!”
Yet Pappalardo saw in Puglisi that single-minded dedication to his people, to justice, and to making Christ present in the world, which is ultimately the stuff of sanctity. Shortly before his death, Pappalardo recalled Puglisi in an interview with a Sicilian newspaper:
“His personality was often misrepresented,” Pappalardo said. “Don Pino did his duty as a pastor and educator in a neighborhood where people were recruited for mafia activity. He was not an anti-mafia cop. But his very act of living the gospel in that society was a challenge to criminality.”
To be sure, Pappalardo and Puglisi did not “break the back” of the mafia in Sicily. A recent poll found that eight out of ten Sicilian businesses still make protection payments to the mob, and six out of ten Sicilian youth work in the black market. Yet under Pappalardo’s leadership, at least a civil society arose in Sicily which represents an alternative vision of the island’s future, and the church shifted decisively into anti-mafia resistance.
That activity was galvanized to a significant degree by the life, and the death, of Sicily’s “ball-breaking” saint, Puglisi. One imagines that Pappalardo suffered many a headache because of Don Pino ... and that, in the end, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
As a footnote, the Palermo archdiocese now marks the official opening of each ecclesiastical year on Sept. 15, the day of Puglisi’s death, as a way of keeping his memory alive. That custom was instituted by Pappalardo.