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Don Tonino Bello: A bishop who became the Gospel

Giancarlo Pani SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Mar 16th 2020

“A bishop who became the Gospel”: this is the expression that Monsignor Agostino Superbo, the postulator of the cause of beatification, uses to define Don Antonio Bello, paraphrasing the latter’s own definition of a bishop. In fact, at the beginning of his episcopal ministry, Don Tonino said: “I would like to be a bishop who becomes his people, a bishop elevated to the dignity of the people.”[1] To those who asked him about the elements of his human, religious and pastoral formation, he answered in a simple and direct way: “The Gospel and the last ones.”[2]

Twenty-five years have passed since his death, caused by cancer. He had a short but intense life (58 years), simple but provocative, sober but rich in love for the poor and the dispossessed, humble and open to all: today we can truly say that his existence and commitment as a pastor were a living exegesis of the Gospel.

The bishop of Molfetta never wanted to be called “Monsignor” or “Your Excellency,” but simply “Don Tonino,” and this is how he signed his pastoral letters and documents. He always considered himself a priest of the Pugliese Church. His name was, and is still, “Don Tonino” for all.

A month after his death, Luigi Santucci, in his foreword to a book by Don Tonino, Maria, donna dei nostri giorni, offered an accurate list of his virtues: “Gentleness, tenderness, wonders of a vibrant poet; but also strength, passion and unconventional courage. These last virtues are those that have made me esteem and love him for the generous boldness with which he has been facing and denouncing the abominable deeds of our society; the weaknesses and hesitations of our Church; … his radical option for the last and the poor, the commitment to peace and nonviolence.”[3]

The most significant aspects of Don Tonino’s biography have already been highlighted: “The priest, the bishop, the Franciscan tertiary, the pacifist, the native of Salento and Molfetta, the Marian scholar, the mystic, the writer, the poet, the utopian, the committed and the eccentric person.”[4] What is his spiritual legacy today?



The Church of the apron

In one of his first writings, Don Tonino defines the Church that announces the Gospel as “the Church of the apron.” He then explains: “Perhaps someone may consider it as an irreverent expression, and the connection of the stole to the apron may appear almost sacrilegious.

“Yes, because, usually, the stole recalls the sacristy cabinet, where, with all the other sacred vestments, perfumed with incense, it proudly hangs with its silk and colors, symbols and embroideries… Instead, at best, if not exactly an accessory used in the wash house, the apron brings to mind a kitchen cupboard, where, imbued with sauces and stained with spots, it is always within reach of the good housewife… Yet it is the only priestly vestment mentioned in the Gospel. In fact, for the solemn Mass celebrated by Jesus on Holy Thursday night, the Gospel does not mention either chasubles or amices, stoles or copes. It only speaks of this rough cloth that the Master wrapped around his hips, an exquisitely priestly gesture…

“The most important thing, however, is not to place the apron in the sacristy cabinet, but to understand that the stole and apron are almost the two faces of one priestly symbol. Indeed, even better, they are like the height and width of a single service cloth; the service rendered to God and the service offered to others. The stole without the apron would simply be symbolic. The apron without the stole would be fatally sterile.”[5]

For Don Tonino, the “Church of the apron” is simply the “Church”: he himself agrees that it can somehow be “a shabby, playful image; however, it is the truest image of the Church. The Church that bows down before the world, on its knees, and becomes poor, poor in terms of power. Pauper (poor) in Latin is not opposed to dives (rich), but rather to potens (powerful). This is the reason why we must not have the signs of power, rather the power of signs… Welcoming evicted persons into one’s home does not mean solving this scourge, but establishing signs as examples for everyone, for all as a Christian community.”[6]

A Church living in poverty is the only way to be close to everyone, to be taken seriously and become credible, as the Lord Jesus taught us, who “for your sake became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Salvation does not come from someone who has everything and offers us something, but from one who took our flesh, gave us all of himself, until he lowered himself to our level, and starting from our lowest level, he raises, renews and redeems us.

The “Church of the apron” is also the image of the pastor who personifies the Gospel as a historical reality and prophetic presence, who embodies the mystery of Christ within society, in dialogue with his brothers and sisters and the world, according to the words of the Gospel: “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

Today, the expression “Church of the apron” has become the icon of the magisterial work of Don Tonino, from which two fundamental aspects of the pastor emerge: Don Tonino as a man of God and as a servant of the people.

The man of God

The first teaching that the bishop of Molfetta has left us consists in his being a man of prayer, a contemplative person. In his many pastoral letters, much awaited by his people because they were unpredictable and incisive, prayer frequently resounds: “Every day, I experience that, when I have long spoken with the Lord and confided in him all the pastoral and personal problems that trouble me, difficulties are resolved like an ice cube melting in the sun.”[7] This prayer was not an easy one, because sometimes it also meant “fighting with God – at night – in a shocking ‘face to face’ – almost in order to steal the secret of happiness from him. This was the same happiness that we pursue for all of our lives.”[8]

“Prayer was his guide and it gave meaning to his pastoral mission: it allowed him to get hold of the ‘steering wheel of history.’ … Within the local Church, the bishop is, actually, the supreme head of that great spiritual ‘issue’ that is called prayer… He has the very important task of fostering relationships between the people and the Lord and, therefore, of arousing and animating an intense spirit of prayer in his territory. This entails that the Lord will consider me accountable for how people pray in my diocese, if little or badly.”[9]

The man of God, attentive to the prayer of his own people, finds it in the most hidden and least likely places. His sensitivity can also detect what does not appear: “I realize that, in terms of prayer, there is an incredible hidden world, whose proportions are difficult to calculate. I have found so many people who meditate every day on the Word of God. There were many very lively young people who have invited me, out of the blue, to pray with them the liturgy of the hours. There were so many sick people whom I found in my pastoral visits, who turned into living candles perennially lit before the Lord and then … who knows how many people there are, who are apparently far from God, but who pray without even knowing it!”[10]

Don Tonino, the contemplative person deeply united with God, teaches us to commit ourselves more to “reading” the earth rather than the heavens. It is necessary to take into consideration the most humble of human hardships, the world oppressed by struggles and pain, ordinary people who have lost all hope, the atheists who have made efforts for their brothers and sisters, unaware that in this way they have lived the Gospel.

Through this “earthly” light, Don Tonino carefully scrutinizes the pages of the New Testament, presenting the Mother of Jesus. In his book Maria, donna dei nostri giorni, he addresses the Virgin, calling her “working woman”: “[You live] in Nazareth, where amid pots and looms, tears and prayers, balls of yarn and scrolls of Scripture, you have experienced, in all the richness of your natural femininity, joys without malice, bitterness without desperation, departures without return.”[11]

The service of the Church

Don Tonino teaches us another feature of the “Church of the apron”: a Church that is a “servant.” This is what the Lord meant with the washing of the feet. He carried out an act that not even a Jewish slave would do, because it was not seemly. The task of washing the feet was for foreign slaves. “A priest can hardly be a bearer of credible acts if he … is not willing to wash the feet of everyone else… For people accept the message of Christ not so much from those who have experienced the asceticism of purity but rather from those who have experienced the tribulations of service. The logic of the washing of the feet is subversive.”[12] On another occasion, Don Tonino said: “A true Christian always swims against the tide, not out of affectation, but because he knows that the Gospel is not compatible with the current mentality.”[13] “The Christian task is to be the critical conscience of the world.”[14]

Don Tonino’s perspective is in line with that of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II: reading the signs of the times and having the courage to be open to what is required of us. The vocation of the Church is the service of people, above all of the poor, the weakest, the little ones, the last, the dispossessed, to whom the Lord himself wished to be particularly united.[15] This is the mission of the disciples.

Don Tonino spoke many times of the need for an “outgoing” Church, that is to say, a Church that is not self-referential, “going forth” (as Pope Francis would say today), dedicated to serving the world through a sign that must qualify Christian action: “Think globally and act locally.”[16] And he was the first one to set an example: he opened his bishop’s palace to evicted people; he welcomed those who knocked at his door; he was close to workers who fought for a more human justice, but above all to AIDS patients and prostitutes; he defended the cause of the disabled, the unemployed, the first immigrants from Albania.

Here one can also notice the deep human dimension that constantly animated Don Tonino’s service, which made him credible and close to ordinary people: the pastor was a visible sign of the human face of the Church, willing to be next to the most humiliated human lives.[17]

We should mention a letter that he wrote to the “Moroccan brother,” on the occasion of the Day for Migrants and Refugees. It opened by begging pardon for calling him this, because maybe he had nothing to do with Morocco at all: he said that we call “Moroccans” all the unhappy people who, covered with carpets, go around selling them. He then went on: “Please forgive us, if we were not able to bravely raise our voices to put pressure on our legislators. We still lack the courage to shout that the rules applied in Italy to illegal immigrants like you, recall a police approach; they do not protect the most elementary human rights, and are unworthy of a free people like us. Please forgive us, Moroccan brother, if we Christians do not even grant you hospitality on the threshold… One day, when we meet our God, this wayfarer on the roads of the earth, we will surprisingly realize that he has … skin of your color.” And finally, he concluded: “If you pass by my house, please stop and visit.”[18]

Don Tonino considered the least not as privileged recipients of his ministry, but as protagonists of the history of salvation: the poor, the dispossessed, the outcast, the migrants incarnate the presence of Christ among us, precisely because the Lord Jesus identified himself with them (“I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” Matt 25:40). Our salvation comes from them.

The service of communion

The service of the pastor is marked by communion and solidarity: “We are called to be servants of communion. This must be our brilliant career.”[19] As in the early Church, Christians were “of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:32), this must be the style of the community. It is a matter of “harmoniously orienting the action of the various ecclesial components (parishes, associations, priests, lay people) toward the creation of that ‘Eucharistic Church’ of which bishops speak in the document Eucaristia, comunione e comunità, and establishing credible signs and gestures.”[20]

Don Tonino lived through the crucial moment of the merging of four dioceses – Molfetta, Giovinazzo, Terlizzi and Ruvo di Puglia – with its inevitable aftermath. The exhortation to communion determined the atmosphere to come together in the life of the new diocese. This involved an ecclesiology of communion, in line with the Council, bearing in mind that in the Church there are not two categories of Christians – the clergy and the laity – but, as Lumen gentium states, they share “a common dignity as members from their regeneration in Christ, having the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection” (32). It follows that the hierarchy is not placed above, but within the people of God. In this way the ecclesiology of communion bans all forms of “clericalism.”

For Don Tonino, the Trinitarian theological foundation of the service of communion is very interesting. Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not live side by side, but for each other. Hence he proposes the clever “mathematical” formula, to help us grasp the mystery of one God in three persons: “I do not speak of one plus one plus one, because this adds up to three. I instead speak of one times one times one: which always adds up to “one.” In God every person lives for the other. It is a kind of family brand…, so that even when the Son came down to earth, he manifested himself as a person for others.”[21] In short, the Trinity challenges us to communion, making us “a face turned toward the other,”[22] in the sense that whoever lives for the other creates unity and is a witness of the Gospel.

This communion stands out as a special sign: joy and hope. He states: “We must serve the world, but as risen ones. In the Church, much service is carried out, very much indeed – sometimes up to exhaustion. We stand with the poor; we make a thousand sacrifices; we help people…, but not with souls of risen ones, but with souls of employees. And we do not always proclaim that Christ is the hope of the world through our service. Rather, we proclaim how skilled we are and not him! We often appear as an organization inspiring respect, often fear as well as awe. We are not, however, the enthusiastic travelers who, together with others, direct our steps toward the Risen Christ.”[23]

He notes finally: “The Church must never consider herself as an absolute. The absolute is her Lord Jesus Christ. The Church is a humble servant. I would dare to say, that the more she moves out of the way, the better it is, in order to make him stand out, Jesus Christ, the bridegroom who arrives. One day, the Church herself will be introduced to the wedding with the Lamb, and only then will there be glory for her too. Not before. Any anticipation of glory would be misappropriation.”[24]

The witness of nonviolence and peace

Another great teaching of the bishop of Molfetta was his bearing witness to nonviolence and peace, not only in Salento, but also in the Italian Church, especially when he was appointed president of the Pax Christi movement. It was at that time that his commitment came to the fore.

In 1991, the Gulf War was particularly felt in Molfetta, since four fellow citizens who were working in Iraq had been taken hostage by the Iraqi regime. In that delicate and painful circumstance, Don Tonino had the courage to restate the rejection of war, of all wars, in the line of John Paul II. When the U.S. threatened to declare war, he sought the solidarity of the Italian Bishops to launch an appeal to reason. It seemed that no one answered. Italy then sided with the coalition against Saddam Hussein. At the outbreak of the conflict, Don Tonino also affirmed that the war had been declared for devious reasons, because the oil interests in the region were at stake.

The following year, when cancer already severely affected him, Don Tonino committed himself to the Marcia dei Cinquecento (March of the 500) in Sarajevo, with the creator of the enterprise, Don Albino Bizzotto, the group Beati i Costruttori di Pace of Padua and several parliamentarians. He personally participated, together with his friend Monsignor Luigi Bettazzi. Despite many difficulties, negotiations, postponements and refusals, the blockades of the army and the paramilitaries, under the fire of the snipers, the 500 participants succeeded in the impossible mission: reaching Sarajevo under siege, at night, on the occasion of the International Day of Human Rights. It was a sign of hope for the devastated population, who lived under the threat of hunger and death. On that occasion, during an assembly, Don Tonino proclaimed the value of nonviolence and peace among the different ethnic groups: “We are here, agreeing on the great idea of ??active nonviolence… Tomorrow’s armies will be these: unarmed men. We have experienced that there are alternatives to the logic of violence.”[25] On his return to Molfetta, he wrote: “We did not go into Sarajevo to solve the problem of war but to give witness of our solidarity to those people, to state that Europe has not forgotten them, to say that in the world there are people who love peace and that today there are new alternatives to the armed aggression of war.”[26]

It was a symbolic journey, but it paved the way for initiatives of cooperation and help to the Balkan populations, reinventing human solidarity through the search for peace. As Christmas was close, Don Tonino imagined that the 500 participants were the Three Kings who encountered Herod searching for the Child Jesus. Where was Jesus to be found? “As a matter of fact, we found him in the people we hugged along the way. In the children who came to meet us, to shake our hands offering a smile of hope. In the elderly who were moved by our courage. In the young soldier who cried when we left. In the religious leaders of the city and in the civil authorities who implored us to shake the world that was indifferent, like the city of Bethlehem, to the sufferings of the poor.”[27]

Four months later, on April 20, 1993, Don Tonino concluded his painful passion.

‘If one day you will be proclaimed a saint…’

What follows is an episode that happened in Milan, sometime earlier. Don Tonino had been invited by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini to speak in the Duomo. On his return, he asked for an opinion on the archbishop from a Milanese priest who accompanied him, as Martini’s biblical commitment for the diocese was beginning to be praised. Here is a summary of the conversation through the words and reactions of Don Tonino: “The priest replied: ‘If you take the Bible out of the hands of Cardinal Martini, he cannot do anything else.’ … How I wished that the same would be said of me! … If you take away the word of the Gospel from my lips, I am left with nothing else.”[28]

Here is today’s legacy of Don Tonino: the priest of the Gospel, the prophet whose strength was in his weakness, the poor at the service of the poor – who are Christ’s presence in history – the man who saw in politics the highest exercise of charity for peace.

On his death, the historical leader of the PCI (Italian Communist Party) in Molfetta, Sandrino Fiore, wrote: “Apart from the great human openness, it was his intellectual rigor that led him to scrutinize history with a deep prophetic insight, even in its most terrible turning points. Now Don Tonino is no longer here anymore. Let me therefore address him directly: Dear Don Tonino, … thank you for allowing me to come to know ‘your’ God. And if one day you will be proclaimed saint, I will be with you, because I can touch saints like you, squeeze them in my arms and feel them close to me.”[29]

In 2018, Pope Francis made a journey to Molfetta as the Church’s recognition of a life spent for the last and the least by “a bishop who became the Gospel.”

[1] D. Amato, Tonino Bello. Una biografia dell’anima, Rome, Città Nuova, 2013, 5.

[2] Ibid., 185f.

[3] L. Santucci, “La confidenza di un vescovo,” in A. Bello, Maria, donna dei nostri giorni, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 1993, 6.

[4] G. Minervini, “Relazione al Convegno nazionale: ‘Don Tonino Bello, vescovo secondo il Concilio’ (April 24-26, 2003),” in T. Dell’Olio, “Stola e grembiule. Don Tonino Bello, vescovo,” in Aggiornamenti Sociali 55 (2004) 107.

[5] V. Salvoldi, “Introduzione: ‘E chi mi ascolta?’” in La Chiesa del grembiule. Sulle orme di don Tonino Bello, Padua, Messaggero, 1999, 7f.

[6] A. Bello, Scritti di pace, Molfetta (Ba), Mezzina, 1997, 146f.

[7] D. Amato, Tonino Bello…, op. cit., 93.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Ibid., 93.

[10] Ibid., 93f.

[11] A. Bello, Maria, donna dei nostri giorni, op. cit., 13.

[12] A. Bello, Omelie e scritti quaresimali, Molfetta (Ba), Mezzina, 1994, 358. 13.

[13] D. Bona, “Il Vangelo della pace,” in La Chiesa del grembiule…, op. cit., 119. 14.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cf. Council Decree Presbiterorum Ordinis, 6.

[16] D. Amato, Tonino Bello…, cit., 151.

[17] Cf. A. Picicco, Nel riverbero di cento ideali. Spessori di umanità nel magistero del vescovo Tonino Bello, Terlizzi (Ba), Ed. Insieme, 2012, 15-21.

[18] A. Bello, Articoli, Corrispondenze, Lettere, Notificazioni, Molfetta (Ba), Mezzina, 2003, 286-288.

[19] A. Bello, Scritti vari, interviste, aggiunte, Molfetta (Ba), Mezzina, 2007, 75.

[20] A. Bello, Omelie e scritti quaresimali, op. cit., 102.

[21] Ibid., 337.

[22] Ibid.

[23] A. Bello, Scritti vari…, cit., 77.

[24] Ibid.

[25] A. Bello, Scritti di pace, op. cit., 340.

[26] S. Paronetto, Tonino Bello Maestro di nonviolenza. Pedagogia, politica, cittadinanza attiva e vita cristiana, Milan, Paoline, 2012, 183 (the quote is taken from A. Bello, Scritti di pace, cit., 532).

[27] A. Bello, Scritti di pace, op. cit., 344.

[28] D. Amato, Tonino Bello…, op. cit., 171f.

[29] Ibid., 221f.

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