Consoling With The Prince Of Peace - Advent Retreat 4
On the 15 September 1993, in the city of Palermo, in Sicily, a 56-year old man was killed outside his home by a single bullet shot at point-blank range. One of the hitmen who killed him later repented and revealed that the victim smiled at him and that his last word was "I've been expecting you”. The victim was Fr Pino Puglisi, a parish priest of Brancaccio, one of the poorest areas of the city, heavily controlled by the Mafia.
During the beginning of the nineties in Italy a number of exceptionally brave judges and prosecutors started to challenge the Mafia with unprecedented energy, despite the inertia of a thoroughly corrupt political class which was about to be entirely swept away by a nationwide judicial investigation known as Mani Pulite, “clean hands”. One of the main strategies of the Mafia up to that moment had been its aversion to public displays of strength. It thrived in the dark, relied on a deeply entrenched connivance on the part of everyone, motivated by interest and fear. There is a special word in Italian for this attitude, Omerta’, that is “conniving silence”. It was common for politicians and bishops to deny that the Mafia even existed.
Then, all of the sudden, the criminal organisation resorted to large scale bombings to murder two leading magistrates. The universal shock generated by these events proved that the Mafia felt threatened as never before.
Compared with these high profile assassinations, the killing of the Sicilian priest might have gone unnoticed, especially because the Mafia made it look as if it was a robbery by a drug addict gone wrong. Instead, the emotion was unprecedented. Never before had the Mafia killed a priest. Pope John Paul II condemned the murder and the unknown vicar became a national hero who was beatified as a martyr few years later. Not only the hitmen but also the instigators were rapidly brought to justice and condemned to life sentences. Even though the Mafia still is a powerful international criminal organization, its hold on Sicilian and Italian public life has never been the same after these events. Ordinary people were emboldened and started to break the wall of omerta, of conniving silence, which had been the Mafia’s most enduring advantage until then.
For most of his life, like John the Baptist, don Pino Puglisi had been a lonely, maverick, and thorny “voice crying out in the desert”. He was very mild mannered, spoke without emphasis, simply – but was loud and clear in his denunciation of the culture that enabled the Mafia to thrive, especially its pretence of respectability.
For many unemployed and prospect-less young people, the Mafia offered not only the promise of easy money through drug dealing and the selling of contraband cigarettes, but especially a recognizable identity and belonging that conferred status, commanded respect and instilled fear.
How could a marginal and defenceless priest be perceived as a threat by one of the most formidable criminal organisations of the world? Just by doing what the prophet Isaiah says: he brought freedom to those oppressed by the fear of retaliation, he actively prevented young people from being attracted in the gravitational orbit of the Mafia by helping them not to drop out of school, offering them alternative models of life, creating a healthy environment where they could gather and play safely. In this way he threatened the easy recruitment of manpower for the criminal organization.
Where his action most deeply vexed the Mafia, however, was in his ability to puncture its pretence of respectability. Fr Puglisi’s main power lay in his voice, in the freedom with which he spoke in his sermons and his teaching. He was totally straightforward, said the things everyone was afraid even just to whisper, thereby “bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the broken hearted, comforting those who mourned’ (Is 61.1). He could free people because his faith made him a man free from the fear of death and of reprisal.
What was the secret of his extraordinary courage? Where did his voice and his witness draw their capacity to “repair ruined cities, the devastations of many generations”, as Isaiah says (Is 61.4)?
The answer comes from a passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul blesses “the Father of compassion and comfort” because he comforted him in all his afflictions, and in this way he enabled him to “comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which [he himself was] comforted by God” (2 Cor 1.3f). The word comfort in Greek is paraclesis and can be translated in English as ‘advocacy’, a word that etymologically means “voice in favour of” (ad + vox). Here lies the secret of the extraordinary power of Fr Puglisi’s voice, of his ‘ad-voc-acy”.
Like John the Baptist, he did not see himself as the saviour of the people entrusted to him: how could someone who knew he could be killed any moment -and eventually was- save anyone else? He simply saw himself as a witness testifying to the light, the “advocate”, the “voice that speaks to, that speaks for”.
He knew how to appeal to the conscience of people. One of his favourite sentences was "Se ognuno fa qualcosa, allora si può fare molto" (“If everyone does something, then we can do a lot”). The man who killed him repented and converted and this is the reason we know Fr Puglisi’s last words before he died.
Advocacy however is much more that simply speaking instead of and for. In many ways this can end up disempowering people even more, making them dependent on us. Had this been the case, when Fr Puglisi died, everything he had tried to build would have ended with him. Instead, he understood that advocacy, means ‘giving a voice’, that is helping everyone to find their own voice, teaching them to make themselves heard,understand their rights, express their views.
Just as with racism, in most of our debates about criminality today, few people truly understand the real reasons for the higher propensity to crime among minorities, immigrants, and disadvantaged people. Anyone who has had the ‘comfort’ of a stable environments, in terms of family, country, education and financial advantage, the privilege of receiving an education, of learning how to write and speak, form an opinion and present a case will never fully understand the sense of powerlessness felt by people who drop out of school at 10, can barely read, grow in abusive households, are denied opportunities because they do not fit in, learn from a very young age that the only way to earn recognition is by siding with the people who can teach you how to be feared by others, and offer you protection, whatever the cost.
Most of us have had “paracletes”, people who have been our “advocates” not only by shielding us, but especially by affirming us at the pivotal junctions in our life so that we could find our own voice, advocate for ourselves, for our lives and rights, for the causes in which we believe.
Isaiah’s prophecy and John the Baptist’s declarations teach us that if nobody ever affirmed you, you will never be able to affirm yourselves, let alone others – if you never had any paraclete, that is if nobody ever advocated for you, you will never be able to advocate for yourself, let alone for others.
This is why Isaiah does not start by saying that we should “bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners; comfort all who mourn’, but – and this is crucial- that we need first of all to let the Lord -or someone for him- do this for everyone of us. Only after the Lord has provided for us, it is said that “they”, that is those who have been comforted in this way, will in their turn be able to “build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations and repair the ruined cities” (Is 61.4)
Advent is the time to acknowledge the way in which we have been comforted, affirmed, advocated for in our lives and be grateful for this, joining in Isaiah’s thanksgiving: “ I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is 61.10). In the wake of this recognition, we should then look for the ways in which we, in our turn, can become the paracletes, the comforters, the advocates of our sisters and brothers – not only by being their voices, but by helping them find their voices in the difficult situations of their lives. In this very moment, all around us, there are people who are not feeling at their most confident, are facing life-changing decisions, coping with illness, disability or bereavement, have mental health issues, are in emotional distress. People who do not understand what is happening in their lives and why they feel paralysed. People who do not have access to benefits, work opportunities, services because they do not even know where to start and how to look for help. People who just need to be listened to.
Consolation means advocacy. This requires us to acknowledge the gifts we have received, be joyful and grateful for them, and ask ourselves how we can use them to “repair ruined cities”, improve broken or threatened lives. It does not take much. We only have to listen to people without judgement, provide them information and guidance according to our expertise, teach them to explore their options, affirm them in their decisions, help them to articulate their needs, be there for them.
This will be our way of being witness, of testifying to the light, just as Isaiah and John the Baptist did. We are not the light, nor the messiah – we are not prophets like Fr Puglisi was, we are not the Saviour and we do not need to be. We just have to be the conveyers of the consolation we have received, the enablers, the humble and yet life-changing instrument of God’s advocacy. In the sentence of Fr Puglisi I quoted above, "Se ognuno fa qualcosa, allora si può fare molto" (“If everyone does something, then we can do a lot”).