Post authorBy Alessandro Manfridi
Article date 04/20/2021
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“The eyes are the mirror of the soul”.
Quoting Plato’s famous phrase in the Phaedrus, I cannot deny, twenty-eight years after the birth in Heaven of the bishop of Molfetta-Ruvo-Giovinazzo-Terlizzi Don Tonino Bello (1) that this was certainly worth it for him.
I had the privilege of knowing him in person and, since friends have invited me several times to pass on my memories, I try to share them with you.
I still remember the first time I met him, even if not in person.
I had just gotten off the bus in the town of Bari, looking for a priest I was supposed to meet. Without my knowledge, I found myself with a rather singular scene: a solemn city procession to enter the cathedral, since that day the patron saint St. Conrad was celebrated. I found myself, without having planned it, to enter and participate with the other faithful, a packed church, in the celebration.
I still remember the passion that this bishop transmitted in his homily, he really spoke “from the soul”: it was the Gospel passage that speaks of the inability for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven, “it would be easier for a camel to enter by eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven “(2).
Don Tonino was a Franciscan as a tertiary and deeply attentive “to the power of signs”, rather than “to the signs of power” and his catecheses on the washing of the feet by Jesus, with that only vestment that was granted, the apron of the service, are a wonderful externalization, from the heart, of his choices (3).
As bishop, he had chosen the motto from a verse of Psalm 34: “Let them listen to the humble and rejoice” (4); the pectoral cross not in gold but in olive wood from his land, his beloved Salento; the episcopal ring obtained from the faiths of his parents. He drove around with an old yellow 500. Always available and easy going, to the point of going down to open the door in person when someone rang the intercom in the episcope.
He did not lose this habit until his strength allowed him.
The first personal meeting with him: I found myself attending a dinner, his guests in the episcopio, forty young people, and there was no shortage of those who spoke, filled him with questions and we all listened in admiration to his answers, a bishop so “in hand It was unusual to find it.
Personally, I did not want to intervene, they were all enthusiastic and many did, I remained silent, listening, a little secluded, joyful like everyone else about this welcome and this climate of fraternity.
At the end of the dinner, Don Tonino wanted to accompany us not to the door but down the steps of the episcope to the street. Once again, we were in a group and the interventions continued, we would not have wanted to leave him, it happens like when with a dear friend, time flies quickly. At a certain point, without my realizing it, he approaches me, stares me in the eye and asks me: “What is your name?” I remain incredulous: “Alessandro!”. I don’t remember what he added, a few loving words, like that of a good father. He hit me with his gesture. Don Tonino had noticed my silence, the decision to remain almost hidden, to leave room for others, since everyone was enthusiastic about filling him with questions.
He was a pastor who was attentive to people, enthusiastic and passionate, with a word that touched his heart.
In addition to his episcopal ministry, to his attention to all and to the least, another great testimony was that of his commitment to peace.
As bishop national president of the Pax Christi association, many of his interventions were memorable, including that passionate speech, “On your feet builders of peace” (5).
A decisive magisterium. I cannot forget an interview that saw him broadcast on Rai, they were the days of the first conflict against Iraq, the one due to the invasion of Kuwait. All justified the armed intervention, due to the violation of all international law. He, a voice in the desert, pronounced himself passionately against the embargo, a measure that would strike civilian populations, quoting with an almost prophetic air the vision of Isaiah that contemplates the swords being transformed into plowshares and spears into scythes (6). He seemed to come from another world, a voice that speaks to those who cannot understand it, like the one that has touched all the biblical prophets (7).
Don Tonino’s passion for the cause of peace saw its highest page when the bishop, now undermined by the disease, did not want to fail to participate in the “expedition” organized by “Blessed are the peacemakers” which brought 500 people, who left with the ship from Ancona to Split, to bring solidarity, hope and an announcement for peace to the center of Sarajevo, during the Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian conflict, at the risk of life due to the presence of snipers. It was an event completely silenced by the media, and Don Tonino published his diary of those days, with memorable memories, on the pages of Il Manifesto (8).
Evil had consumed him and forced him to bed. It was said that Don Tonino could no longer receive visitors, as was the custom, at any hour of the day, when some went to visit him. The disease did not allow to decide and plan when he was able to receive, I remember that someone informed that if it was possible whoever wanted it could be called to go to greet him. So I found myself in his room. That afternoon we would have been 40 or 50 people, including lay people, seminarians of the course, celebrants; so many people gathered standing in that bedroom. Don Tonino participated in the celebration of the Mass in bed, dressed in the stole around his neck, the celebration was carried out by the other celebrants. But at the moment of the homily he wanted to speak and resumed that episode he recounted, which has become very famous, of the “Cross as a temporary arrangement”. In the story he narrated that he went on a pastoral visit to one of his parish priests. During the visit he had noticed that in a corner of the sacristy there was an ancient wooden crucifix, removed from its place due to some work in progress. Next to the crucifix there is a sign with the inscription: “Temporary accommodation”. Don Tonino had a start, he turned resolutely to the parish priest: “You mustn’t remove that writing, on the contrary, you must frame it!”
And from this episode he built his own announcement that he actualized with us that afternoon.
“Guys, don’t worry! The cross? It is a temporary accommodation! How long are you on the cross? A few hours? But, after that, everything changes! Things are transformed! “
He spoke in a faint voice. His body is skeletal. His face hollowed out, devoured by disease. But his eyes. His eyes alive, penetrating, full of love. He stared at each of us, he spoke to us with determination, with certainty, with evangelical parrhesia. Him, a man now on the threshold. Him, crucified by excruciating pain and swept away by an inexorable disease. He was talking to us. He cheered us up. He encouraged us. He spurred us on. He invited us to look at life with the eyes of hope, with the certainty of faith, with joy in our hearts. “Come on, guys! Fear not! Do not be afraid! The cross? It’s a temporary accommodation! “
Even now, writing, I cannot help being moved.
The last farewell, on the day of the funeral. The celebration was organized outdoors, on the harbor.
Mons. Mariano Magrassi OSB, Archbishop of Bari-Bitonto and president of the CEP presided over the function, concelebrants all the Apulian bishops and other bishops, dozens and dozens of priests and about fifty thousand people. In the video I reproduce, the famous prayer of Don Tonino “Give me, Lord, a spare wing” was transmitted, which was set to music and sung for the first time during this celebration (9). I remember the final procession, the song touched the soul. I had set out to hold back the emotions and I was trying to do it. But when we went on, I looked up: women, men, young people, children, old people, simple people and distinguished people, all, without exception, were broken in tears. A people who mourned their shepherd, their father, their friend, their brother. I too could not help myself. In front of this scene the emotion took me from within and I burst into tears, participating in this sincere tribute. He had left us a man, a pastor, a bishop who had spoken to the hearts of the people, without distinction, with passion, love, benevolence and evangelical freshness. He was not only a writer but a great speaker and his writings and his interventions, transcribed, occupy eight volumes (10).
In the years that followed, I had the opportunity to meet and listen to the precious testimonies of others who met him in person and knew him.
It is truly an ever new and continuous discovery.
Pope Francis himself wished to remember him with his visit (11).
I am sure that his testimony will continue to make many people fall in love, believers and non-believers, because a true man, a man who dedicated and gave his life, giving a deep sense of gratitude and hope, speaking to hearts and proposing himself, even after the episcopal election, as he did: “don’t call me your Excellency, Monsignor Antonio Bello. I will always be Don Tonino for everyone ”. And his eyes spoke. One look was enough for him.
(1) Don Tonino Foundation https://www.fondazionedontonino.it/
(2) Cf. Mt 19, 23-30.
(3) Each other’s feet https://www.dontoninobello.info/as2-356/
(4) Audiant et laetentur https://www.conoscidontonino.it/audiant-et-laetentur/
(5) Assembly of the “Blessed are the builders of Peace”, Arena di Verona, 20-22.02.1986 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZQ24suxmuU
(6) Cf.Is 2: 1-5
(7) Don Tonino, the “uncomfortable” words of a free man – Vatican Newshttps: //www.vaticannews.va/it/papa/news/2018-04/tonino-bello-papa-francesco-alessano-molfetta-visita -words.html
(8) Conversation with his brother Trifone Bello https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkDdTnzKflA
(9) Molfetta-funeral of Don Tonino Bello
(11) https://www.avvenire.it/papa/pagine/papa-francesco-molfetta-don-tonino-bello The Pope: Don Tonino help us to be “Church of the apron” (avvenire.it)