I have met Padre Carlo, once before, but briefly. On the day I am to interview him, I feel a bit nervous. Padre Carlo is a man that is, in so many ways, bigger than life, but quite humble. He is, at once, a plain spoken, often abrupt man, but a man that is unique for his world view and acts of charity, amidst an environment that is often uncomfortable, if not downright hostile, to “newcomers” of color—namely the influx of immigrants and refugees, particularly those of color.
That he is a priest is sometimes a fact one can forget in his company—he does not talk or act like the ways in which we have come to think that they should act. In fact, he does not act at all. He does not pretend to be pious, or holy or better than anyone else He is simply Padre Carlo, a man with a mission of social justice.
My friend Ramzi and I arrive at the offices of the Church of Bosco Minniti one hot and waning afternoon for our appointment with Padre. We wait for a while as is usual for most appointments in Sicily. I have been late for a good many myself. We meander in the narrow foyer and look at a lifetime of Padre Carlo’s experiences and ministry with the marginalized, the immigrants, the refugees. Art work by refugees graces the walls as well as photos in frames covered in frames of so many people being welcomed and embraced by this Sicilian priest.
Interviewing Padre Carlo
Bosco Minniti is a church in Siracusa with Padre Carlo, in his mid fifties at the helm. It is situated on a busy street, behind wrought iron gates. Late in the day, Sicilian rush hour, everyone looks tired and the sun is relentless. Outside the church are young African refugees from different countries in the continent, gathered, smoking, talking. One is fixing a bicycle , another lazily dribbles a soccer ball. We walk past them, greet them and they greet us back, a bit curious, but only a bit. The refugees are used to visitors here.
The courtyard at Bosco Minnitti
When Padre Carlo is finished with his other appointments and preoccupations ( it seems everyone wants time with him) he brusquely ushers us out to the garden area of the church. He leads us to a table with a bench and sits beside me. I feel emotionally moved by the enclosed area—great effort has been made with the gardens: the flowers are beautiful and well kept. I felt peaceful there and thought how the refugees and immigrants who stay must take comfort there, too. Padre Carlo lights the first of several cigarettes, and Ramzi smokes one, too. Blowing a stream of smoke sideways, Padre makes a gesture with his right hand, waving it in the air a bit and says, with blunt force: ” So talk. What do you want to know?”
It is difficult to prepare for interviews. Preconceived notions and prudent planning are often blown to bits when you actually sit down with someone . How could I tell Padre Carlo that I wanted to know everything? Where would I begin?
It is quickly revealed that his work with immigrants and refugees was not a “planned project.” His view of his vocation , of his mission, of the Catholic Church in general is one of “hosting and reception.” He believes and enacts hospitality in one of the most open and fair ways I have ever seen. He is confused by the fact that I am impressed. I feel ashamed, as if I am revealing the fact that helping others is , well, radical. I call him a radical. He laughs. “I am no radical! Look, it is so, so simple. You see the statue of the Blessed Mother in the church–she has hosted life inside of her. Our Lady is symbolic. All are welcome. Church for me is an open door. And when you leave, the care you have been given here should help you to face your life.”
I praise him for giving the weary a place to sleep.
He laughs, a bit irritated. “A place to sleep is for dogs. You give a home to humans. It is a life project. People who come to this church need a friend.” His ever present cigarette and its smoke is wafting in my direction. “Sorry,” he says, without looking at me.
Padre seems to sense that I waver between hero-worship and skepticism. He is a man who has a keen perception of people—his eyes are focused and narrowed. He does not smile often. This is one of what I perceive to be many of his contradictions. I am all over the place conducting this interview. I am both tape recording and writing things down and I find halfway through the interview my hands are shaking. And Padre Carlo has not looked at me once. It is then that I realize that he has given this interview reluctantly. He is not at all interested in admirers. Or publicity. Clearly, I puzzle him. I want to ask him about the ubiquitous racism in Italy. I want to ask him if he comes from a family of civic-minded people, or, if he is an outlier. I want to know the very essence of him. It is when I sense that I will not get that, that my hands begin to tremble.
In the Church
I dive right in and ask him if his family shares his worldview of love and charity. He answers quite simply, sweeping the air around him: ” Do you see my family around me?”
No, I do not, I told him.
Does he try to convert the refugees to Christianity? He laughs out loud, throws his head back, recovers and the smile is instantly gone. He is serious once again. “Absolutely not. It does not matter one bit to me what religion they practice.” He remembered one man who was so grateful for the generosity received at the church, he asked to become a Christian. Padre counseled him : ” Be yourself. Faith is not an exchange.“
This excites me and worries me. Padre Carlo is saying all of the things I want him to say. I worry that somehow I am misinterpreting him—an occupational hazard of this kind of work—reinterpreting words that you want to hear. Almost as if reading my mind, he says, “Michelle, this church is different.”
That is evident.
But how different?
I do not know of another church anywhere in the vicinity like it. I have never known a priest like this man, though I am sure they exist. I did not expect to find one in Sicily.
I am heading toward a question that must be asked because it has been on my mind for a very, very long time. And because I am Italian, I think I can ask this.
I ask Padre if he believes that Italians are inherently racist, as so much has been made of Italy’s hostile dealings with such a vulnerable population. Padre does not hesitate and he answers me without any hostility.
“Our culture has been in a bit of stagnation, though, after all, our culture is a consequence of so many cultures passing through. People try to hide their racism, and some people don’t even know they are racist. But if people only see refugees as a force of labor , then that is racist. Seeing immigrants as simply a working resources or only seeing their misery and as people consistently needed our help is to never acknowledge their roots, their intellectual capacity. No one seems interested in deciphering their intellectual capacity, their mentality. This can easily be called racism. This is what I mean by hiding racism. We are a Mediterranean country for goodness sake, hospitality should be the first thing we offer! Anthropologically, we are so far behind. We have animal instincts and we act on them. Only animals mark their territory in such a way. Humans have begun to close themselves off into groups. When we can look at racism in this way, put into an immigration perspective, it is easy to see how even the most ignorant imbecile will perceive himself to feel superior to any immigrant.”
I want to know how far back the seeds of social justice were sown in Padre Carlo’s consciousness and he tells me of the superior seminary training he had when he was a very young man.
“My teachers did not try to fill my head with doctrine. They encouraged me to become a free thinker. They told me to strive to decipher spirit, life and society. They taught me to read the evangelists, to be a door to help everyone all over the globe. I have become convinced, since then, that for so many, the daily life of those who call themselves Christians, really has nothing to do with Christianity. To be a Christian in this life of materialism is to take a big risk. We Christians life in the world but do not belong to it. I will give you an example. People speak of globalization merchandise wise buy out Christian vision is internationalization of roots and to allow people to go where they want and need to go. People get sent away, but money and merchandise can go around the globe easily.
He stops and lights another cigarette.
I stop talking to write and think a bit. I am writing so fast and while I do , Padre and Ramzi smoke and joke around. The courtyard garden is starting to become filled with some of the immigrants who are staying at the church. I feel so conspicuous writing so seriously in my notebook.
An amazing 20,000 people have passed through this church and have been helped by Padre Carlo. Only 3,000 of them have been Christian, but Padre could not care less. Padre Carlo is only 54 years old, but looks just a bit older. He holds the care of so many in his hands. He has spent 21 years at Bosco Minniti.
A lifetime, 40 years traveling around the globe helping others and , he says, “I am proud of that.”
A smiling woman, someone employed by the church, comes over to embrace Padre during our interview. They greet one another with affection and enthusiasm. I see that the immigrants need Padre’s attention. He is looking in their direction and I am reluctant to end the interview , but I know that I must. I want to know if he ever feels discouraged.
“I am discouraged a lot of the time. So often. Automatically, I take a few steps behind and jump over the discouragement and get past it. I have a lot of people coming to me. I cannot say no to them. I am working with other people to change the life of these immigrants. Work helps to make people independent. I help them to build a future. I cannot allow myself to be discouraged. I do not have the time.”
Entrance to Bosco Minnitti
It is 6:10 and the church bells are ringing. I quickly write a few notes and give Padre a hug. I thank him warmly, though he is business-like with me. As soon as I do, he excuses himself and walks toward the some of the people who have gathered to see him. He appears to have forgotten that I am still in the courtyard. It takes me weeks and weeks to process an interview like this. I know that this once will take me a bit longer. He has said so many things that have resonated with me. He is not sentimental. He is not unrealistic. He is committed to social justice. He has validated for me what I have perceived to be the right attitude to truly be a champion of the marginalized and the vulnerable.
He does not hate those who hate others, who have spoken against the immigrant, ignored the plight of the refugees. He does not hate anyone When I asked him what he does feel for racists he says, quite simply ,with his deep voice and serious face, ” I feel sorry for them.”
Padre Carlo with his people
Though he would not like to hear me say this, I felt that while I was with him, I was in the presence of a great man. There are over 20,000 other people (and more) who would surely agree with me.