Don Tonino Bello: A bishop who became the Gospel

Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Church Life / 6 September 2018

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“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?

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