First anecdote: don Claudio Tonini
Pictured here is don Claudio Tonini (a saint if you ask me), who was brutally beaten by his assistant priest in December of 1992. I used to have all sorts of pictures of him. This one is up on the internet. In the bigger picture, I think I’m the one sitting next to him on his right. He finally died about 12 weeks later in March of 1993 from the battering he had received, dying as pastor of the parish. I had only been ordained for less than a year when I took over his parish in the Sacred Heart of “La Piccola Russia”, “The Little Russia,” as the heavily Marxist town of Piombino, Italy, north of Rome, was nicknamed (and for good reason). He had been a missionary up and down the Italian peninsula in his younger days and then pastor of this church since forever. He was always in demand as a preacher of parish missions, called in by bishops far and wide. The Marxist town couldn’t but build him a youth center for free next the church since everyone in town respected him so much.
Meanwhile, I was alone in the parish. Don Claudio was still in the hospital when I got there. The assistant, “Quel M,” as don Claudio called him, successfully escaped to the mountains and then, not being arrested, hid out, somewhat ironically on any number of levels, at “La Misericordia,” at the waterfront just down the street from the parish.
The most the bishop and the vicar general would do at that time was to take me away from my studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome so as to get me to come to the parish, maybe because I was an unknown for “Quel M” and maybe also because I was also physically about as big as the assassin and so most likely would not be bothered by him while I tried to take care of don Claudio when he was brought back to the parish. They were wrong on that. They and the other priests of the Diocese of Massa Marittima – Piombino were scared to death of him.
What had happened is that “Quel M” was finishing Sunday Mass, and while everyone was still there don Claudio went up to the pulpit to announce that all the youth were to gather over in the youth center after Mass, so, an announcement of ten seconds or so. “Quel M” let himself get enraged about this, but disappeared for a few hours, only to come back that afternoon to hunt down diminutive don Claudio (mid-80s, frail, about 5’5″ and perhaps 125 pounds), who was sitting at his desk in his office. With both hands, “Quel M” (mid-30s, strong as an ox, about 6’5″ and perhaps 300 pounds) grabbed the largest volume of the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas (which don Claudio would read before giving his catechism classes to the youth), and proceeded with all his might to bash don Claudio over the head and on his face with it, then choking him in a strangle hold trying to crush his throat which don Claudio had used to preach about Jesus throughout his life. “Quel M” left don Claudio for dead. Three days later (three days, mind you), don Claudio awakens from his coma and, from the floor, is just able to reach the phone and call an ambulance, face and head swollen like a basketball, eyes still swollen shut.
Senseless, you say? Sick, you say? Yes, well, I’ll write about that soon.
Meanwhile, “Quel M” returned to the parish (though forbidden by the bishop), in order, he thought, to preside at the funeral of the head of Italy’s Catholic Action. She was from the parish and all sorts of politicians and dignitaries and untold numbers of churchmen of every rank showed up in that little out of the way parish church. I asked the higher-up ecclesiastics if they would like to preside over the funeral. They were afraid, and so cited my appointment by the local ordinary to surveil the situation. “Quel M” was a volcano. A monsignor whispered to him that he shouldn’t be there and “Quel M” erupted violently, but somehow got himself out the door like a twirling Tazmanian devil of Bugs Bunny fame, though there was nothing funny about this. He again had murder in his eyes and was totally out of control. Within a few minutes he was back in again. In order to calm down the situation I asked him if he would do the first reading. “Si!” he exclaimed. But then, during Mass, from the side, he said all the parts that I was to say in a very loud voice indeed. Just so sad. I let him read because I was afraid that he would actually have killed a number of the old priests there. Truly… Anyway…
Don Claudio and I became instant life-long friends if such a thing makes sense. It’s just that it seemed we knew each other forever. He loved Jesus. He loved the truth. He called our friendship in the priesthood a “sintonia” in the truth, explaining that sintonia has to do with radio waves being on the same frequency, strengthening each other.
When Saint John Paul II got wind of all this, he was pretty upset, furious really, and sent a letter to all the Italian bishops about how to deal with their priests. Yikes! This was a saga which carried on for some years.
And now the rest of the story: I repeatedly begged don Claudio to tell the police what had happened, to tell the full story to the bishop, but he would not do this. Don Claudio didn’t want to hurt “Quel M” in any way. Don Claudio wanted with all his might that “Quel M” come to know the mercy of the Lord. Don Claudio taught me much about the priesthood in view of other priests. I don’t know if I leaned what I should have learned, but my experience with him has nonetheless been invaluable for me. Thanks, don Claudio! I went to visit his tomb in the mid-2000s, brought there from Rome by a friend who has served as a kind of special secretary for a successive number of Roman Pontiffs. Even after so many years, his tomb was surrounded by huge bouquets of fresh cut flowers.
Having said all that, if I had walked in on “Quel M” attacking don Claudio, I think I would have – in one movement – thrown him through the window (high up along the ceiling) and out into the garden. If he had broken down the doors (I think we had already changed the locks) so as to reenter to do away with me, the witness to the murder, and if I then had a gun… Look, I just don’t know… but… He’s lucky I wasn’t there. Is that a good thing about me? Where’s Father George as Father George? That’s the question. I still have to write about priests and guns. Patience!*
Second anecdote: père Jacques Hamel
I’ve written about père Jacques: ISIS murders priest during Mass. R.I.P. Père Jacques Hamel. My comments. As you know, one of his attackers said: “To those who dare to say we shouldn’t kill a priest… we spare no-one.” Apparently, that’s a citation from Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi:
“And it is allowed to kill anyone aside from those we have mentioned, among the combatant idolators or the non combatants, such as the trader, the servant, the old man who gives his advice or not, the farmer, the bishop, the priest, the monk, the blind, the cripple. Spare no-one.”
Senseless, you say? Sick, you say? Yes, well, I’ll write about that soon.
It seems that the mosque to which the jihadis belonged was donated by the parish of which père Jacques was the pastor. Whatever you might think about all that (and I would have really a lot to say as you might imagine), you have to think nevertheless that père Jacques just wanted to do good to people and would hold out a spirit of forgiveness even while his throat was being slit.
Do I learn anything from that? You know what I wrote in the post about père Jacques linked to above, you know, the bit about “If I had had a gun…” Is that a good thing? Where’s Father George as Father George? That’s the question. As I said, I still have to write about priests and guns. Patience!
* I wrote to the parish in Piombino yesterday, asking the email address of “Quel M” so that I might relate to him the mercy that don Claudio desired for him. It’s only right. It just entered my heart all of a sudden to do this.