Don Claudio Tonini, whom I consider a saint (without prejudice over against the Congregation for the Causes of Saints), was the parish priest of a fairly populous parish named after the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a mid-peninsula coastal smallish industrial and quite entirely unapologetically Marxist city of Italy (opposite the island of Elba). The town’s name is reminiscent of bullets: “Piombino,” “A Bit of Lead.” It’s nickname is “La Piccola Russia,” The Little Russia.
Don Claudio died in his 80s in March 1993, some 12 weeks after catastrophic injury-instigated medical disintegration consequent upon the murderous assault he suffered some months previously, in December 1992, only months after my own ordination to the priesthood.
That December of 1992, I was finishing up coursework for a Licentiate degree in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. A list of parishes right around Italy went up on the bulletin board next to the infamous Aula IV of the PIB, requesting that any available student-priests sign up to travel to whatever parish throughout Italy in order to help out with hearing Christmas Confessions. I waited for other priests to take their pick, but then it was too late. My hesitation was surely the work of my guardian angel. The next thing I knew, the list was taken down. Feeling utterly useless, I went to one of the upper-hierarchy of the Jesuit community who was in charge of this project and asked him if there was still another parish that needed a priest.
“Yes,” he said enthusiastically, and then added immediately:
- “I was going to go myself, but, believe me, you are the perfect one to go there. You are the only one who could go there. You’re perfect for this. Thank you for volunteering. You have the perfect balance and reserve and judiciousness for this [and on and on, making me suspicious]. Thank you for doing this. There are problems. But you’re perfect for this. Thank you.”
- “What are the problems?” I asked, dead-pan.
- “You’ll see when you get there,” he said, refusing to tell me even when I pressed him on this. But then he praised the parish priest of the parish: “He’s a famous missionary up and down the Italian peninsula, always in demand as a preacher of parish missions, called in by bishops far and wide. The [Marxist] town built a youth center for him next the church since everyone in town respects him so much.”
Taking the train from Rome, walking from the train station to the parish, dragging some luggage, I found myself quite alone, the church open, but dark. I looked around, prayed a bit, but the rectory was all locked up. I had been given instructions to stay in the guest room of the religious community around the block. Off I went.
The nice sisters led me to my a small “cell” in the guest quarters and then pointed to a table in another room with some bread and water and some tid-bits of food (very delicious, mind you). I was heartily thanked as the sisters came in to get a look at the one who was apparently a brave young priest for taking on this task. I was something of zoo animal. This simply couldn’t believe that any priest would be brave enough to take on the task. But I wasn’t brave. I was just there to hear some Confessions. That’s it. I didn’t know the story.
But our Lord would use the drama in that parish to continue training me in about the heart of the priesthood from the point of view of the High Priest, Christ Jesus. Our Lord was training me in to be a donkey-priest. Mind you, all donkeys are guard-donkeys, apt at protecting any flock of sheep from the wolves. I didn’t know there was a wolf in this situation, not yet.
“Where’s the parish priest, Don Claudio Tonini?” I asked the sisters. They looked at me, dumbstruck that I hadn’t been told what had happened. And they didn’t want to tell me, speaking in ambiguities that meant nothing. But I knew I would be alone in covering this Italian parish for Christmas, something I didn’t expect I would ever be doing a month before.
Eventually, asking really a lot of people, I found out what happened. My heart sank. Don Claudio was still in the hospital when I got there.
What had happened is that don Claudio’s assistant priest “Quel M” as don Claudio charitably called him, 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. Don Claudio was great at teaching the kids about Jesus on their level, but preparing by reading the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
“Quel M” let himself get enraged about this, becoming volcanic, but able to get back to the sacristy, rip off his vestments and storm away. But he disappeared only for a few hours, coming 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 310 pounds) grabbed the largest volume of the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 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. Don Claudio, strangled for what I’m sure seemed like an eternity for don Claudio, dropped to the floor. “Quel M” left don Claudio for dead. Three days later (three days, mind you), don Claudio awakens from his coma and, from the floor – still on the floor precisely where he was left for dead, is just able to reach the phone on it’s stand and call an ambulance, face and head swollen like a basketball, eyes still swollen shut after three days. I still shudder today at the monstrosity of “Quel M”.
The assistant, “Quel M,” as don Claudio called him, successfully escaped to the mountains and then, not being arrested, hid out (ironically on any number of levels) at “La Misericordia” (The Mercy, an ancient funerary organization in Italy) located at a crusader era church at the waterfront just down the street from the parish.
The most the bishop and the vicar general would do at that time is, basically, nothing. They and the other priests of the Diocese of Massa Marittima – Piombino were scared to death of “Quel M”.
Senseless, you say? Sick, you say?
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 from throughout the Italian peninsula. 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. I couldn’t believe it. “Quel M”, standing right there in the sacristy before Holy Mass, 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 could easily have killed all of us. The priests were wide-eyed, truly afraid. “Quel M” 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 as the “main celebrant” as the phrase goes in the Novus Ordo (back in 1993). “Quel M” said those prayers in a very loud voice indeed, almost shouting them out. 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 survived his stay at the hospital, returned to parish, and he 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. It would only be weeks before he died. When one is smashed about to death as an elderly person, this will exacerbate all other medical conditions, and it will not be long before one dies.
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. It was like a lightning strike. Bishops were on notice. Yikes! This was a saga which carried on some years and was infamous everywhere in Italy. When priests found out that I had been the one to stay with don Claudio they instantly exclaimed: “You’re the one!” incredulous that I was standing before them. But I was nothing but a donkey-priest doing what I had to do. It is don Claudio who is inspiring. Let me tell you a bit about that:
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, so to speak, for a successive number of Roman Pontiffs. Even after so many years, his tomb was surrounded by huge bouquets of fresh cut flowers. That’s impressive. I prayed for the repose of his soul, and then asked that he pray for this donkey-priest still upon this earth.
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 with those way too narrow windows) and out into the garden far below. If he had broken down the doors (I think we had already changed the locks) so as to reenter to do away with me, a kind of post-hoc witness to the murder… Well, I’ll just stop there… Yikes! So, I’m no saint.
As the years went by, “Quel M” visited the student priest residence where I was staying in Rome. I sat at the same table with him at lunch (twelve to a table). He sat across from me. His eyes bugged out like a cicada eyes when he realized that I had been the priest who had rescued don Claudio’s parish many years previously:
“Splutter, splutter, splutter…” was all he could say. He was once again a volcano, but had to control himself, but just couldn’t, so outraged was he. Meanwhile, he knew he was being watched by the powers-that-be at the table, who were way too well connected for him to be able to throw a fit.
Meanwhile, the bishop of that little diocese back in the day was kicked upstairs to about the very top of the Vatican hierarchy. I just couldn’t believe it.
Meanwhile, “Quel M” had been a mockery of what it means to be a donkey-priest, killing the shepherd by crushing his esophagus, instead of keeping the wolves away by doing the same to them, figuratively speaking.
I had already been well aware of the spiritual hideousness that priests can get into, but I had never met someone like Judas who would just go ahead and kill a fellow priest. But, now, I had an experience that this was also possible. I know Judas betrayed Jesus, but it’s different somehow when you see someone with blood on their hands for having done this quite literally.
This prepared me for more opening of my eyes to how far Jesus had to reach to get all of us, so very far, right into hell, so as to save us. My eyes were opened, like that cicada pictured above, as to how far Jesus had to reach to get me. I realized a bit more how bad and evil I am if I am without the grace of our Lord: so very bad and evil. “Quel M” and yours truly, I realized, are not so very different. Given the circumstances in life, you know, from birth, it’s all “There but for the grace of God go I.” If we don’t get that, we are liars to God, to neighbor, to ourselves.
Graced humility is the only way. Don Claudio shows us the way. He didn’t at all want to hurt “Quel M” in any way, but only wanted that also “Quel M” know the mercy and goodness of the Lord. This donkey-priest has so much to learn about that graced humility that don Claudio exemplified. No wonder he was in high demand for conferences retreats for priests and for parish missions right around Italy. Thanks be to God for don Claudio Tonini.