Hope and Charity Mission in Palermo (Italy)

October 2020

Between January 24 and February 3, the volunteering organized by the pastoral group of CEU Universities took place. This activity had been awarded as a solidarity project by ICUSTA. Participating in it, from the Abat Oliba CEU University in Barcelona, ​​3 professors –Carmen Cortes, Elena Tarragona and Jorge Martínez- and 5 students –Javier, Teresa, Isabel, Paula and Dídac. Also part of the expedition were a teacher –Teresa Díaz-, a representative from Volunteering –Cristina Laorden- and 2 students –Elisa and Íñigo- belonging to the CEU San Pablo University.

Since we landed at the Punta Raisi airport, dedicated to two judges once murdered by the mafia, Falcone and Borsellino, we have begun to experience the appeal of this beautiful Mediterranean island, historically a mixture of cultures and endowed with an unparalleled natural beauty, which surprises as a constant setting for the expedition, both in mountain and coastal settings.

The purpose of volunteering was not merely to better understand this culture of encounter that has occurred de facto in Sicily, where Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Muslims, Spaniards and so many have coexisted over the centuries. others. The main objective consisted of knowing by the method of immersion the experience of the Church that is the Mission Hope and Charity, founded by Fratel Biagio Conte (1963-), a lay missionary straddling medieval and postmodern times, which began, at the beginning of the nineties, living with the homeless in the Central Station of Palermo, and later occupied an Italian army barracks that had been abandoned for decades. There he began his work of reception together with the priest Don Pino Vitrano, in which today there are 4 main headquarters in the capital of Sicily in which hospitality is given to more than a million homeless brothers: Via Archiraffi – where most of the the oldest and sickest-, Via dei Decollati -also called the Citadel of the Poor, where Pope Francis ate a couple of years ago and where immigrants mainly from the African continent are housed-, the Convent of Santa Catalina – where they welcome women and children-, and Villa Florio -where they work the fields and welcome men from different origins that do not fit in the other structures. The mission lives on Providence, on donations and help from so many collaborators both in Italy and abroad, since there are barely a dozen men and women religious working to feed more than a thousand people every day.

The proposal of our volunteering was to introduce ourselves into the life of these “brothers” who have become poor for the poor and to experience a life so vastly different from the one we lead in our contemporary cities, surrounded by comforts. For this, the group participated daily in their early mass, in their prayer of Lauds, as well as in the daily work that they do. We live with the conductor who is Don Pino and with someone considered a living saint in all of Sicily such as Fratel Biagio. As for the daily work, the men collaborate with some of the welcome and volunteers in the construction of a greenhouse, as well as in the collection of fruit and vegetables in the fields granted by the bishopric in Villa Florio. The women helped the sisters clean and tidy certain new spaces that were opening in the Santa Catalina Convent.

The afternoons are dedicated to cultural visits. We visited the monumental monastery of Monreale, guided by Franco, a volunteer from the Missione, who explained to us how the impossible fusion between Byzantine and Muslim art takes place there, united under a Catholic baton, that of the Norman kings, who thought it up to a large Benedictine community. We also visit the cathedral of Cefalù, equally beautiful and presided over by a blond Byzantine pantocrator; the sanctuary of Santa Rosalía – patron saint of Palermo next to San Benedicto el Moro -, perched on a promontory that Goethe said had the best views in the world; the Brancaccio neighborhood, in which the recently beatified Don Pino Puglisi was assassinated, of great devotion in Palermo for his bravery and zeal in educating the neighborhood’s boys, so that they do not enter the mafia orbit.

In addition to visiting the four headquarters of the capital, we were able to visit different significant places for the mission in other towns on the island. We visit the Inici farm, houses and fields in the bucolic coastal towns of Castelamare and Finalle di Pollina, as well as the equally beautiful inland town of Tagliavia, very close to Corleone. The brothers have a beautiful garden there and they grow several hectares of wheat that allow them to be self-sufficient throughout the year. All these extensions of land are donations of the faithful or of the different dioceses. Finally, Brother Martino guided us, through the forest, to the cave where Fratel Biagio, founder of the Mission, used to retire to pray and offer long Eucharistic fasts, doing penance for injustices done to the poorest brothers in our society. discard.

Every night we prepared dinner at the girls’ house and shared the riches of the day in a collective dinner with one voice, in the hope that nothing of all the extraordinary things we saw there was lost.

After the ten days of volunteering, young people and adults, brothers and sisters of the Mission, agree to value the experience in an excellent way. We bring home a new awareness of the value of the poor and of ourselves. Some of the samples of the impact of this on us can be seen in the short documentary entitled “Vivir en Esperanza”, made by Javier Oliver and subtitled by Íñigo García, as well as in the sacrament of confirmation received by one of our students.

Jorge Martinez Lucena