20 November 2020

A Witness of Charity to the Poor

Pope Francis recently celebrated the life of Father Roberto Malgesini, a priest of the diocese of Como, Italy, who had been murdered. Echoing the words of the Bishop of Como, the Pope said, "I give praise to God for the witness, that is, for the martyrdom of this witness of charity towards the poorest."

Speaking about Father Malgesini's calling, a fellow priest said, "Roberto was a simple person. He just wanted to be a priest and years ago he made this wish explicit to the former bishop of Como. For this he was sent to St. Rocco, where every morning he brought hot breakfasts to the least. Here everyone knew him, they all loved him."

Father Malgesini was pastor of the Church of St. Rocco, where he led an outreach group to care for those on the margins of society, and he was especially known for his care for the homeless and for migrants. He was only 51 years old when he died at the hands of a troubled man who he had served in his ministry. Catholic News Agency reported that Roberto Bernasconi, director of Como's branch of Caritas, said of Father Malgesini, "He devoted his whole life to the least, he was aware of the risks he ran. The city and the world did not understand his mission."

What a profound statement by Mr. Bernasconi, and it gets to the heart of how we are called as Catholics to view this situation. To say that Father Malgesini was "aware of the risks he ran" is a statement made by someone who understands the sacrificial nature of missionary work in almost militaristic terms. It's an outlook that has often been associated with those who dare to live the gospel to its fullest extent. It is not about taking up arms, but about being willing to lay one's life on the line in the way soldiers, police officers, and other heroes do on a daily basis. And it's an outlook we would all do well to adopt in some measure as followers of Christ.

Painting a picture of Father Malgesini's tireless efforts for the poor, Catholic News Agency reported, "The morning he was killed, he was expected at a breakfast for the homeless. In 2019, he was fined by local police for feeding people living under the portico of a former church."

And what should we think of his attacker? Perhaps the statement by the Diocese of Como is our best guide to that. It reads, "In the face of this tragedy, the Church of Como is clinging to prayer for its priest Fr. Roberto and for the person who struck him to death."

It seems obvious Father Malgesini would endorse prayers for his attacker. Just as his life teaches us to reach out to those most in need, it also teaches us to pray for those most in need. To offer one's entire life for others, and then to pray for those who persecute you, this is the way of the cross.

What a powerful witness Father Malgesini's life was to the sacrificial nature of the priesthood. Pope Francis was right to call him a martyr. He was a martyr through his fearless outreach to the poor, and he shows us the way to abandon the cares of this world in order to seek the rewards of eternal life. May he rest in peace, basking in the joy of the beatific vision, and may he intercede for us all.

This essay is a recent "Light One Candle" column by Father Ed Dougherty, M.M., The Christophers' Board of Directors ; it is one of a series of weekly columns that deal with a variety of topics and current events. 

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