ROME – Perhaps Rome’s highest profile anti-mafia priest, known for his efforts to rescue young people from the drug trade in troubled neighborhoods of the Italian capital, was attacked during a march against organized crime Tuesday by a 28-year-old man on a scooter who was discovered to have been carrying a hammer and a cleaver.
Father Antonio Coluccia, 48, immediately vowed that the assault won’t interrupt his work, saying, “I will continue my fight which I am carrying out against the crime that controls the drug dealing squares in San Basilio, Quarticciolo and Tor Bella Monca,” referring to neighborhoods long associated with mafia activity.
Coluccia’s assailant has been identified in Italian press reports as Sergio Del Prete, 28, the son of an Italian father and Belorussian mother who lives on the streets. Del Prete was wounded in the arm and taken to a nearby hospital after being shot by a police officer escorting Coluccia during the march, after Del Prete attempted to run the priest down with his scooter.
According to media reports, Del Prete is drug user with previous arrests for possession and damage to property. Police now are investigating whether Del Prete acted alone or was perhaps commissioned by figures who control the drug trade in the area.
Another police officer reportedly was injured in the incident while attempting to wrestle Del Prete off the scooter as he accelerated toward the priest.
Coluccia, vice-pastor at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Rome’s Grottarossa neighborhood, is known for roaming the streets of neighborhoods known to be centers of the drug trade, approaching the young people who serve as look-outs and street-level sellers to invite them to consider other ways of life.
In 2012, Coluccia opened a house of welcome for young people seeking to abandon the drug trade or to recover from drug addiction, and he also operates a boxing club and gym to provide youth with alternative activities. He’s known for walking around with a soccer ball in one hand and a megaphone in the other, summoning youth to sports rather than drugs.
“I go into the peripheries, between cocaine and crack, to pray and to talk,” Coluccia once said of his work, adding that “my church is the street.”
Coluccia was surrounded by a police escort during Tuesday’s march because he’s received numerous threats over the years, including an assault in April when rocks were tossed at him from windows during one of his visits to centers of the city’s drug trade.
Rome’s mayor, Roberto Gualtieri, sent a tweet late Tuesday saying he had telephoned Coluccia after this latest assault.
“I called him to express the closeness of all of Rome and to wish a speedy recovery to the wounded escort officer. Violence and mafias must be fought with every means”, explained Gualtieri.
Originally from the southern Italian region of Puglia, Coluccia as a young man worked as a manual laborer in a shoe factory, was engaged to be married and was active in organized labor groups. At the age of 21, however, he founded a small non-profit group to help immigrants from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, which led him to visit those countries.
“There I saw how priests devoted themselves to children, and [the faith] I had always carried within me but refused to accept came out,” Coluccia once told a reporter. “That’s where my life changed.”
Coluccia was the subject of a biography last year by veteran Italian journalist Riccardo Bocca titled Il Prete Indigesto, “The Undigested Priest.” It was a reference to a celebrated reaction from Coluccia after graffiti appeared in a drug-infested neighborhood declaring that he would be “good to eat.”
“Unfortunately for you who move in the shadows, I am an indigestible priest,” he said at the time. “I’m a human being willing to sacrifice himself with the utmost humility, but also with the extraordinary power of the word of God.”
Rome’s councilor for security, Monica Lucarelli, also expressed solidarity on Tuesday.
“I am close to Don Coluccia and worried about the health of the injured escort agent,” she said. “I thank the police forces who risk their lives every day and are by our side in the fight for legality. There’s a right side to stand on and it’s this, we can’t afford a step back in the fight against drug dealing and illegality. We owe it to our boys, tonight more than ever.”