ROME – When Pope Francis called all dioceses, parishes and sanctuaries in Europe to open their doors to immigrants in 2015, Italian Father Massimo Biancalani was among the first to swing into action.

Three years later, that decision has made him a target of hostility and resentment not only from public institutions and ordinary people, but also from the local Church.

The latest sign of his outlier status unfolded Oct. 20, when over 50 security personnel swarmed into his parish in Vicofaro near the town of Pistoia in northern Italy around 8:00 p.m. while Biancalani, the immigrants he welcomes, and a few friends were enjoying dinner.

The priest said he rushed toward the policemen, carabinieri [Italian military police], traffic wardens, financial police and public health inspectors when they arrived and asked to check the immigrants’ documents and the facility, in response to a complaint from 190 citizens of the town.

Biancalani, however, is convinced the real motive lies elsewhere.

“In my opinion the blitz, let’s call it that way, was an intervention with a political motive,” he told Crux during a phone interview Oct. 23. “It’s not the first time that extreme right movements and the current Interior Minister target us.”

RELATED: Gunshots at parish latest sign of Italy’s immigration tensions

[The reference is to Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s anti-immigrant party the Lega, who is currently serving as the country’s Interior Minister.]

Biancani opened a small center for extraordinary welcoming (CAS) in 2015, starting out with just enough beds for 20 people, but soon the parish decided to open its doors to immigrants expelled from other welcoming centers, quickly bringing the tally to 130.

The priest’s initiatives to foster integration have drawn significant blowback. The “Pizzeria of the Refugee,” a pizza place open once a week entirely managed by immigrants, was raided in April and September by police.

Another initiative includes taking the immigrants for a day at the pool in the heat of summer. In August 2017, a picture posted by Biancalani on Facebook showing several young black men enjoying the pool sparked criticism on social media.

Salvini tweeted that Biancalani was “an anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-Italian priest,” adding ironically, “Enjoy your bath.”

Soon after, members of the Alt-right political parties Forza Nuova and CasaPound entered the parish on Aug. 27 declaring that they wished to “oversee the doctrine” at Mass. Again this summer, a young immigrant from the parish was shot at with a gun filled with blanks.

For what Biancalani calls a “small ecclesial reality,” his parish has attracted the attention of quite powerful foes.

“We have contested the political reality, not just in Italy but also in Europe, of aggression toward immigrants,” the priest said, adding that he has criticized Salvini’s recent decree of closing all Italian ports to refugees and immigrants at sea and imposing tougher rules on asylum seekers and deportations.

“Living everyday with immigrants, you feel how much injustice exists toward them and you feel like you must challenge these government rules,” he said.

“Even the Church could do so much more than what it’s doing,” he said.

Bishop Fausto Tardelli of Pistoia has written a public letter saying he’s “deeply saddened” by what happened on Saturday, claiming that he was not warned, and it was not appropriate.

“It was a moment that marked the culmination of an unbearable climax,” the bishop wrote, adding that “some people in the neighborhood have become exasperated” and “positions have only radicalized and politicized.”

Tardelli also seems to chastise Biancalani in his letter, asking him to dial it down lest “people start stabbing one another.” The bishop asked whether “it wouldn’t be better to turn off the spotlights on Vicofaro and all try, as the great Pope John XXIII said, to search for what unites us instead of divides us?”

The bishop recognized that “in a time of ever more bitter factions,” his words would not be taken well by many. Yet he insists that the truth lies in the middle, and that all Vicofaro needs is more dialogue.

“Of course, Don Massimo can do a lot,” Tardelli cryptically writes, “I don’t wish to say any more. I believe he is becoming increasingly aware.”

Finally, the bishop invited priests, the local community and the media to “cool down” and listen to reason. He concluded by describing the possibility of a multi-ethnic but secure town of Pistoia.

Biancalani was surprised that the letter was made public and said he was “disappointed” when he read it, while admitting that not all of it is negative.

“There is no taking a stand or support toward me,” the priest said, “the problem is ultimately me and my media exposure.”

“Unfortunately, at this time welcoming means drawing criticism, but also the explicit hostility of people and institutions,” he added.

Biancalani is puzzled by how his ministry toward immigrants, which doesn’t cost anything to the community since it solely depends on parish resources and donations, can cause so much anger.

“On one side, we do a service to the community because we take the young people who otherwise would be on the street,” he said. “At the same time the government, instead of supporting us, creates obstacles.”

While Biancalani said he was pleased to have been invited to a major conference held in Rome in September promoted by Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Vatican’s the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, he also said “at a local level there isn’t the same conviction on the part of the bishops.”

The priest invited his colleagues to open their doors and hearts to immigrants.

“The obstruction that hurts me the most,” he said, “is exactly the one from within the Church,” especially when he hears that his brothers are ashamed of him.

“But drawing the sums,” he added cheerfully, “you earn more than you lose.”

It was Francis’s appeal – and his eagerness to heed it – that led Biancalani to act, and he says he couldn’t agree more.

“Xenophobia and fear of immigrants disappears once you encounter them and hang out with them,” he said. “Welcoming is a beautiful experience. You really get to experience the Gospel because you take on many risks, but you also receive ample grace.”