ROME – Watch Catholics at most parishes when it comes time for the homily at Sunday Mass, and you’ll see body language and facial expressions not unlike the waiting rooms of dentists’ offices and traffic court. It’s a sense of anticipation, sure, but not the good kind.
Catholics actually love to gripe about boring homilies, so much so that a 2019 book titled The Crisis of Bad Preaching called “hollow, vacuous preaching” perhaps “the most common complaint of Catholics around the world.”
It’s only fair, therefore, that when we hear a good homily – one that actually “breaks open the Word,” firing the mind and touching the heart – we say so. In that spirit, a tip of the cap is in order for Father Nicola Gallucci, pastor of our neighborhood Church of Santa Maria Regina Apostolorum here in Rome.
Gallucci is a member of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate, better known as the “Pallotti Fathers” after St. Vincent Pallotti, who founded the order in the mid-19th century in an effort to respond to the misery he saw in Rome during the fin de régime period of the Papal States.
Pallotti priests are known for being close to the people they serve, and Gallucci certainly demonstrated it Sunday.
The day’s Gospel reading concerns mercy, containing the well-known expression from Jesus that his followers are expected to forgive not seven times but “seventy times seven,” functionally meaning “always.”
As Gallucci noted, most people have heard that statement, and things like it, over and over again, so much so that it just goes in one ear and out the other. What’s been lost, he said, is the edge to the Gospel, any sense of how just how demanding and radical the Christian concept of forgiveness actually is.
Realizing that just saying so wouldn’t do the trick, he said he was going to give us a couple of concrete cases.
“You may not like what I have to say,” he told us, smiling, “and that’s fine. You can think about it, and then you can go talk to God.”
He began with a recent tragedy surrounding 21-year-old Willy Monteiro Duarte, a Black son of immigrants from Cape Verde, beaten to death by four young men in the small town of Colleferro on the southern tip of Rome Sept. 6.
Gallucci described how horrified Romans have been by the incident, how appalling they find the behavior of these four young men, body-builders and martial arts enthusiasts known in their neighborhood for being violent and hot-headed, and who apparently attacked Duarte as a sort of sick recreational activity – possibly because they thought they could get away with it since he was a migrant, who are often nearly invisible in Italian society.
Then Gallucci brought home his point.
“We all weep for Willy, and we’re praying for him,” he said. “We find what these four guys did disgusting, and many of us would probably be prepared to say they deserve the death penalty.”
“But how many of us would forgive them?” he asked. “If they were to change their hearts and repent, would we be ready to forgive?”
That, Gallucci said, is the demand of the Gospel – to forgive not only those who deserve it but those who absolutely don’t, in the spirit of a God “who never, ever closes the door on a sinner.”
Last Thursday marked the anniversary of the German occupation of Rome in 1943, which brought Gallucci to his second case: Erich Priebke, a former Nazi SS officer and Gestapo agent who took part in the 1944 massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, the worst civilian atrocity of the Second World War.
The 335 victims were made up of 75 Jews in addition to other Romans from all walks of life, including a priest, Father Pietro Pappagallo, an outspoken antifacist. Their deaths came in reprisal for an attack by Italian partigiani on a column of SS troops that killed 33, in keeping with Hitler’s policy in occupied territories that ten locals need to die for every one German killed by resistance forces.
After the war, Priebke escaped to Argentina using the infamous “ratline” of Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal, living there for the next half-century. In the mid-1990s he was finally identified and extradited to Italy, and after a lengthy legal process he was sentenced to life in prison. Less than a decade later he was given permission to serve his sentence at home, and he died in 2013.
By now, there are only a handful of Romans still alive who experienced the occupation, but memories of the brutality and hardship, and above all what happened at the Fosse Ardeatine, are handed down within Roman families by one generation to the next.
Knowing that, Gallucci provocatively asked: “Who here didn’t want to see the death penalty for Priebke?” He paused for a moment, almost daring anyone to dissent – knowing full well that some people in the Church might well have lost family members in the massacre.
He then asked if we could also bring ourselves to forgive Priebke.
Driving home the day’s message, when the moment rolled around to say the “Our Father,” Gallucci instructed us not to pronounce the phrase “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Instead, he told us to insert the name of someone we have a hard time forgiving – “usually, it’s somebody obvious,” he said.
As we recited that line of the prayer, a quiet murmur of different names floated through the air.
At the end of Mass, Gallucci told us to go home and pray for the gift of mercy and forgiveness – “not how the world sees it,” he said, “but the radical Christian concept of forgiveness.”
I’ve heard more homilies on mercy than I can remember, especially given that I covered Pope Francis’s Jubilee of Mercy here in Rome. I don’t know, however, that I’ve ever heard a priest challenge my grasp of exactly what Christianity is asking of me quite as effectively as Gallucci.
It’s a reminder that “bad” is not quite the only brand of Catholic preaching, and maybe we should … well, maybe we should forgive the duds we hear a bit more readily.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.