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Luigi Di Liegro: priest and social campaigner 1928-97

30 November, 1999

Luigi Di Liegro was a popular and controversial priest who campaigned for social justice especially for immigrants in Italy. Head of Caritas from 1980 till his death in 1997, Pope John Paul II assured him that those who criticised him also criticised the Pope. Desmond O’Grady tells his story. Luigi di Liegro, head of the […]

Luigi Di Liegro was a popular and controversial priest who campaigned for social justice especially for immigrants in Italy. Head of Caritas from 1980 till his death in 1997, Pope John Paul II assured him that those who criticised him also criticised the Pope. Desmond O’Grady tells his story.

Luigi di Liegro, head of the Caritas Organisation in the diocese of Rome from 1980 to his death in October 1997, was a reminder of the saying that there mansions in the Lord’s reign.  His mansion looks leftwards.  He spoke out fearlessly in defence of the needy and this involved him in some heated political controversies.  It was interesting that he maintained his office for so long even though some groups in the Vatican and in the diocese of Rome disapproved of his attitudes

Di Liegro knew the problems of the needy at first hand.  He was born in Gaeta, a seaport between Rome and Naples, in 1928, the eighth child of a fisher man who had emigrated several times to the United states but with little success.  In fact he was expelled as an illegal immigrant while his wife was awaiting their ninth child and the shock of his return was such that she lost it.

It is not hard to imagine that Di Liegro’s sympathy for contemporary immigrants to Italy, clandestine or not, from Albania and other countries was influenced by his father’s experience.

However, he had to overcome his father’s opposition to attend a seminary in Rome, was an assistant curate in a poor parish on Rome’s outskirts for a while, then left for France and Belgium where he worked in mines while functioning as a priest.  In other words, he participated in the priest-worker experiment which did not have backing from Rome.

In 1965 he returned to Rome as a pastor for young workers. In 1973 he was made a Monsignor which was a title at odds with his social commitment but useful when he had clerical critics. About that time an institute of nuns was accused of maltreating orphans who were in its care. The Church of Rome was anxious to show that it had profound social concerns and sought a way to prove this to the public.

Di Liegro suggested that it hold a Convention to examine Rome’s social problems. This took place in 1974 under the auspices of the Pope’s vicar for Rome, Cardinal Ugo Poletti.

Dealing with corruption
For decades the city had been administered by the (Catholic) Christian Democratic Party, with various coalition partners or none. The proportional voting system ensured that there was no real possibility of a change of government and corruption set in.

At the Convention there was trenchant criticism of the defects of the administration by social workers and trade unionists. Inevitably they said similar things to the major opposition party, the Communists, and conservatives claimed that the Communists had taken charge of the Convention. These criticisms increased when the Communists won the Rome administrative elections the following year.

Recently it was learned that Di Liegro arranged secret meetings between the Communist administrators and Cardinal Poletti after the election.

Despite the criticism of Di Liegro, he was made head of the diocesan Caritas, which had a staff of twenty and the support of 15,000 volunteers to provide assistance to 110,000 immigrants from the Third World; another 100,000 needy aged people; 2,000 deadbeats, drug victims, and gypsies; and an indeterminate number of homeless and unemployed.

Di Liegro also founded soup kitchens and dormitories at the central railway station and elsewhere in the city, arousing hostility from those who lived nearby. They claimed that they attracted  undesirables.

In 1988 he established a home for AIDS sufferers in the Villa Glori Park in the snobbish Parioli district. The inhabitants feared that they would be infected and unsuccessfully took Di Liegro to court in an attempt to stop the project. One of them slapped the troublesome priest’s face on a bus.

Ministry of reconciliation
In 1990 he supported 1,500 North African and Asian migrants who occupied an abandoned pasta factory which helped to avoid violent clashes with the police. He also bought prayer mats for the predominately Muslim occupiers and helped erect a temporary mosque in the factory to give them a sense of belonging. Subsequently he received Vatican approval for mlarrying Catholics and Muslims, with each party retaining their faith.

That same year Di Liegro caused further controversy by providing the prisoner, Renato Curcio, the founder of the Red Brigade terrorist movement, with a job on the Caritas weekly publication. In response, Di Liegro quoted from St Paul, ‘We have received from God the ministry of reconciliation’. Other Italian church figures have shown a reconciliatory spirit towards terrorists which has brought embittered comments from some of their victims who feel the same concern has not been shown for them.

Working for justice
Slim, blue-eyed Di Liegro did not look like a social crusader but he believed Christians should not only help victims but work to change the conditions which damaged them. He said that sympathy was not enough, as justice was needed. He believed collaboration between Catholics and Left-wing forces was needed to achieve greater justice, whereas the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, Ugo Poletti, favoured support for the Christian Democrat Party, until it collapsed under the weight of corruption scandals early in the 1990s.

But when a left-wing coalition came to power in Rome in the 1990s Di Liegro criticised it also for its shortcomings in social welfare.

Was it not far enough left for him or was he detached from all political parties? Was there a real pluralism functioning in the diocese of Rome with Cardinal Ruini pursuing one line and Di Liegro another? Or would it simply have been too embarrassing to remove Di Liegro who was a very wellknown and popular figure?

Perhaps it was thought that the head of the office concerned with charitable activities should have a certain amount of ginger in his make-up. And, besides, Di Liegro was a good organizer who had fostered enthusiastic collaborators.

The Vatican has many mansions and many facets. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger receives much publicity for his defence of orthodox doctrine but, at the same time, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray travels the world for John Paul II, trying to achieve greater justice in difficult situations such as that of largely Catholic East Timor, which wants greater autonomy from Indonesia.

John Paul II was aware of the criticism of the head of Caritas but he told Di Liegro that those who criticised him also criticized the Pope.

Among the many tributes to Di Liegro from non-Catholics as well as Catholics was one from a seventy-six year old man in a Caritas dormitory who said that Luigi Di Liegro would always stay talking with the needy as long as they needed him, even if authorities were waiting for him. Another came from a worker in one of his soup kitchens, who said that he had learnt from the priest, ‘the joy of dedicating one’s life to the needy’.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 1998), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.