· Vatican City ·

On the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Ernesto Ruffini Chair at the Pontifical University of Salamanca

A pastor for the poor

 A pastor for the poor  ING-011
15 March 2024

I recently had the opportunity to read the documentation of a conference on the theme, “The Option for the poor in the pastoral ministry of Cardinal Ruffini”, held at the Pontifical University of Salamanca on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Ernesto Ruffini Chair (10 December 1998). Instituted to deepen studies on the Bible, ecclesiology and the Social Doctrine of the Church, as well as to examine the thoughts and actions of Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, Archbishop of Palermo from 1946 until his death in 1967, the Chair supported the publication of the conference documents.

This brings to mind Saint John Paul ii’s words in a message he sent for the inauguration of the Chair, in which he expressed his best wishes that this initiative would contribute to increasing a culture of Christian inspiration, to revive and clarify the message addressed to the men, women and society of today. The Chair, he explained, is also a recognition of Cardinal Ruffini’s pastoral, intellectual and social work. Professor José Antonio Calvo Gómez, Chair Director, and curator of the work, suggested a title for the volume that was perfectly in line with the conference speeches: “La opción por los pobres” (The option for the poor).

During her speech, Aurelia Macaluso, Director General of Missionary Social Service, founded by Cardinal Ruffini, highlighted that keeping alive the memory of a pastor like Cardinal Ruffini, who was truly great in offering charity, is like praising the Lord who made use of this bishop, this “man of God”, to sow seeds of closeness, justice and dignity for the poor and excluded, in the history of the Diocese of Palermo.

Also present at the Conference was Paolo Ruffini, Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, who gave a reflection on “The Social Charity of Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini”. Recalling his personal and at times, moving, memories of his cardinal uncle, he highlighted that the preferential option for the poor spurred him to speak about poverty this way: “The poor represent Christ the Saviour. And if we have to have a preference, it should be for those who are disfigured, the derelict, the refuse of society… God’s real love can be enacted down here in the form of love of neighbour. And this second love is the irrefutable proof of the former… One cannot love their neighbour if one does not help them with their needs. It is never too much for the poor” (cf. “La vita cristiana”, Pastoral letter, 19 March 1953).

“In the Bible, he had found the answer to all his questions, to his child-like thirst for perfection, truth, happiness and the spiritual roots of social charity, universal fraternity and commitment to the public good”, he continued. The continuity of the words he read, said and did with his Faith and his works, the Prefect continued, is expressed in his spiritual testimony, in which he wrote: “I have always loved poverty — ever since my youth I have been a tertiary Capuchin priest — and I will die without owning any property. Poor among my poor who, up close, represent Jesus Christ, my sweet Saviour”. Ruffini highlighted that when the Cardinal died, “the most precious thing he had was his social work, along with the great sorrow of those who had experienced his love as a Pastor”. For him, the poor were not a category: “They were people to love, by making himself poor”.

Thus, a vocation within a vocation was born, along with the awareness that God reveals himself in the poor and that only by sharing their poverty can one meet them fully. “One week after his arrival in Palermo (31 March 1946), more than 80,000 requests for assistance had arrived at the Archdiocese. No letter went unanswered. Along with his collaborators, the Cardinal read aloud almost every single letter delivered by his secretary. He read and tried to find the right response […] Religion, he said ‘is not only worship, but a social leaven […] There can be no serenity as long as there are poor people without bread and without a home, within one’s own parish. If necessary, permission will be granted to sell the chalices to assist them, and I too will sell my episcopal cross’. Another time he said, ‘Charity is the substance of the Gospel, not an optional virtue’ (Christmas greetings to the authorities, Palermo 1950)”.

Paolo Ruffini underlined that when his uncle the cardinal was, “faced with the fragility of the public welfare system”, he counted “on providence, and planned and created a series of impressive social works in Palermo and its provinces between the 1940’s and 1950’s: soup kitchens for the poor wherever possible; a central health centre for the sick who lacked public health assistance and 12 clinics in the suburbs; 12 social service centres, 43 oratories, schools for the illiterate, for children and for adults; 23 kindergartens, 15 summer day and boarding camps; a village for the homeless, one for the elderly which was a surprisingly modern alternative to hospices and nursing homes; a children’s home. He was very attentive to the role of women, founding the Institute of Missionary social workers, apostles of charity dedicated to the advancement of the poor and of workers and to what today we refer to as integral human development. Far from being conservative in the social field, he used to say that ‘the old ways are no longer enough’, and asked leaders who wielded public power to take action, at the same time mobilizing the Church to do her part, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. In this sense, he was ahead of his time”.

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, delivered an enlightening speech on “Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini’s passion for the poor and social inclusion”. He described the Cardinal as a “believer who entrusted himself to the power of the Word”, one “who set aside Saturdays to be alone with the Lord”, one who was “attentive especially to the least ones, to the poor” and to any person who was in need: “We realized that we could not entirely fulfil our tasks at the Office of Pastoral Work without taking to heart helpless children, the poor, the sick, the elderly and all categories of labourers”… The Law and public regulation on Charity are not able to provide for the destitute who are too many…” (Message of the Pastor, 1946).

This is why he often spoke about the importance of always striving to “be saints and to sanctify ourselves”. According to Zuppi, that awareness was a “constitutive part of the Cardinal’s faith which led him to make very important, courageous and pioneering initiatives in the field of social charity”, which demonstrates that there is no service to the poor without a relationship with God and the Scriptures. Cardinal Zuppi then turned to Cardinal Ruffini’s first Pastoral Letter, entitled “The Social Duty”, published in 1947, in which he highlights that the Gospel “speaks not so much about justice as of love, but it is clear that love includes justice and overtakes it by completing it”. “Everything leads back to the Word of God which should be put into practice to encounter and serve the poor as a sacrament of Christ” (“La vita Cristiana”, Pastoral Letter, 19 March 1953), Zuppi continued. In a letter addressed to Igino Giordani mentioned by Zuppi, the Archbishop of Palermo wrote that “there is only one Christianity and it consists in enacting God’s love by performing works of mercy” (29 February 1952).

“For him charity became a project that always pointed ‘beyond’ to love. The countless social works he achieved share this characteristic”, Zuppi said. “The villages of charity conceived with love, like the ‘Cardinal Ruffini’ Village for homeless families, had the objective of responding to practical needs, to give the best for those who had nothing, to make them feel at home and give them protection” The Cardinal added social charity to the project, intercepting the suffering, the needs and poverty to the point that “he designed the projects himself, imagining them first in his heart and then drawing them with paper and pen as occurred with the ‘Small Village of Hospitality’… an urban plan he came up with to house elderly couples in need of housing and assistance […] He was always making projects, and he did so on a large scale: 500 apartments …. Not a quick response, not ‘I’ll do what I can’, but rather, what is needed”.

Professor Fr Francesco Conigliaro of the Diocese of Palermo, knew Cardinal Ruffini on a personal level and shared a spiritual relationship with him. He said that by choice the Cardinal “did not receive people at the Archbishopric on Saturdays, but instead, dedicated himself to prayer. And he would invite me to pray and to dialogue about spiritual matters”. Fr Conigliaro highlighted that Cardinal Ruffini had lived out his mission by bearing witness to personal poverty in his life, as part of a larger, magnanimous and intelligent social charity which means nothing other than serving the Lord in the poor. He concluded by describing the Cardinal as a great man, Priest, Bishop, a Christian, father of the poor and a saint. The Cardinal, he said, “is certainly a saint of charity, and precisely of that particular aspect for which he is already a prophet: ‘social charity’. In this field Cardinal Ruffini, is more than ever a teacher and example for us today”.

The volume of the transcripts of the Conference also includes a contribution in Spanish from Professor Miguel Ángel Dionisio Vivas, of the Complutense University of Madrid, on the historical and sociological situation of Italy in the first half of the 20th century, which sheds light on Cardinal Ruffini’s central role in Palermo; and a text by Professor Román Ángel Pardo of the upsa who highlighted the fundamental aspects of the Cardinal’s pastoral action, starting from the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Professor María Jesús Domínguez, asm, of the University of León, spoke about the Cardinal’s large prophetic work founded on the principles of Christian Humanism. Professor Franca Tonini, asm, of upsa, addressed the theme, “The Pontifical University of Salamanca’s Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini Chair on the 25th Anniversary of its foundation”, including some manuscripts which were written by the Cardinal that help us learn about his human and spiritual depth.

By reading these texts, one can deduce how Cardinal Ruffini’s contribution is timely for the Church and society of today, and how it links the social and personal dimensions, rooting them in his life as a believer, in his spirituality and personal characteristics. He used to say: “Christ himself is in the needy, even if they are forgotten and despised by mankind; not to lend them assistance, when one can, is to refuse to show God his due respect”. Cardinal Ruffini had felt profoundly the responsibility of coherence that belongs to a believer who, in a single gaze, embraces Christ and his people, in the intent of observing the Lord at work in their midst, through a creative and innovative ministry. He loved and served the poor; he created the most original and courageous human development initiatives. But allow me to say that today, one can also see a parallel between “the preferential option for the poor”, the “social charity” lived and witnessed by Cardinal Ruffini, and the enlightened Magisterium of Pope Francis who continuously spurs us to be vigilant and constantly attentive, in order to be close to the new forms of poverty and fragility experienced by many of our brothers and sisters, recognizing in each of them “the suffering flesh of Christ”. (A. Albanese)

Fr Giulio Albanese