Jesus Forsaken: today's God
To change the world start from relationships and real needs

Gerardo Ippolito
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It’s a few years since Fr Gerardo Ippolito first became the parish priest of a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lecce, in an area where unemployment is very high and the poverty is almost extreme. There persists a strong micro-criminality and the attendance to parish life is very reduced. In this situation, Jesus’ offering of himself up to the abandonment is a compass for Fr Gerardo. “It was the love for he who was disfigured by poverty and the need to give me the strength to throw myself headlong to help whoever asked me for it,” he affirms.

I was fortunate to meet the ideal of unity while I attended high school in the seminary. In this way, I was helped since I was a boy to put God before anything else, even before the priesthood, and knowing how to recognize the face of Jesus crucified in every situation of suffering that presented itself in my life. He, who was chosen and loved, became the golden thread of my existence and my ministry.

I experienced that loving Jesus Forsaken on the cross, even the “that all may be one” is not an utopia but it can become real in parishes and even in very difficult environments.

I remember a commitment I had made as soon as I became a priest: “to die for my own people.” I tried to be faithful to this, remembering how Jesus Crucified offered up his whole being for humanity. I re-proposed it to myself every day, aware that he calls us to give of ourselves without measure and without expecting satisfaction. So, at the end of each day, I say: “We are useless servants.”

Friendship of the peoples

Our city hosts about 4,000 foreigners and there isn’t always a welcoming atmosphere. The local church is making great efforts to receive, help and give back dignity to these people who have escaped misery from their countries at war and, as the daily news tells us, have even risked their lives to reach the West.

As for our parish, the soccer field used by the children of the oratory was the instrument which God used to make us live Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (cf. Mt 25:35). A group of Senegalese, who accepted to play a championship, asked to use the field to train for a rather long period of time. Although the parish does not have thriving economical conditions and despite a couple of complaints from some, I welcomed them. We established a serene relationship of trust and there arouse the idea to organize a soccer tournament for the following summer between various nations with the title: “Tournament of friendship between peoples.”

A network of families in need

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was naked and you gave me clothing” (cf.
Mt 25:35-36). Every day we try to live a work of mercy as a parish community. We have a network of families whom we know are in need. The “Food Bank” also helps them but we often go to visit them taking upon ourselves not only their material needs but also their relational and spiritual ones.

The boys who approach the parish often have behind them experiences of abandonment, of divided families or social unease. They remind me a lot of that face of Jesus who felt alone, abandoned, refused. My task is to welcome them without expecting anything, making them feel at home.

We had two brothers, abandoned by their parents, who lived with their grandmother. The parish was their home. Some women of the parish community had nearly adopted them; we celebrated their birthdays, we took them on excursions and they spent the evenings with us. When unfortunately they were taken to an Institute for orphaned children because their sick grandmother could no longer look after them, I went to visit them. Their educators only trusted us and let them come to stay with us. Unfortunately now one of the two has become intolerant to the life of the college and sometimes runs away. He doesn’t know where to go and he always takes refuge in the parish. They often call me even during the night because he hides in some corner of the parish.

Gospel-based concreteness

One thing is clear for me: I didn’t become a priest simply to solve all the economical and social problems of the poor, but to recognize the suffering Jesus in every person that I meet during the day and live in such a way that the Spirit of the Risen One may be able to offer light and Gospel-based concreteness even in front of social and cultural problems. In fact, it was my love for Jesus disfigured by poverty and the need to give me the strength to throw myself headlong to help whoever asked me for it.

With this attitude in my heart I also became friends with the regulars of a coffee bar near the parish. Many times I stopped to have a coffee with them, or I appeared with bags of food received from the Caritas, or I provided some working days for who really needed it. Some of them, passionate for music and “talented,” offered to collaborate for the patron’s feast day. They and the people of the neighbourhood organized a lovely evening with a family atmosphere. The musicians were the real protagonists, everyone enjoyed the quality of the music and they felt proud to be able to serve the neighbourhood.

Not proselytism but unselfish love

Often the good done is repaid with indifference, and poverty leads some to take advantage of the parish. This happened with a man who appeared in church and asked me for a huge sum as a compensation for a broken arm. Since the insurance did not want to pay, he gave my name in court. In response, I continue hosting him in the parish every Sunday for lunch with other six people who are his children and grandchildren. Every morning, after morning prayers, he comes to have a cup of coffee with us. The parishioners heard of my reaction and commented, “We would have reacted in a different way, but you are kind and we like that.” I think this experience on forgiveness is worth more than many sermons.

Now and again, a sense of discouragement peers out when I see that for many the parish has become only a centre for economic aid, without a request for religious formation or participation in our communitarian life. They identify the Church as assistance; however, I’m sure that love remains and this counts in front of God: not full churches, not proselytism but unselfish love.

I realize every day that the sharing with my brother priests, with whom we live and share together the spirituality of unity, is fundamental to face the difficulties united. The difficulties inevitably present themselves but we know that they are a face of Jesus Forsaken and with Him, every day becomes “a game of love.”

I often repeat to myself that I must forget everything about my life: work, tiredness and responsibility in order to possess only Him, to love as He loved us, so much as to also experience the abandonment of his Father. On my desk, I have an image of Jesus crucified and underneath the famous meditation of Chiara “I have only one spouse on earth, Jesus Forsaken.” I repeat to myself, “I have no God other than Him.”