Home » Interior » Don Leonardo and the flood: «I’m not interested in “doing good”, but in changing hearts»
The story of the parish priest of the Collegiate Church of Lugo, which has become an operational base for hundreds of volunteers: “Now that it is impossible to take possession of reality because it dominates us, the real need emerges: that of giving oneself”
Lugo di Romagna is among the municipalities put to the test by theflood, for many days the water invaded houses and streets without flowing out. Now that the streets are dry, the work of cleaning and clearing has begun, a struggle with shovels, sponges and bare arms to reconquer the city inch by inch. Don Leonardo Poli is parish priest of the Collegiate Church of Saints Francesco and Ilaro, a church flooded by water and then became a point of reference in the days of diligent human and environmental rescue activities. The young people who are part of the Student Youth (Gs) experience have created a chat that brings together more than 700 volunteers and coordinates their activities. A canteen has been set up in the parish halls, always run by volunteers, the 1pm lunch is a daily meeting place for more than a hundred people who make it a moment of refreshment and sharing between the morning and afternoon work shifts. There are banks that break, others that hold and are not made of earth but of souls. Don Leonardo tells what emerges and what must be kept of humanity when the flood wave retreats.
What happened in your parish after the flood?
I see that the fruits of what has been sown and cultivated are being reaped, that is, a people. There is a people in action, who know they have sure and strong foundations and are grieved for this but not in despair. This people has the certainty, which derives from experience, of Jesus who said: “I have conquered the world”. For a Christian, the bet is to see where God is. And there is no circumstance in which He cannot manifest Himself. When we have the perception that God doesn’t manifest himself it’s because we want to do everything ourselves. This painful circumstance has made us come to terms with what we tend not to see, we are poor people. We don’t have reality in hand. And nature is a poor creature like everyone else, wounded by evil. God doesn’t send the flood, we accuse him and instead we should look for him. And He speaks and always speaks positively.
Yet in this still emergency phase of the rescue it is seen very clearly that it is not only the Christian who does his utmost because he has learned by heart “love your neighbor”. There are many people who are very far from the Christian experience and are breaking their backs for others. So the measure of self-giving is written within us?
Reality is placed there for us, it’s a friend. She becomes an enemy when we want to take possession of her. In this difficult moment we cannot take possession of reality because it dominates us, then man’s true need emerges: that of giving oneself. It is a law of life. Normally, if there isn’t something that provokes us, we settle down. The anomalous wave breaks your inertia, you have to start moving and swimming. And find out you can swim. In this difficult circumstance man discovers that he is made of good and is made for good. And he also discovers that when he gives himself he is happier. The word I hear the most is “thank you”. Left to its own devices this good move only lasts for a while, and that’s where Christianity comes in. Christ is the one who gives you the strength to continue giving yourself and to ask yourself: why am I doing this? Everyone gives themselves, what the world doesn’t know how to do is judge and hold back what it’s doing. If we don’t engage in an education of the self and of the people, in two months we’ll be back to the way we were before. The real need is not to rearrange ourselves and become bourgeois again, but to keep the ego awake.
One of the first days of the flood I met a nurse who said to me: “Where is God?”, and was keen to emphasize that she was an atheist. I told her that there was no problem, because faith is not a product that can be bought at the supermarket, and I suggested that she look deeply at everything around her. Yesterday evening he sent me this message: «I decided to let the Lord enter my heart, because I had always asked him to give me clear signs that he was with me and I would say that in these five days he has been giving me many». The signs you saw are a point of beauty in action, such as the Gs kids who are always available to work, especially the fifth graders who are close to maturity yet have toiled day and night without breaks. I was the one who told them to stop and go home.
The Church is not in crisis because people no longer go to Mass, it is in crisis because Christians no longer go out into the world. I spend the whole day next to the Civil Protection and Red Cross volunteers, I crowd them out because they have a stereotypical idea of a priest. Do you know what my assiduous task is with them? Carrying and distributing cigarettes. Because that too is a need to be aware of, considering that they are locked up in a building all day and have to keep a lot of tension at bay.
But you too, as a priest, will be living these difficult weeks not with the blissful tranquility of one who is in order and has the truth in his pocket. Has it happened that the flood itself allowed you to meet someone you hadn’t met before?
I’m having lots of meetings, I write down everyone’s names and I also discover people from my parish with whom I’ve never spoken. To each one I say: «I will come and see you». It is as if in these days, in the darkness in which we live, a match has been lit. But after a few seconds the match burns your fingers and goes out. When I have a lighted match in my hand I have to look where I can stoke a fire. So this moment offers us a very great opportunity, but not a good one. My aim is not to do good, I wish that through this circumstance people can discover what gives meaning to life. If we succeed in giving glory to God we will perhaps be poorer, because we will be, but we will be richer in what matters.
There is an old man who has a house where the river broke its bank. It is a centuries-old mill and the flood took away the entire facade of the house, the prefect then gave the order that the whole building be demolished because at that point it will be necessary to work to restore the embankment. When they told him, and he’s 93, he made this joke: “Maybe I’m luckier than the others because I won’t have to clean up the house.” I went to see him after he had been taken away from where he lived a whole life and he said to me: “I’ve lost a lot, but I haven’t lost the indispensable things”. He was referring to faith and children. His tone wasn’t resigned, he’s someone who understands what really keeps us going.
Compared to this there is a very easy and prevailing narration: the tenacious and cheerful Romagna in the midst of disaster. We shout from the rooftops “we will rebuild better than it was before”, as if it were a road paved with enthusiasm and the desire to do our utmost. There will be a huge trauma that all those affected will have to deal with, once the emergency adrenaline is over and the spotlights are no longer around. Beyond the slogans, where does one begin to rebuild?
It’s like when in the midst of the pandemic we said “everything will be fine”. Why should everything be fine? There is a very wrong proverb which says: “Man proposes and God disposes”. The opposite is true. God proposes and proposes happiness, then each one arranges what he wants to do with his life through intelligence, freedom and the heart. A few nights ago a mom texted me after we had a moment of prayer. She has teenage children and she writes: «Everything that happens is not a tragedy or a misfortune. We are truly blessed, we give thanks for all that we have. Our boys are a gift to us and we can only be certain that we have certainly done one thing right: having taken them to Baptism at one month of age and having educated them on the only path which is the beautiful happiness of eternal life”.
That is the point of true reconstruction and that is education. In reality there is good and there is evil, but the choice is not automatic. A seed doesn’t necessarily become a tree, it can dry up or rot. And without the Church who is it that saves the heart of man? The problems we are experiencing are provocations and Jesus said: «To those who have, it will be given and to those who do not have, even what they have will be taken away». What must you have? A great and true question of meaning. One morning in church I met a lady who works at the Consortium for reclamation, an organization that is managing the entire crisis situation. She was discouraged, she told me that she had come to pray to understand what to do and by chance she met me. By chance? I told her that it works like this: we pray not for inner illumination, but because by praying to God she makes us encounter signs on the road. We must have the humility to go after this.
Surely there is a strategic plan to prepare to protect ourselves from these dramas, but first we must save the ego. If Europe is a continent, it is not from a geographical point of view, but from a cultural point of view. When everything was barbarism here, there were those – the Christians – who began to build. They reclaimed the earth because their hearts had already been reclaimed by Christ. This built civilization. Even today we don’t just need to shovel and tidy up, but to judge what has happened to us. If our heart does not change, we will remain poor even if we have received state subsidies.