By Hannah Brockhaus
A lay missionary who was fasting for 40 days in a cave outside Palermo, Italy, says he is returning to his community to share a message of peace and hope with a troubled humanity.
“I am returning with a heart full of hope,” Biagio Conte said, according to Catholic news site korazym.org.
“I felt in my heart the good God who invites me to bring this message of peace and hope to this much troubled, much suffering humanity,” he explained, adding that he wanted to bring this message “so that this society can improve.”
Conte, 56, goes by the name “Brother Biagio” and has worn a Franciscan habit and sandals since the 1980s, though he is not affiliated with the religious order.
He is the founder of Hope and Charity Mission, an organization which assists the poor and homeless in Palermo.
According to Riccardo Rossi, the spokesman of Conte’s charitable organization, the lay missionary spent 40 days in prayer and fasting in the mountains outside the city of Palermo as an act of solidarity with disadvantaged families and society’s weakest.
Conte, who is sometimes called Italy’s “new St. Francis,” returned to Palermo July 11.
In his early 20s, Conte was a businessman, following in the footsteps of his father. But after experiencing a spiritual crisis at age 26, he distanced himself from his family.
He went to live as a hermit in the Sicilian mountains for a period. After returning to Palermo, he decided to dedicate his life to the poor and homeless, whom he often lives alongside.
In 2019, the missionary went on a hunger strike for 17 days to protest against a government decision to deport a Ghanaian man who had worked for 10 years as a volunteer at the Hope and Charity Mission.
During the hunger strike, Conte slept on a bed of cardboard boxes and his ankles were chained together, according to the Guardian. The deportation was suspended.
Conte told the Guardian: “I am equally committed to risk my own life in order to save him from an expulsion that he does not deserve because he, and many others like him, contribute every day to making Italy a better country.”
Conte also staged a 10-day hunger strike in response to the deaths of several homeless people in 2018.
Pope Francis visited Hope and Charity Mission in September 2018 on a visit to Palermo for the 25th anniversary of the death of Blessed Pino Puglisi, who was killed by the mafia.
Rossi said that at the end of Conte’s most recent period as a hermit, Conte had sent letters and appeals to his organization urging them “to change society for the better, making just laws.”
“He has invited us not to fall into negative addictions (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, betting games, fashions which do not respect the body),” Rossi continued.
“He invites each of us to do our part to radically change this society so as not to leave anyone behind,” Rossi said. “Let us not leave Brother Biagio alone in this battle for a better world, let each of us do their part.”
Conte’s latest appeal to the media decried violence and evil transmitted through television, computers, and cell phones.
“We are bombarded and crushed every day by so much negative news, violence, killings, macabre facts, sexual abuse, terrible and inhuman events,” he said.
He expressed concern that the negative images and information were detrimental to children, young people, “and all those who freely and at all times see and consume and fill themselves with this bad and unjust vision and information.”