Listen to Helene Stapisnki read this article aloud:

Fr. Luigi Portarulo steps through the tall red doors of La Scuola D’Italia into a maelstrom of activity. Children are hugging each other goodbye, meeting parents for pickup, or dashing to classrooms for extracurricular activities. All are loudly speaking Italian. A group of students dressed in blue uniforms with Scuola crests on their chests clowns around inside a small classroom. But as soon as Luigi arrives, they run to take their seats, notebooks open, pencils in hand.

Don Luigi (as he is called by some Italians) is dressed in black sweatpants, black sneakers, and a gray shirt with a priest’s collar. He’s thirty-six but looks even younger, and he is the new catechism teacher at this immersive private school on the Upper East Side of New York City. He smiles warmly at the group and then starts today’s lesson—not in a stern way, but as a coach might address his team, with enthusiasm and confidence. Instead of soccer or baseball, his goal is to get them excited about prayer, not an easy task in twenty-first-century America.

But Fr. Luigi has charisma and gets them to work together—“insieme,” as he says. The Our Father and Hail Mary, which Luigi scrawls in both Italian and English on the whiteboard, are brand new to most of these young children—not rote prayers that have already been memorized and drained of meaning. The children ask him what the words, “thy,” “thee,” and “thou” mean, and Luigi explains it’s an antiquated form of English, a language whose modern equivalent he has yet to master. The students painstakingly copy his words into their lined notebooks, and then on cue, with gusto, recite the prayers insieme at his direction. When they’re finished, he claps and yells, “Benissimo!

Half the class will make their First Holy Communion next weekend at the school’s associated church downtown, Our Lady of Pompeii, where Luigi is a pastor and will be administering the sacrament to his young charges. The oldest and tallest boy in class is eleven-year-old Enrico, who has already made his Communion and serves as an altar boy at Our Lady of Pompeii.

“We like Fr. Luigi,” he says, “because he doesn’t scream at us.” The other kids laugh and nod.

For Luigi, this school is a comfort zone in chaotic, indecipherable New York City. In December 2022, Luigi moved to the United States from Italy with very little knowledge of English. He was one of dozens of foreigners filling the empty slots in American parishes amidst the priest shortage. (One in six priests in the United States is now foreign-born, according to the Official Catholic Directory.) Luigi has been settling into his pastoral job at Our Lady of Pompeii, a mostly Italian parish in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, but it has been a long, strange journey.

Luigi was born and raised in the small southern Italian town of Bernalda and spent much of his adult life at the Vatican, during one of the most turbulent times in recent Catholic history. Bernalda is in the remote Basilicata region, a forgotten land on the instep of Italy’s boot, so isolated and hidden that many Italians don’t really know where it is. At the turn of the last century, millions of Basilicatans left the south’s miseria—the systemic poverty and feudal farm system—to settle in America. The families of both Francis Ford Coppola and the Cake Boss emigrated from Bernalda. A decade ago, Coppola converted a grand nineteenth-century palazzo there into a hotel. Since then, tourists have begun to trickle in. When Coppola’s daughter Sofia returned to her family’s ancestral town to get married, Luigi’s mother, Enza, made the wedding meal. “She is the best cook in Bernalda,” Luigi proudly says.

Catholicism remains ingrained in the day-to-day culture of Italy. In small southern towns like Bernalda, paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary and saints decorate many of the street corners. As a boy growing up there, Luigi went to church regularly with Enza and with his grandmother, Mimina. When he was four years old, he would carry a picture of the Blessed Mother tightly in his fist and refuse to open his hand. (Luigi’s last name, Portarulo, translates as “carry it” in Italian.) For a first-grade homework assignment, he said that when he grew up, he wanted to be pope.

For a first-grade homework assignment, he said that when he grew up, he wanted to be pope.

His mother, Enza Paradiso, is extremely devout, even by Bernaldan standards. She has a small chapel in her apartment, which includes a giant crucifix, a blue-painted dome, statues and reliquaries of the saints, candles, cherubs, and a stained-glass Madonna and child. Luigi, she says, was a very sickly baby; he had to have surgery as an infant because he couldn’t hold down any milk and was badly dehydrated. “The doctor called him St. Luigi,” she says. Enza says she thinks that maybe his calling began when he was a baby, and that he was saved from death for a reason. “Maybe it was God’s plan for him to serve Him.”

Like many boys in his neighborhood, Luigi became an altar boy at his local church, Mater Ecclesiae, known as “the new church” in Bernalda. It was built in the late 1960s, as opposed to the Mother Church on the other side of town, which dates to the 1530s. But while most boys were collecting toy cars, Luigi was collecting prayer cards of the saints. “He loved to serve the Mass,” says Enza. “He was different than the other boys of his age. It was never a chore for him. He would run with enthusiasm to each Mass all weekend.”

When Luigi was twelve, he read a story in his mother’s copy of Famiglia Cristiana, a Catholic magazine in Italy, about altar boys serving at a Jubilee Mass at the Vatican, and he told his parents he wanted to do it, too. Though it’s only a five-hour drive, Rome is a world away from provincial Bernalda. His parents took him there themselves so he could serve at the Jubilee in 2000. “I thought he would just serve the Mass and come home,” says Bernardino, his father, who is named after their town’s patron saint. “But he wanted to stay.”

Enza tried explaining that the Vatican might be too far away to live without your parents. But Luigi persisted. That autumn, he was accepted to the St. Pius X Pre-Seminary altar-boy program and enrolled in school at the Vatican, the same school for boys who serve in the Sistine Chapel choir. “It was difficult for me, but I knew he was in the right place,” says Enza, who, after every visit to see Luigi, cried in the car for the five-hour ride back home to Bernalda.


At first, living at the Vatican was both magical and very difficult. “I loved the Vatican the moment I arrived,” says Luigi. “Every Sunday we received Communion from the pope. But I was also homesick”—he uses the Italian word for homesick, nostalgia—“especially at night.” Vatican City, at 0.19 square miles, is a small town in itself. Over the next twenty-three years, Luigi would come to know all of its eight hundred residents.

After arriving, Luigi lived in a dormitory with three other boys and attended the rigorous school there, Puerorum, eventually learning French, Spanish, Greek, and Latin, but very little English. Over the years, he served Mass for three popes. Luigi would return to Bernalda only for Christmas and for two months in the summer, where he played soccer on the Corso with the other boys just like a normal kid. But he was considered a bit of a celebrity.

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When he was growing up in Bernalda, the unemployment rate for young men was 60 percent. As in all of Italy’s small towns, for the past two centuries, the best and brightest have usually left. The whole town knew about Luigi leaving for Rome. One mother told her daughter, a schoolmate of Luigi’s, that “one day he will be pope.”

Just as Luigi arrived at the Vatican, the sex scandal erupted, first in the United States and then across the globe. More than four thousand priests worldwide had been accused of sexual abuse, including priests at the pre-seminary at the Vatican from the 1980s and ’90s. Enza says she knew about the problems with pedophiles in the Church but never worried about Luigi when she left him at Vatican City. “He has always been a very strong person,” she says. “And I knew him so well. I would have known if something was ever wrong in his life.”

As his family expected, Luigi eventually entered the seminary in Rome, majoring in philosophy at Pontificia Università at the Vatican and developing a special affection for the writings of Aquinas and Augustine. “Thomas Aquinas tells us that through the knowledge of God, one can become his friend,” says Luigi, with an earnestness befitting a life lived almost entirely at the Vatican. “Every man possesses the ability to know and love God.”

Fr. Luigi Portarulo prays before Italian Mass at Our Lady of Pompeii church, October 22, 2023 (Evan Daniels).

As Luigi came of age inside the Vatican’s walls, the Church underwent a major upheaval. In addition to the emotional damage to tens of thousands of abuse victims, the sex scandal has rocked the hierarchy of the Church. Its effects are felt by the rank-and-file—the priests who have had to carry the burden of the Church’s grave mistakes, day in and day out. “Hearing about abuses committed by other priests doesn’t make life any easier for the other priests, the many good priests,” says Luigi. “In this moment and this society, it’s not very easy to be a priest. But it’s very important to be a role model, especially for the young people.”

The scandal has of course affected the way the public views both the Church itself and the priests who serve it, and it has also discouraged young men from entering the priesthood, especially in the United States. According to a study from CARA at Georgetown University, the number of Catholic priests in the country has dropped by more than half in the past fifty years, leading to a shortage in parishes across the country. Which is how—and why—Luigi ended up in America.


Luigi’s journey to the United States began four years ago, when he was invited by a Basilicatan family from Our Lady of Pompeii to visit for a few weeks. It was his first time in New York City, and he met Fr. Angelo Plodari, the church’s pastor. Because of the shortage of clergy, Angelo was doing the job of two priests.

Originally from Brescia in Northern Italy, Angelo was not only running Pompeii; as provincial head of the Congregation of Scalabrinian priests, he was also overseeing ninety
missionaries working to help immigrants in North and South America. He often travels to Venezuela, Colombia, and Haiti for work. “Doing two jobs is very difficult,” says Angelo, dressed in an Adidas jacket and sweats and, with dark circles under his eyes, looking very tired.

Angelo, who recruited Luigi last year to carry some of the load at Pompeii and eventually fill his position as pastor, is now training him to take over. Though Luigi is now celebrating the Italian Mass and is leading the large Italian congregation, he is still only assisting with the English Mass. “When he asked me to take this job in New York, I thought, ‘I can do this. I am the right age. In the future, the train passes by. Life goes fast and you have to do many experiences,’” Luigi says.

With declining Mass attendance, it’s the job of the Church to go out into the world, explains Luigi. “We have to go to the people,” he says, “wherever they are.”

Though Angelo is Luigi’s mentor, the two have also become good friends. They both love to play and watch soccer. “But we have a big problem,” says Angelo with a smirk. “Luigi is for Intervista and I am for Juventus. We love different teams.” Despite this conflict, they jog along the Hudson River together some mornings when the sun has barely risen. Luigi’s only other fault is that he’s not a very good cook, says Angelo. “On the weekend, when the cook in the rectory is not here, he will ask me to make him some pasta or something. So I have to teach him to do that, too,” he says, smiling.

In Rome, Luigi was the captain of the Vatican soccer team and got a reputation as a strong athlete. Pope Francis often saw him running in the Vatican gardens and started referring to him as “Sporto” whenever he saw him—the Sportsman. Now, not knowing the language in America, Luigi has turned to sports as a universal language. “When I play football or run with someone, it’s as if we speak the same language because we have the same goals and share the same efforts and the same values,” he says. Luigi hasn’t found a new league in Manhattan, but “I only just arrived,” he says. “I will find.”

Though he is a talented athlete, Luigi’s true gift is in his homilies, Angelo says. “He’s just very, very human and creates an opportunity for people to reflect and understand the readings they’ve just heard,” says Angelo. “He’s become very close to the people here and is very generous.”

Luigi says his biggest help of all in adjusting to New York has been his faith. “God is helping me all the time, through the people,” he says. Before the sex scandal, people would come from out in the world to the Church. But now, with declining Mass attendance, it’s the job of the Church to go out into the world, explains Luigi. “We have to go to the people,” he says, “wherever they are. Just like Papa Francesco teaches us.”

Enza and Bernardino accept that their son’s dream is no longer to become pope but to serve the people. He has worked at a Zulu camp in South Africa, which he loved. When Luigi fed the homeless in Rome, he always befriended them first and got to know them as human beings before offering them a sandwich, Bernardino says. “Luigi’s only attachment to material things is his attachment to the Inter soccer team.” 

Luigi and Angelo reach out into the community, bundling clothing and food donations for homeless people in New York. Because of Luigi’s presence, Angelo is free to handle his international duties and to tend to the Scalabrinian Migrant Center located at the parish, which helps new immigrants and refugees find jobs, navigate the legal system, and learn English.

Luigi feels their pain. Twice a week, he meets with an English tutor in a conference room in the rectory. Using work sheets intended for children, with illustrations of animals amid everyday objects, Luigi is slowly building his vocabulary. Glancing up now and then for help from his teacher, Lynne Hayden-Findlay, he fills in the words for hedgehog and boar. “Si?” he says, asking for her approval.

“You got it,” she says. Whenever Luigi slips back into Italian conversation, Lynne refuses to engage him. “In English,” says Lynne, a strict taskmaster.

Learning English has been a challenge for Luigi, she says, because he is fully immersed in the Italian community in New York City. Our Lady of Pompeii offers the only Italian language Mass in Manhattan, so it attracts Italians from across the borough, including those who aren’t officially registered as parishioners but call the parish their spiritual home. Due to Covid and the sex scandal, the drop in Mass attendance has been as high as 30 percent in some places, according to the Catholic Leadership Institute. But not at Pompeii, thanks to a strongly devout Italian population. On any given Sunday, when Luigi says Mass, the church is packed with more than 150 people: young couples who’ve arrived on Vespas that they leave outside the white stone columns, toddlers being chased along the side aisles by their Italian parents, old men and women, and babies crying in the universal language that babies cry in.

Fr. Luigi teaches catechism class at La Scuola D’Italia in New York City, October 22, 2023 (Evan Daniels).

When he first arrived in New York, Luigi was a bit overwhelmed, says Lynne. “Not knowing the language is a big drain,” she says. “I can tell by his English how tired he is when he’s in his lesson with me.” To make New York feel more like home, and to share a bit of his past with Our Lady of Pompeii, Luigi had a life-sized statue of San Bernardino shipped over from Italy. After it arrived carefully swathed in bubble wrap, the church held a San Bernardino festival on May 20. Bernalda celebrates the festival every year at the same time, with a street procession, a brass band, and fireworks. Pompeii’s version was a bit more subdued: it included a special Mass, a blessing of the statue, and a lunch in the church basement.

Just as they did when he first went to Vatican City, Luigi’s parents came with him to New York. They stayed for two months, not only to spend some quality time with him and to see America, but also to help him adjust to his new environment. They had never left Italy before. After they headed back to tiny Bernalda, Luigi was homesick, not only for his own family, but this time for his extended family.

At the Vatican, where Luigi taught catechism to children for ten years and prepared baskets of food for Rome’s homeless, Pope Francis always stopped and asked him how his mother was doing. Enza was known for baking focaccia for Pope Francis, which she brought on her visits to see Luigi. For Pope John Paul II, she brought handmade pasta, and for Benedict XVI, a sachertorte, a Viennese chocolate-covered cake with apricot marmalade filling.

When Pope Francis was in the hospital earlier this year, Luigi called the Vatican to speak with his doctors and nurses to check in on him. “The pope’s personal nurse used to be on my soccer team,” he says, slightly embarrassed.

Luigi not only misses the people there, but also the exquisite artwork that had become part of his everyday surroundings—the Michelangelos, the Berninis, the Giottos. “The beautiful thing is that everything I experienced in the Vatican already belongs to me,” he says. “And I keep it in my mind and heart.”


Because of Luigi and Angelo, there is a strong sense of community here, she says, something that’s lacking in the fragmented world today

On a Sunday morning in May, the area around Bleecker St. and Sixth Ave. is relatively quiet. The gutter is filled with bottles and trash from revelers the night before. Homeless men sleep in doorways and at bus stops. Just south of the tattoo parlors, smoke shops, CBD stores, and street vendors stands Our Lady of Pompeii, its black-and-white bell tower reaching above the shorter buildings and graffitied storefronts.

It’s Mother’s Day, which happens to coincide with First Communion day for Luigi and his twelve students. But the Italian mothers, all young and very stylish, are thrilled to be here at Our Lady of Pompeii rather than at brunch somewhere in Manhattan. The young communicants are dressed in long white robes with wooden crucifixes dangling from their necks, the boys with fresh haircuts and the girls with sparkly barrettes in their hair. During Mass, they recite the Our Father, having been well prepared in class. Fr. Luigi stands on an altar adorned with white orchids, then steps down to be closer to the congregation, delivering a sermon the children can understand. Receiving Communion for the first time, he says, is “like eating sugar. It makes you happy and filled with joy.”

He calls all the children by name and asks them if they are ready to receive Jesus into their hearts. When they quietly answer yes, he enthusiastically shouts, like a soccer coach, “Forte!”—“Louder!” The children giggle and yell, “Yes!” all together. Insieme. The young mothers smile widely and take photos, even those mothers without children receiving first Holy Communion.

Alice Zuccoli moved to New York from Rome four years ago with her husband and three sons and attends Italian Mass here regularly, even though it’s not her parish or neighborhood. Until a reporter told her, she didn’t even know about Luigi’s life in the Vatican. Because of Luigi and Angelo, there is a strong sense of community here, she says, something that’s lacking in the fragmented world today. Luigi, she says, is a much-needed example for her sons and for all the people in the parish.

Enrico, her eleven-year-old, is the altar boy from Luigi’s catechism class. Even though he’s already attended Mass this weekend, he’s made another trip to serve Mass at First Holy Communion because, he said, “Fr. Luigi needs me to help him.”

“Imagine,” says his mother, “an eleven-year-old wanting to go to Mass twice.” Zuccoli says her children were not so interested in catechism before Luigi arrived, but now it’s a highlight of their week. “Don Luigi reaches them as no one did before,” she says. “He’s sincere and somehow reaches them on a children’s level.” For the first time, they come home and ask her questions about their religion.

When asked about the crisis in the Church over the last decade, Zuccoli nods and looks down. “There are problems with some in the world, I know,” she says. “I also know many good priests.” She glances at the altar. “But Don Luigi is especially good. I have three boys, and if one became a priest like Don Luigi, I would be so happy.”

Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents

Helene Stapinski is a journalist and the author of four books, including The American Way: A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe, published in February 2023 by Simon & Schuster.

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