What a couple of Pope Francis’ recent day trips say about his priorities
John L. Allen Jr. May 17, 2018
Where a pope chooses to visit, and what he does while there, often says more about his vision and priorities than carefully couched 100-page Vatican documents.
Pope Francis’ May 10 visit to the Italian town of Nomadelfia, located just north of Rome in the province of Grosseto, is a classic case in point, offering a clear message about the pontiff’s support for a politically relevant and socially engaged version of the Christian gospel.
The pope’s reason for the stop was to honor the memory of the famous Italian priest Father Zeno Saltini, who back in the 1950s fell out of favor with Italy’s ecclesiastical authorities, as well as with the Catholic establishment in the country’s political class, because he wanted to create a way of life that would bypass the division in post-war Italy between Christian Democrats and Communists.
Given that backing the Christian Democrats was the highest perceived priority of both the Vatican and the Italian bishops at the time, it wasn’t a stance that went down especially well. Yet Father Saltini succeeded in founding a flourishing commune in Nomadelfia, which has been described as a sort of “Christian kibbutz,” where to this day about 200 Catholic families hold property in common and share in both raising children and taking care of the elderly.
The visit builds on other trips within Italy on which Pope Francis wanted to pay homage to the memory of well-known priests in the history of “il bel paese” (“that fair country”).
In June 2017, the pope took an outing to Barbiana in Tuscany to honor the memory of Father Lorenzo Milani, a mid-20th-century educator of poor children and advocate of conscientious objection.
Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Florence, Father Milani’s parents were staunch secularists and early disciples of Sigmund Freud.
During the horrors of World War II, the young Milani embraced Catholicism, became a priest and began establishing his signature “scuole popolari” (“popular schools”), educating both secular and believing families and forming them in the Church’s social teaching.
At the same time, Pope Francis stopped in Bozzolo to pay tribute to Father Primo Mazzolari, a “partigiano” (“partisan”) during the German occupation of Italy and an anti-fascist advocate of democracy.
After the war, Father Mazzolari turned his energies to the cause of Church reform. He founded a newspaper called Adesso in 1949, advocating a special love for the poor, a simplification of Catholic life, empowerment of the laity, religious freedom, “dialogue with those who are far away,” nonviolence and a distinction between theological error and the concrete human beings who hold those errors.
All were topics that would eventually come to flower in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), but which, at the time, marked him as something of a rebel. In 1954, Father Mazzolari was prohibited from speaking or writing outside the boundaries of his own parish.
In other words, by singling out these priests — Fathers Saltini, Milani and Mazzolari — for special recognition, Pope Francis was making a statement.
For Americans, it may be difficult to appreciate how evocative those three figures are for Italian Catholics, how identified they are with some of the titanic battles in the Church and the society in the country.
To help put things in the right frame, imagine if Pope Francis were to come to the United States and make a point of visiting the burial sites of these three renowned American priests:
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose writings on spirituality marked a generation and whose works on pacifism and inter-religious dialogue continue to mark out interests of the Church that would become steadily greater in the post-Vatican II era, and whose final resting place is at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky, where he spent most of his life.
Msgr. George Higgins, America’s famed “labor priest,” who got involved with community activism and organizing in Chicago and would go on to be a major supporter of Cesar Chavez and the farm-worker movement in California. His final resting place is King of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Cook County, Illinois.
Father Daniel Berrigan, the celebrated Jesuit priest, poet and anti-Vietnam War activist, who was part of the “Cantonsville Nine” along with brother and fellow Jesuit Philip who used napalm to destroy draft board files in Cantonsville, Ohio, in 1968. Father Berrigan died in 2016 and is buried at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York.
To be clear, it’s hardly as if Merton and Fathers Higgins and Berrigan are universally admired. Much like Fathers Saltini, Milani and Mazzolari in their time in Italy, they’re more akin to signs of contradiction, seen as heroes by some and worrying counter-examples by others.
Pope Francis’ personal appreciation for such figures in the American Church was made clear when he visited the U.S. in September 2015 and included both Merton and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, in his set of four prominent Americans in his address to the U.S. Congress. (The non-Catholics, of course, were Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.)
If he does come back to the U.S., and despite the arduous itinerary it would require, it’s probably not all that difficult to imagine him swinging through New York, Kentucky and Chicago to cement his endorsements of Merton and Fathers Higgins and Berrigan.
It should not be forgotten, by the way, that delivering a thumbs-up for Father Mazzolari’s memory was not the pope’s only agenda item during his May 10 outing.
He also made a stop in Loppiano to visit an international town run by the Focolare Community, a “new movement” in the Church founded in post-war Italy by Italian laywoman Chiara Lubich, known for its commitment to unity, and generally seen as less explicitly “political” than the options associated with either the Italian or American priests mentioned above.
Still, it’s hard to look at Pope Francis’ movements last week and not see a message.
And, for those Catholics who are inclined to a more activist stance in favor of the poor and peace, and who are willing to run the risk of ecclesiastical sanction to make it stick, that message undoubtedly will come off as fairly encouraging.
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