With a visit to the tombs of Father Lorenzo Milani and Father Primo Mazzolari this June, Pope Francis will pay homage to two historic Italians who aimed to change their society for the better.
Both Fr. Milani and Fr. Mazzolari combined their social advocacy with a profound devotion and obedience to the Church.
Both priests have been wrongly portrayed as “anti-clerical” priests. Their writings have often been misquoted in order to make them appear to dissent from the Church. However, they always obeyed any restriction the Church placed upon them, and they never preached outside of the Catholic Church.
Fr. Mazzolari believed that a parish priest was called to be a reference point for the community, and also called to work for the re-evangelization of Christianity. He clearly describes this approach in his book “La Bella Avventura,” or “The Beautiful Journey.”
Fr. Milani had a similar approach, which he applied by teaching poor children about the social doctrine of the Church. At a time of increasing communist influence in the region, he declared that “only the Gospel” would be his guide.
Pope Francis’ June 20 visit will start in the small municipality of Bozzolo in Lombardy, where Fr. Mazzolari is buried.
There, he will deliver a short commemorative speech. Then, he will go to the even smaller municipality of Barbiana in South Tyrol, where Fr. Milani lived. He will meet with some former students of the priest’s “people’s school.”
Father Primo Mazzolari was born in 1890 in a village close to Cremona, in Northern Italy. He entered the seminary in 1902, at the age of 11. Soon after being ordained a priest a decade later in 1912, he found himself discerning how to react to the First World War. He was originally in favor of Italy’s entry into the war. He worked as a military chaplain, but the war experience changed his mind. He became a strong pacifist.
He distinguished himself as an anti-fascist under Italy’s fascist regime. After Italy signed an armistice with Allied forces in 1943, he became an active member of the Italian Resistance against the Nazi occupation.
With the end of the Second World War, he developed a strong social commitment. He founded and edited the bi-monthly magazine “Adesso,” whose name means “Now.”
The magazine was shut down in 1951 under order of the Congregation of the Holy Office, which later became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That same year, the Holy Office barred the priest from preaching outside of his diocese.
At the time, pre-Vatican II, many of the social advocacy topics covered by “Adesso” were seen as controversial. In addition, the regent of the Pontifical Household wrote a book describing the publication as “combative.”
Within a year, “Adesso” was reopened, but Fr. Mazzolari was then ordered not to write about social issues. As was his response to every request from Church authorities, he obeyed.
The Mazzolari Foundation is dedicated to the priest’s legacy. Fr. Bruno Bignami, the foundation’s current president, met with Pope Francis at the end of April.
Fr. Bignami gave the Pope one of Fr. Mazzolari’s books and an issue of the foundation’s magazine, which included an article that emphasized the links between Fr. Mazzolari and Fr. Milani.
One of Fr. Mazzolari’s books, “You Shall Not Kill,” underscored a “preferential option for non-violence” which should be expressed in “a strong movement of Christian resistance against war,” Fr. Bignami said. These issues are echoed in Pope Francis’ latest message for the World Day of Peace.
Late in his life, Fr. Mazzolari met Pope St. John XXIII, who called him “the trumpet of the Holy Spirit.” Bl. Paul VI was known to voice appreciation for the priest after his death.
Historians recognize that Fr. Mazzolari had an impulsive personality, and was so bold that his words were hardly welcomed at first. He nevertheless humbly accepted the restrictions issued against him by the Holy Office from 1934 to 1960, though he always noted that he was never sanctioned for doctrinal issues. He died in 1959.
The cause for his beatification was started in 2013, and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints took up his case in 2015.
Equally faithful and impulsive was Fr. Milani.
Pope Francis lauded the priest in an April 23 video message for a presentation of Fr. Milani’s complete works.
Fr. Milani came from a wealthy family of staunch secularists, and converted to Catholicism in his youth. Ordained a priest in 1947, he had his first experience of parish life in the Church of San Donato near Florence. Then he was appointed parish priest of Barbiana, a small village in the Tuscany mountains, in December 1954. It was there that he began his commitment to the education of the poor.
A few days after his arrival, he gathered the youth in a “people’s school” originally created outside the official Italian educational system. In 1956, he organized a high school that offered training in industrial trades.
In 1958, he published the book “Pastoral Experiences,” in which he offered an analysis of the Church of the time. He offered his own explanation of the increasing divide between the Church and the Italian people.
The book bore the imprimatur of Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, then-Archbishop of Florence, authorizing its publication. Its foreword was written by Bishop Giuseppe d’Avack of Camerino. Nevertheless, the Holy Office ordered the book removed from circulation, determining that although it did not contain doctrinal errors, reading it was “deemed not opportune.”
The prohibition was formally removed in 2014 by Pope Francis – at the request of Cardinal Giuseppe Betori of Florence, Fr. Milani’s old diocese – allowing “Pastoral Experience” to be reprinted without express ecclesiastical authorization.
Fr. Milani carried on with his educational project for the poor. In 1965, he again faced controversy when he wrote an open letter to Tuscany’s military chaplains.
The priest strongly criticized the chaplains’ statement that claimed that Christian conscientious objection was “strange to the Christian commandment of love and an expression of cowardice.”
The priest’s strong defense of Christian objection to war and military service was declared “a crime against the state” by political authorities, and Fr. Milani was tried for defending a crime. He was declared not guilty at his first trial but found guilty by the appeals court. He died of leukemia in 1967, before he faced sentencing.
Fr. Milani also co-authored a book with his boys and girls in Barbiana. The book, titled “Letter to A Professor,” expressed the need for more efforts to provide poor children with equal educational opportunities. The book has been translated to more than 40 languages.
As Pope Francis noted, Fr. Milani wrote: “I will never revolt against the Church, because I need for my sins to be forgiven several times a week, and I do not know where to seek this forgiveness if I left the Church.”