Popes lead in many ways, and one important example is with their feet. 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’s 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 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 Francis wanted to pay homage to the memory of well-known priests in the history of il bel paese.
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, 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, or “popular schools,” educating both secular and believing families and forming them in the Church’s social teaching.
At the same time, Francis stopped in Bozzolo to pay tribute to Father Primo Mazzolari, a partigano, or freedom fighter, during the German occupation of Italy and an anti-fascist advocate of democracy.
After the war, 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,” non-violence, 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, Mazzolari was prohibited from speaking or writing outside the boundaries of his own parish.
In other words, by singling out these priests – Saltini, Milani, and Mazzolari – for special recognition, 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 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 pacificism 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.
- Monsignor 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 Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Cook County, Illinois.
- Daniel Berrigan, the celebrated Jesuit priest, poet and anti-Vietnam War activist, who was part of the “Cantonsville Nine” along with brother and fellow priest Philip that used napalm to destroy draft board files in Cantonsville, Maryland, in 1968. 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, Higgins and Berrigan are universally admired. Much like 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.
Francis’s 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 States, 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, Higgins and Berrigan.
It should not be forgotten, by the way, that delivering a thumbs-up for Mazzolari’s memory was not the pope’s only agenda item on Thursday. 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 lay woman 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 Francis’s movements on Thursday 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.