ROME – My wife and I recently stopped off in Bologna on our way back to Rome from a vacation in the Italian Alps, and for anyone with some Church history under his or her belt, the city can’t help but bring to mind perhaps its most celebrated and controversial archbishop since Giuliano della Rovere in the early 16th century, who, as Pope Julius II, went on to become the “Warrior Pope,” personally leading the armies of the Holy League into battle at the Siege of Mirandola.
“Bologna Rossa,” or “Red Bologna,” so dubbed because of its red brick architecture but also because it was a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party, was the city of Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, one of the liberal heroes of the Second Vatican Council and Europe’s foremost patron of the new liberationist currents swirling at the time in Latin America.
In a sense, Lercaro could have been Pope Francis a half-century before the fact, since he was a serious candidate to be pope in the 1962 conclave, reportedly drawing around 20 votes at his peak, before giving way to St. Paul VI instead.
Born in 1891 into a poor family of seamen living in a small town near Genoa, Lercaro was the eighth of nine children, and two of his older brothers also became priests. He was a military chaplain during World War I, and later became the first chaplain of the “apostolate of the sea” in Italy. In his spare time, Lercaro would roam the impoverished suburbs of Genoa, getting to know a group of people called the “living inmates,” meaning lepers who lived within a de facto ghetto in one of the suburbs and who were shunned by virtually everyone.
Lercaro was named the Archbishop of Ravenna by Pope Pius XII in 1947, transferred to Bologna in 1952 and made a cardinal by Pius the next year.
In Bologna, Lercaro quickly made a name for himself as a different kind of archbishop. Among other things, the new archbishop brought with him a group of students from poor families who’d been living and studying in the episcopal palace in Ravenna, and who now moved into the new digs in Bologna.
At the peak, there were roughly seventy such disadvantaged students living on church property, with whom Lercaro would have lunch almost every day. The program eventually found a permanent home in the Villa San Giacomo just outside of the city.
Lercaro’s motto, which he had inscribed upon the altar of the Cathedral of San Pietro in Bologna, was, “If we share the bread of heaven, how can we not share our bread here on earth?”
Early on he seemed an anti-communist hawk to his new flock in Bologna, going out of his way to avoid being photographed with the city’s communist mayor. Over time, however, Lercaro would move steadily toward reconciliation with the political left.
During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), most of the drama as reported in the press and in ecclesiastical gossip centered on a clash between reformers and traditionalists, or more crassly put, between liberals and conservatives. Framed in those terms, the liberals enjoyed a strong majority of at least two-thirds of the bishops attending the council.
However, that liberal majority contained within itself diverse currents, including a contrast between reformers whose horizons were largely ad intra – concerned with the liturgy, ecumenism, the division of power between Rome and the local churches, the role of the laity, and so on – and those whose focus was more ad extra, grappling with the role of the Church in the wider world, especially in terms of challenging injustice and poverty.
Lercaro was decidedly in the latter camp, supported by a number of Latin American prelates who were in turn shaped by the early stirrings of what would later come to be known as “liberation theology.” Though only a member of the commission on liturgy when Vatican II opened, Lercaro would emerge as one of the “delegate moderators” and a prime mover in the council’s debates.
Towards the end of the first session of Vatican II, Lercaro delivered a famous speech outlining his vision: “With respect to this hour for humanity, and this level of development of the Christian conscience … this is the hour of the poor, of the millions of poor people throughout all the earth, this is the hour of the mystery of the Church as the mother of the poor.”
In a celebrated homily in Bologna, Lercaro went further.
“Think a little about the final decades of the last century, when the apostles of socialism carried their preaching into our countryside … if the clergy had understood that in this preaching, at bottom, was the thirst for justice announced by Jesus, would our people have suffered the deviations they’ve suffered? And would have they have become alienated from the church and its priests because they seemed allies of the rich, the capitalists and the exploiters? Today we recognize that whey they asked back then was just, and we demand even more than they did then.”
“Not to recognize the signs of the times,” Lercaro said, “is an ugly thing. Jesus rebuked his contemporaries for it, and we must ask whether there’s something to rebuke about it in us too.”
Lercaro’s ecclesiastical downfall came in 1968, when he used the first World Day of Peace instituted by Paul VI to explicitly denounce America’s aerial bombardments in North Vietnam.
“The Church cannot be neutral in front of evil, no matter where it comes from,” Lercaro said. “Its path isn’t neutrality, but prophecy.”
At the time, Paul VI was attempting to broker peace talks between the U.S. government under President Lyndon Johnson and the North Vietnamese, and the pontiff felt he couldn’t afford to have one of his senior lieutenants publicly appearing to take sides. He quietly asked for Lercaro’s resignation, and Lercaro stepped down a month later, saying, “The pope told me to come, and I came. Now he’s telling me to leave, and I’m going.”
Lercaro died in 1976 in the same Villa San Giacomo he founded for poor and troubled youth.
Francis obviously recognizes Lercaro as a sort of forerunner and kindred spirit; the director of a laudatory 2018 documentary on Lercaro called “According to the Spirit” was Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, now Francis’s communications director, and Francis’s pick to take over in Bologna in 2015 was Matteo Zuppi, now a cardinal, who comes out of the progressive Community of Sant’Egidio and who’s cut from the same cloth as his legendary predecessor.
In Catholic terms, then, Bologna is a sort of answer to Langston Hughes’s famous question, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
Sometimes it may indeed shrivel, or burn … but sometimes, it also lays the basis for a papacy a full half-century before its time.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.