ROME – Today marks the 63rd anniversary of an important turning point for 20th century Catholicism, and one with direct relevance for understanding the current occupants of two of the most influential offices in Italy: Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, and Sergio Mattarella, the recently reelected President of the Republic.

That turning point was the ordination of Giuseppe Dossetti to the priesthood on Jan. 6, 1959, by the legendary Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna, whom Dossetti would go on to serve as a key adviser and ally.

Both Francis and Mattarella have been described by many Italian observers as Dossettiani, meaning disciples of the legendary socially conscious priest.

Born in Genoa, as a young man Dossetti became involved in Italy’s Catholic Action Movement. He was nine years old when Mussolini’s forces marched on Rome, and he became a determined anti-fascist, at one point participating in combat with Italy’s partisan forces under the code name Benigno. After the war Dossetti got involved in politics, supporting the transition to a democratic republic and playing a key role in drafting the country’s post-war constitution.

Dossetti was always motivated by a keen Catholic faith and spirituality, and during the 1950s he felt an increasing tug to the priesthood. He told Lercaro of his desires in 1956, and, after two years of reflection, Lercaro finally ordained Dossetti, then 45 years old, in January 1959.

Three years later Dossetti accompanied Lercaro to the Second Vatican Council as his peritus, or theological expert, where they were part of the broad progressive majority. Unlike most of the leaders of that movement, however, who were primarily interested in internal church reform, Dossetti’s vision was strongly ad extra, seeing the church’s renewal in terms of vital engagement with social and cultural movements, especially the defense of the poor.

During the council, Dossetti was the lone Italian to serve on a working group on church poverty that met at Rome’s Collegio Belga and was led by French theologian Father Paul Gauthier, which many observers credit with helping stimulate the liberation theology movement in Latin America. Dossetti was also part of the inspiration for Lercaro’s famous homily for the first World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 1968, in which he directly condemned America’s bombings of North Vietnam. Lercaro was removed from his post in Bologna by St. Paul VI not long after, in obvious irritation for Lercaro’s break with the pontiff’s more diplomatic approach.

As the drama of Lercaro and Dossetti was playing out, two young Catholic men in their twenties were watching it all and drawing inspiration: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who entered the Jesuits just months before Dossetti was ordained, and Sergio Mattarella, who was deepening his involvement in the youth branch of Catholic Action.

Bergoglio, of course, would go on to become Pope Francis a half-century later, making Dossetti’s vision of a “poor church for the poor” the mission statement of his papacy.

As for Mattarella, who essentially saved Italy from itself last month by reluctantly agreeing to a second term as president when efforts by the major parties to find a successor ended in rancor and paralysis, his career in some ways could be seen as a long effort to translate Dossetti’s legacy into the messy business of government.

Matarella picked up the political mantle from his older brother Piersanti, who was a member of the Christian Democrats and served as President of Sicily until his assassination in 1980 after leaving Mass one Sunday, an ambush believed to have been ordered by the Sicilian mob in retaliation for his efforts to break the mafia stranglehold on local government.

The young Sergio Mattarella was the one who collected his older brother’s body from in front of the church where he had fallen, and in the years to come he would move through the ranks in Italian politics, eventually serving as minister of both defense and education as well as deputy prime minister before being elected to the presidency for the first time in 2015. Broadly speaking, Matterella always has been seen as part of the center-left “social Catholicism” streak in the country’s political life.

Of his devout Catholicism, there can be little doubt. One small sign came during the St. John Paul II years, when many leftist politicians made a show of shaking the pope’s hand rather than kissing his ring as a demonstration of the secular character of Italy’s republic and the separation of church and state. Mattarella, while sharing those ideals, nevertheless quietly performed the traditional bacciamano whenever he encountered the pontiff. He attends Mass at Rome’s Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Fratte, not far from the president’s residence at the Quirinale Palace, where the pastor in a 2015 interview described him as someone who “comes often … he’s a good Catholic.”

In his speech on Thursday during his swearing-in ceremony, Mattarella laid out an ambitious agenda for Italy’s future rooted in Dossetti-style social Catholicism, insisting on human dignity as the foundation.

“Inequalities are not the price to be paid for growth,” he said, taking direct aim at a conventional claim of capitalist dogma. “Instead, they’re a brake on every prospect for growth,” he said, lamenting the “desperate and endless poverty which, unfortunately, mortifies the hopes of so many people.”

Granted, not every Catholic in Italy is quite sold on Mattarella as a living embodiment of the faith. Some, for instance, complain that Mattarella once resigned a ministerial position in protest of a law that paved the way for the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire, eventually propelling the conservative Berlusconi to the Prime Minister’s job, but he did not step down in protest of either a law liberalizing in-vitro fertilization or one which permitted rapid divorce. (This despite the fact that Mattarella didn’t actually hold office when either of those laws were adopted, so he didn’t have anything from which to resign.)

More broadly, some Catholics here see Mattarella as the product of a mushy, quasi-socialist version of the faith, one that all but ignores the transcendent dimension – a charge many of them would make, needless to say, about Francis as well.

Whatever the case, it’s fair to say that Francis and Mattarella are proof positive that despite the mythology about Catholicism as incapable of change, in reality things change all the time. Not so long ago, Lercaro was a cardinal whose career ended in ignominy and a papal rebuke, and Dossetti was an all but forgotten footnote to history. Today, in the form of the Pope and the President, their legacy could instead be said to represent the soul of Italy’s ruling class.

William Faulkner’s famous words apply in a special way to Catholicism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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