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ROME – Today is “Liberation Day” in Italy, a holiday that commemorates the liberation of Italy from fascism and the Nazi occupation of the country during the Second World War. It was on April 25, 1945, that the Committee for National Liberation, the main umbrella group for the Italian resistance, called for a nationwide uprising against the fascists and the Germans.
Although April 25 was instituted as a national observance in 1946, over the years it’s become associated largely with the political left in Italy, which touts the role of communists and other progressives among the partigiani, meaning the Italian resistance forces. Meanwhile on the Italian right, there’s long been ambivalence about celebrating armed resistance against fascism, which, to some conservatives, seems uncomfortably close to socialist revolutions in other European nations, and which, for a while, seemed a live possibility in Italy too.
In colloquial terms, many Italians say April 25 is a holiday just for “one side,” while June 2, the Festival of the Republic, commemorating the post-war creation of a democratic republic in Italy, is “for everybody.”
That’s deeply unfortunate, because as veteran journalist Aldo Cazzullo recently recalled in Corriere della Sera, the country’s paper of record, no political faction had a monopoly on anti-fascist resistance.
“Among the partigiani there were people of every political outlook: Communists, socialists, liberals, Catholics, monarchists, not to mention lots of young people who were 20 or even younger and who didn’t even know what a political party was, but they knew they didn’t want to obey the fascist bands and fight for Il Duce and the Führer,” he wrote.
“There were many ways of saying ‘no’ to the Nazis and the fascists,” Cazzullo added. “It was a ‘no’ pronounced by men and women, by Jews and police, by soldiers and by nuns, by farmers and by priests.”
To mark this year’s Festival of Liberation, my wife and I spent Sunday night rewatching Roberto Rossellini’s classic 1945 film Roma Città Aperta (“Rome Open City”), which celebrates the Italian resistance. Among the film’s heroes is a Catholic priest named Don Pietro Pellegrini, who assists the partigiani and who’s eventually arrested and killed by the German occupiers.
The character of Don Pietro is loosely based on a real historical personality, Don Giuseppe Morosini, a Vincentian priest executed by the occupying forces in April 1944. As it turns out, Morosini’s activity in favor of the resistance unfolded largely in the Roman neighborhood where my wife and I live, a part of the larger Prati area known as Della Vittoria.
Born in a small town just outside Rome, Morosini was ordained to the priesthood in 1937, the same year Benito Mussolini pledged Italy’s undying support for Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Morosini served as a military chaplain during the early stages of the war. In 1943, he was relocated back to Rome and assigned by his Vincentian order to assist children who had been evacuated from conflict zones and housed at the Ermenegildo Pistelli School in our neighborhood.
(The school is still there, by the way, just a stone’s throw away from the headquarters of Italy’s national broadcaster RAI. We actually pass by it sometimes when we’re out giving our pugs a stroll.)
Using the school as a base of operations, Morosini became progressively more involved in the resistance cause, initially offering spiritual counsel but eventually helping provide weapons, intelligence, and other provisions as well.
At one point in 1944, an official of the German army who was having pangs of conscience about the occupation passed a set of secret plans to Morosini, who relayed them to the partigiani. As it happened, however, the Gestapo had a mole within this resistance cell, which led to Morosini’s arrest in January 1944.
While under arrest, Morosini was tortured repeatedly in an effort to force him to name other figures in the resistance, which he consistently refused to do. One survivor who met Morosini in prison later offered this memory of their encounter.
“Held at Regina Coeli by the Germans, one morning I met Don Giuseppe Morosini. He was coming out of an interrogation by the SS, his swollen face dripping with blood like Christ during his passion. With tears in my eyes, I tried to signal my solidarity. He tried to smile back, which made his lips bleed. His eyes, however, shone with a living light, the light of his faith. He blessed his own firing squad while shouting ‘God forgive them, they know not what they do,’ like Christ on Golgotha. The memory of this noble martyr lives in my soul, and it will live there forever.”
The bishop who ordained Morosini also accompanied him to his death, and recalled Morosini telling him, “Dying well isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to live well.”
It’s said what when the time came for Morosini’s execution, the SS ordered a squadron of Italian soldiers to form the firing squad. Ten of the 12 soldiers reportedly fired into the air or the ground to avoid shooting the priest, leaving Morosini wounded but not dead, so the SS officer was forced to finish him off with his sidearm.
For his sacrifice, Morosini was posthumously awarded Italy’s highest civilian honor, and to this day there’s a small square named for him in our neighborhood.
Naturally, Morosini is just one example of countless women and men of faith who’ve given their lives for the cause of freedom and justice over the centuries. Yet coming just after the world saw images of Vladimir Putin holding an Easter candle at an Orthodox Midnight Mass even as his bombs rained down across the south and east of Ukraine, Morosini’s legacy offers a timely reminder that just as faith can be abused to justify the most horrific acts of violence, it can also inspire the greatest acts of courage and self-sacrifice.
That truth, and not the politics of a particular faction, is what today really is all about.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr