ROME – Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most remarkable and controversial Catholic priests of the 20th century, Italy’s celebrated “obedient rebel,” Father Lorenzo Milani.
If nothing else, Milani’s story captures a core truth about Catholicism, one that anyone involved in church affairs would do well to remember: Be careful about assessing winners and losers today, because tomorrow’s judgment could be wildly different.
At the time of his death in 1967, at the age of 44, Milani seemed discredited and destined for obscurity. His books had been censored by the Vatican, his requests for a meeting with Pope John XXIII went unanswered, his own bishop declined to offer consolation on his deathbed, and he escaped criminal conviction for advocating what amounted to dodging the draft only due to the Hodgkin’s lymphoma that claimed his life four months before his trial ended.
Yet Milani once predicted that “they’ll understand me after fifty years,” and, as it turns out, he was right on the money.
In 2017, exactly fifty years after Milani died, Pope Francis traveled to the isolated Tuscan outpost of Barbiana, where Milani had been sent in exile in 1954, to recognize his “exemplary way of serving the Gospel, the poor and the church itself,” and to pray that Milani, once described as “transparent and hard like a diamond,” would continue to “transmit the light of God to the path of the church.”
Yesterday, Italian President Sergio Mattarella also made the trek to Barbiana, hailing Milani as a priest and patriot for whom the Italian constitution was his “secular Gospel,” while RAI, Italy’s national television network, broadcast no fewer than six feature films, documentaries and specials dedicated to Milani’s life and legacy.
Milani was born in Florence in 1923 to a wealthy and cultured family; his mother, Alice Weiss, was the cousin of one of Sigmund Freud’s earliest disciples and collaborators. The family was thoroughly secular and agnostic, and the children were baptized only to protect them from the Fascist-era racial laws then coming into force.
Early on, Milani showed no interest in religion either, pursuing a career as a painter. By chance, however, he struck up a friendship with a priest, Father Raffaele Bensi, and when Bensi once invited Milani to accompany him to a fellow priest’s funeral, Milani vowed he would take the deceased’s place.
Milani was ordained in 1947, and immediately displayed the social commitment that would characterize his career. Assigned to a parish near Florence, he launched a popular school for the children of the area’s poor, most of whom were either farm workers or manual laborers, and for the most part illiterate.
Because many of their parents were Communists, Milani made the school secular, not wanting to force the youth to choose between their families and the church. He wanted his students to develop culture, becoming capable of critically questioning the social systems that consigned them to poverty.
Milani’s superiors saw all this as an unacceptable flirtation with Communism, especially in an era in which it seemed plausible that the Communist Party might actually come to power in Italy. As punishment he was dispatched to Barbiana, a tiny spot in the Tuscan countryside with a population of 124 at the time, which could only be reached on foot by climbing a mountain, and which had no running water, gas or electrical power.
Undaunted, the day after he arrived Milani purchased a funeral plot in Barbiana, symbolically expressing that this is where he’d make his stand.
(After Milani left his first parish, Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa of Florence sent a letter to the pastor in which he advised, “Make every effort to ensure that the memory of the recent past,” meaning what Milani had tried to do, “is forgotten by everyone who knows about it.” The fact that we’re still talking about it today is another illustration that such efforts at damnatio memoriae often backfire.)
Milani opened another popular school, eventually drawing students and educators from all across the country, though not without difficulties – at the beginning, Milani actually had to stage hunger strikes to convince parents to allow their children to attend.
The school operated 12 hours a day, 365 days a year, and adopted innovative educational methods, such as reading newspapers in class and discussing the issues they raised. He also taught foreign languages, including English; the school’s motto was actually an American phrase, “I Care.”
While students also read the Gospel, Milani never attempted to indoctrinate his charges and was acerbically critical of much of what passed for religious education in that era, another reason for which his superiors kept him at arm’s length.
Though Milani often challenged the decisions of ecclesiastical authority, he never flaunted them, earning the sobriquet the “obedient rebel.”
In 1958, he published Esperienze pastorali (“Pastoral Experiences”), fiercely challenging classic methods of pastoral care, including prioritizing recreation over education for the children of the poor. The book was seen as incendiary by many in the church; it drew a highly negative review in La Civiltà Cattolica, and was suppressed by the Vatican’s Holy Office on the grounds of being “inopportune” rather than any specific doctrinal error.
Most famously, in 1965 Milani supported a right of conscientious objection from mandatory service in the armed forces, a position which brought stinging criticism from Italy’s corps of military chaplains and also a criminal indictment for contributing to delinquency.
Milani’s last book, Lettera a Una Professoressa (“Letter to a Teacher”) was written in 1967 with the students in his popular school, and amounted to a stinging indictment of the entire educational system for reinforcing class prejudice. Looking back, most historians believe the book was a primary source of inspiration for the student uprisings that swept Italy in 1968.
From beginning to end, Milani was a rabble-rouser, but from a deeply believing point of view. A classic passage from a letter to a young Communist makes the point.
“Remember, Pipetta, the day we break through the gates of some park together, setting up a house for the poor in a palace of the rich, is the day I’ll betray you … That day I will finally sing the only cry worthy of a priest of Christ, ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ That day I won’t stay with you, I’ll go back to your rainy and stinking little house to pray for you in front of my crucified Lord.”
Milani died on June 26, 1967, without the blessing of Cardinal Ermenegildo Florit of Florence, who never approved Milani’s methods or language. A diary entry from Florit after one meeting with Milani contains the judgment that Milani suffered from a “persecution complex … not a concern for holiness founded on humility, but a pseudo-holiness focused on canonizing himself … crazy egocentrism of a prideful and unbalanced sort.”)
At the time, it seemed for all the world that Milani might be forgotten as soon as he was buried.
Instead, his reputation has grown steadily over time. In 2014, Pope Francis formally withdrew the negative judgment on Esperienze pastorali issued by the Vatican in 1958, and today Milani is celebrated as a national hero. His tomb in Barbiana, which still isn’t easy to reach, nonetheless draws an estimated 10,000 pilgrims every year.
For the moment, there’s no formal beatification cause for Milani, but that could change during this centenary year.
In the meantime, his story is a poignant reminder to be careful about drawing conclusions in the here and now about how a given Catholic protagonist may be remembered. Time, as ever, has its own mind.