by Gianni Valente
On May 27, 1923, exactly one hundred years ago, Don Lorenzo Milani was born in Florence. The anniversary rekindles the ever-conflicting attention around the inimitable figure of the Italian priest. The worn uniforms with which we always wanted to exploit the soul of the Prior of Barbiana, the great "irregular" of Italian Catholicism in the second half of the 20th century, are once again in circulation: the masks of the pacifist utopian, of the tribune of the poor or - as depicted by his detractors – of the little Jacobin despot, demolisher of the Italian school, inspirer of an intolerant classism.
In reality, the only dress that suits Don Milani is the one he has always worn. The priest's habit. "Don Lorenzo", said one of his boys, "did not put on workman's overalls to be close to people. He never wore workman's overalls. He was always a priest, and that's all".
Already Neera Fallaci, who was his first passionate biographer, wrote: "It is very probable that [Milani's] conversion was based on the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist: the focal point of his priesthood itself". When he converts and asks to become a priest, Lorenzo himself tries to explain to his mother Alice, an agnostic Jew, who expresses all her bitter doubts about the path taken by her son, that his conversion is based on the grace given from the sacraments. He writes: "You mean that it is too early for me to know if I will follow this path all my life. I answer that it is by faith (Tridentine Council) that no one can be sure of his perseverance (except of course Mrs. Cesarina and all those who take Communion on the first nine Fridays of the month). But what we cannot hope for from our own strength we can hope for from the Lord who basically wants it this way". The perception of not being able to live without the sacraments will become more and more acute within him. In one of his famous invectives against bourgeois secular intellectuals, recorded on a tape during the Barbiana era, he said in front of his boys: "For me, this Church is that which possesses the sacraments. Absolution of sins is not given to me by Espresso (Italian magazine). Absolution of sins is given to me by a priest. If one wants to obtain the forgiveness of sins, one turns to the most stupid, backward priests to obtain it. [...] In this religion, there is among many things, very important, fundamental, the sacrament of confession of sins. It is for this, almost solely for this, that I am a Catholic. That my sins may be continually forgiven".
In the proletarian and rural environments where he lived his priesthood, Milani noted the withering away of Christian memory and the dissipation of Christianity into a bourgeois habit, even in the hearts of workers and peasants. Masses and processions are still full of people, but according to him, even for those who crowd distractedly into the churches for the patronal feasts, "religion is a matter of children", "original sin on the soul hurts less than a cold", and "being in God's grace is not a daily problem. Or rather, it is not the fundamental daily problem". In the many intemperances of Don Lorenzo, even behind his corrosive polemics and his sometimes pitiless rigor, one often hears a cry of faith in the face of the genetic mutation which, in those decades, erased even among the clergy the perception of the sacramental nature of the Church, and replaced it with the glories of organization and self-promotional mobilization. Don Milani, in an all too summary way, crushes priests engaged in the organization of recreational activities to "attract young people", in an agonizing competition with communist circles. It was in these years that the "exhibitionist attempts of ecclesiastical activism" began. Priests guitarists, singers, divers and those who organize parades of female models to "Christianize" the world of fashion are also appearing. A clerical accumulation of roles and functions where we lose sight of the only mission that falls to the priest as such: the care of souls through the sacraments. "We cannot demand to oversee all aspects of our people's lives," writes Milani. According to him, the idea that the priest can monopolize all the functions and all the roles linked to community life "is not a faith in the priesthood, but a vulgar pride. Of the priest, faith only tells us that he is the bearer of the sacraments; for that alone he is irreplaceable".
His famous popular school experience, set up first for the children of the workers and the illiterate unemployed of Calenzano, then for those of the rugged mountain dwellers and peasants of Barbiana, continues to be at the center of controversy. The educator Don Milani can be accused of exasperated classism, authoritarianism and invading rigorism ("we do school ten hours a day, seven days a week"). Yet even the one-sided ardor with which he immerses himself in his work has as its ultimate horizon the eternal salvation of the souls of children. He removes the crucifix from the rooms of the popular school so that even the atheist and communist parents of his students can see that this is not the "priest's school". But from beasts one cannot become a saint in one step". His book Esperienze pastorali (Pastoral Experiences), reprimanded by Civiltà Cattolica and withdrawn from the market by the Holy Office, is nothing but an apology - sometimes marked by an indigestible dogmatism - of the popular school as a tool to awaken in the "Italian pariahs" that minimum of human sensitivity without which any announcement of salvation risks passing like water over stones.
Thus, the school also becomes a "secret hotbed" of confessions and communions.
Don Milani's missionary concern is also expressed in a paradoxical way in the imaginary messages he placed at the beginning and at the end of his book "Esperienze pastorali", published in 1954: a dedication then a "posthumous letter from beyond the grave", both addressed to the imaginary "Chinese missionaries of the Apostolic Vicariate of Etruria", who will come to bring the Gospel to the heart of an Italy imagined as a wasteland, where, at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity, the memory seems to have disappeared. An image that prophesies how the disaster of modern dechristianization materialized in the separation of faith and people, and that implicitly suggests from what source of mercy the miracle of Christian life can always start again, even among the rubble. "This work - writes Don Milani in the paradoxical incipit of "Pastoral Experiences" - is dedicated to the Chinese missionaries of the Apostolic Vicariate of Etruria, so that, contemplating the ruins of our bell tower and wondering why the heavy hand of God on us , they may find in our own confession an exhaustive answer. May he alone give thanks for our righteous condemnation which has given them the opportunity of eternal salvation. If, then, they may find in this humble work teachings for their ministry, let them not fail to pray in Chinese to the merciful Christ so that of our errors, of which we were once the victims and authors, he may mercifully shorten our sentence". Don Lorenzo continued the dedication by quoting an eloquent passage from the Letter of Saint Paul the Apostle to the Romans: "The branches were cut off so that you may be grafted. It was because of their lack of faith that they were cut off. This is why you remain firm in the faith" (Agenzia Fides, 27/5/2023)