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In a 1975 interview with the magazine Famiglia cristiana, Carlo Carlevaris put it like this: ‘At first, we had priests as protagonists who were no longer young, myself included. We thought that going to work in a factory meant the organization of a presence by the Church within the working class. [... ] In the last two or three years, most choosing factory employment are doing so for political reasons. The youngest are in fact convinced that the working class will change society in a radical fashion. And they assume an attitude of a clear distantiation vis-a-vis the Church.’[1] Angelo Piazza confirmed Carlevaris’s assessment of a generational shift in the motivation to take up full-time industrial labour: ‘At the beginning there was doubtless the referral to the experience of the French worker priests, allowed to continue their calling in 1965. [... ] The ecclesiastical climate of those years was characterized by hope in the [Vatican II] Council [... ] and the renovation of theological studies. But such stimuli coming from the ambience of the Church did not remain isolated from the cultural turbulences which left their mark on the student and workers’ movements in 1968 and 1969.’[2]

The first three Piedmont seminarians who, after their one-year trial period, had been given the go-ahead by Michele Pellegrino in the autumn of 1969 to continue as permanent full-time worker priests, the aforementioned Trucco, Busso, and Paradiso, reflected on their own itinerary of radicalization from the vantage point of early 1972—and their recollections underscore that the turbulence caused by the explosion of Italian social movements after 1968 by no means bypassed Turin itself:

At the beginning, we continuously asked ourselves: How can I best exercise my calling as a priest in today’s circumstances? Today, by contrast, we are asking ourselves: What are we trying to say when stating that Jesus Christ saves and liberates? We embarked on our venture with the purpose of preaching and evangelizing. Then we began to understand that this was a pretentious idea. To preach means, in reality, to convey a message of liberation, i.e. once again to place the worker inside a straitjacket. Fact is that the Gospel, as it is preached in the parish, within the institutionalized Church (and thus also by us, as we have internalized our tightly regulated education and training), has nothing in common with the Gospel as it should be announced to workers. Conclusion? We priests utilize a type of foreign language, which we still speak, but which has become nonsensical to continue to employ. The real problem is henceforth for us to work for the construction of a truer and freer world, where this language, which today comes across as totally odd, can become a language spoken and understood. Obviously after a radical and thorough revision.[3]

Carlo Carlevaris, in Famiglia cristiana, employed a catchy formula to characterize the changing attitude of worker priests: ‘The time of preti-operai [“priests-workers”, the standard expression for worker priests in Italian] is over. Tomorrow will be the time of operai-preti’, a formula which reversed the emphasis in accordance with the post-1969 atmosphere current on Italian factory floors.

The recognition of an inherently positive message and content within working-class culture as such, coupled with a growing distance from the official structures of the church, almost inevitably led to a cycle of radicaliza- tion of the worker priest experience in Italy. The gulf separating the group of worker priests, counting roughly 300 men throughout the second half of the 1970s, from the church hierarchy came to the fore in unmistakable fashion on the occasion of two national assemblies which met in early January 1975 and early January 1976 in a small hamlet on the northern slopes of the Appenine, Serramazzoni, south of Modena. About 100 worker priests met there for the first time from 4 to 6 January 1975 to take stock of their experiences. Delegates from the French and Belgian worker priests were likewise present at Serramazzoni. The sole member of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who found his way to the remote Appenine village was the bishop of Ivrea, Luigi Bettazzi, who, however, attended solely in his personal capacity as an interested observer.

Bettazzi had been a one-time member of the team of the controversial archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo Lercaro, who had been removed from office by the Roman curia in early 1968 after delivering a fiery speech as a New Year's homily in the Bologna cathedral, where he had publicly denounced American policies in Vietnam. Bettazzi was thus one of the few Italian bishops openly sympathizing with the worker priests assembled in Serramazzoni. As reported by the correspondent for the Turin-based daily, Gazzetta delpopolo, when Bettazzi first addressed the assembled crowd, he introduced himself, a member of the hierarchy himself, tongue in cheek as ‘Luigi Bettazzi, enemy of the working class’, then expressing his hope that the church might still be capable of executing a serious internal reform: ‘We witnessed several hopeful moments offered by the Council, even if in practice we have lived through many disappointments since then. That is why I am still a member of the Church. I, too, just like the encyclical Pacem in Terris, believe that the ascent of the workers’ movement is a sign of the times.’[4]

The January 1975 assembly at Serramazzoni was the first time the worker priest movement received major news coverage in the national press. The Milan daily, Il giorno, in its opening paragraph prominently cited one of the assembled preti-operai: ‘Many of us are delegates in factory councils, even members of the [Communist trade union federation] CGIL; many are active in political parties, within the Italian Communist Party [PCI] or within Il Manifesto [a leading organization of the colourful Italian Far Left]; some are parish priests.’[5] The aforementioned article in the Gazzetta delpopolo noted the unusual ambience of this particular assembly of priests: ‘In the intervals between the deliberations Anarchist songs are sung.’[6] Another featured article in the Gazzetta del popolo described the group at Serramazzoni in the following uncompromising terms: ‘They have taken up active roles in neighbourhood associations; one finds them with red flags on the picket lines, at the gates of occupied factories. They are all affiliated to trade unions, some are also active members in political parties, many of them prefer the [Far Left] PDUP to the PCI.’[7]

One national daily, La stampa, quoted the Parma worker priest, Bruno Gandolfi, who assisted Angelo Piazza in running the National Secretariat, summarizing the three-day retreat: ‘Now we can say that the Marxist utopia and the Christian utopia have encountered each other, and together we shall march united to join in the struggle.’ Gandolfi later reminisced: ‘We left to evangelize, and what happened was the opposite. We have become evangelized. We have found Christ there where we thought we would need him to be introduced: within the working class.’ The journalist for La stampa noted the symbolic mixture of greeting styles which the worker priests employed to bid each other farewell when the assembly high up in the Appenine disbanded: ‘They are leaving the birreria to return to the factory. Some clench their fists as a greeting, others give each other a hug and a kiss.’[8]

Red Priests in Working-Class Blue

  • [1] Angelo Montonati, ‘I preti-operai a una svolta’, Famiglia cristiana, 23 February 1975, p. 42.
  • [2] Angelo Piazza, ‘L’esperienza dei preti operai in Italia’, special issue on the 1976 nationalconvention of Italian worker priests, supplement to Com Nuovi Tempi, 2/1976. Elsewhere,Angelo Piazza said: ‘For many of us, the labor struggles during the Hot Autumn provokedan identity crisis’; cited in Bruno Marolo, ‘Quei preti mangiapreti’, Gazzetta del popolo,10 January 1975.
  • [3] Magister, ‘Una scommessa’, p. 47.
  • [4] Bruno Marolo, ‘La societa del futuro secondo i preti operai’, Gazzetta del popolo,6 January 1975.
  • [5] Raffaele Lazzari, ‘Una scelta di vita, non esperienza di laboratorio’, Il giorno,6 January 1975.
  • [6] Marolo, ‘Societa del futuro’.
  • [7] Bruno Marolo, ‘Quei preti mangiapreti’, Gazzetta del popolo, 10 January 1975.
  • [8] Franco Santini, ‘Preti operai—criticata la pastorale del lavoro’, La stampa, 7 January 1975.
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