Desktop version

Home arrow Religion

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>


Perhaps one of the best ways to begin to portray the colourful and multifaceted kaleidoscope of base communities in Italy is via the prism of one particular location. The various organizational strands which ultimately found a new home within the fledgling autonomous groups can thus be discerned on an accessible micro-level, as may be their intellectual and ecclesial preferences. A congenial point of entry is provided by the industrial city of Turin. Far removed from the strongholds of Italian Catholicism in Italy’s northeast, Turin became a landmark of social movement activism in the long sixties second to none. With a forceful presence of secular movements, Catholics in Turin had been on the defensive for some time. As was noted in Chapter 2, the central position of Turin at the intersection of secularization and industrialization led to early innovations in the working-class apostolate, notably the birth of the Italian worker priest experiment. By the second half of the 1960s, a vibrant student movement arose side-by-side with Turin’s long-standing labour movement tradition. From September 1965 onwards, Turin’s Catholic activists in addition benefited from the appointment of the open-minded innovator, Michele Pellegrino, as archbishop. Pellegrino’s presence at the head of the Torinese Catholic church from September 1965 to July 1977 meant that the city experiencing the highest degree of experimentation in the areas of both old and new social movements in all of Italy in the long sixties would witness an unusually high share of innovative Catholic experiments over and above a rich panoply of non-confessional dissident groups.

In late 1971, Testimonianze, a flagship journal of the Italian Catholic Left, animated by Ernesto Balducci, reprinted an article by a leading Torinese dissident Catholic monthly publication, Il foglio, on the history of Catholic dissent in Turin since the closure of Vatican II. The brains trust of individuals behind the launching of Il foglio noted towards the beginning of their account: ‘The communitarian discourse was reinvigorated around 1962-3, above all inside the GIAC and GS.’ The Gioventh Italiana di Azione Cattolica (GIAC) and Gioventh Studentesca (GS) were crucial points of entry of progressive Catholic ideas and practices into the generally rather staid and immobile structures of the Catholic universe all across the Italian state in the long sixties. Il foglio continued: ‘The FUCI likewise—taken over by persons coming out of GS—embarked upon a similar road, notwithstanding some hesitations.’[1] The Federazione Universitaria Cattolica Italiana (FUCI), founded in 1896, was the classic organization assembling Catholic university students. What emerges very clearly then is that the original impetus for the rise of the phenomenon of base communities in Torino (as elsewhere) arose in a quasi-organic fashion out of the welter of pre-existing Catholic organizations in Italy. The Turin monthly Il foglio then underscored that, as happened elsewhere in Italy, the years 1965-6 in Turin witnessed an astounding

multiplication of initiatives wishing to study, to deepen and to translate into practice the teachings of Vatican II. This sudden burst of activity led to the formation of many such groups in all walks of life, some of them independently from all other organizations, some within pre-existing associations, some even within parishes. The themes discussed or, before long, acted upon focused on liturgical innovations (at this very moment occurred the first practical experiments in Italy), on the study of the word of God (this was the moment when groups studying the Bible multiplied), or on conciliar texts. Likewise, conversations rapidly became very concrete about the necessity of a communitarian life shared amongst Christian believers. These groups arose in a disorganized and random fashion, with little overall coordination, acutely suffering from a lack of cultural preparation and the absence of any similar earlier reflections on these topics.[2]

One more lengthy citation from this pioneering editorial group, II foglio, which continues to publish its monthly newsletter until today, may further underscore the beehive of activity and the exceedingly amorphous nature of these early discussion groups in Turin, but of course not only in Turin: ‘Probably for these very reasons, the lifespan of many groups was rather brief. The majority of them in fact did not survive for more than a year. For practical purposes, it is safe to say that the only groups outlasting their peers were those who found a way to give concrete expression to the ideas on which they had reflected for some time. In or about 1966, in fact, commenced the experience of the Vandalino and, in the same period, the ideas began to take concrete shape which led the group, which met in the Via Piave, to form the community of Magnano.’13 We will return to what became of the Comu- nita del Vandalino and the Comunita di Magnano later on in this chapter. For the moment, it will be instructive to cast a glance at one particular history of one of the welter of Torinese communities, in this case penned by the group in question itself. The second half of this self-statement points to events and processes in the late 1960s and early 1970s when, as we will see, a whole host of new issues tended to confront the wave of fledgling base communities. But the case of the Gruppo Fraternita Emmaus is instructive in part precisely because of the unusual longevity of the group:

We are an ecclesial community of persons, some of us living together fraternally and others within their respective families, all of us searching for a new way of existence within the church and within society via new forms of immersion and participation within the lives—and facing the problems—of the poor and the disadvantaged working classes. After some years of social assistance-type work in an urban setting, trying to find solutions to the most urgent and desperate individual cases (1962-64) and then more particularly in the area of prostitution (1964-68), we developed an intense activity amongst young people, trying to establish relationships of friendship and trust, at the same time that we engaged in Third World solidarity work (1966-67). In 1969, we made a firm choice to concentrate on the working-class neighbourhood of Barriera di Milano in order to familiarize ourselves with the problems experienced by a specific social class. This allowed us to obtain an up-front and well-grounded awareness of the state of oppression experienced by the proletariat. In 1971, after two years in the Barriera di Milano neighbourhood, arose the need to establish a community facilitating reflection and a comparison of our experiences, and we thus transferred to Pino d’Asti, a small village in the hills to the east of Turin, about 20 km from the city.

The text, penned in 1972, then adds:

Here we still live today, carrying out research and development of socio-political- ecclesial problems via documentation and continuous discussion amongst


‘Cinque anni’, p. 832.

ourselves and with others we have invited—individuals, groups, communities— or by further deepening our ideas in various other settings, such as retreats, study days, etc. Since 1971 we have established a kind of agricultural commune in Carezzano near Tortona [in the foothills of the Piedmont Appenine] in order to partake in the experiences of rural life and to facilitate an alternative way of living for this disadvantaged social sector outside of the parameters of industrial society built on oppression and the exploitation of human beings.[3]

The itinerary of the Gruppo Fraternita Emmaus is instructive in several regards. It showcases the great variety of stages undergone in the collective evolution of this community of believers in the space of no more than one decade. Perhaps unusual in its early orientation towards social service work, the longevity of the group confirms Il foglio’s comment on the necessity of practical projects to ensure that a community would not disappear as quickly as it had constituted itself. The sequence of primarily activist phases followed by a period of reflection and stock-taking is another standard feature of base communities. As we will see, the ‘discovery’ of the working class precisely in the late 1960s and early 1970s is a further trope of base communities up and down the Italian boot.

Most base communities up to, roughly, 1967 focused on ecclesial topics, with many of them leading an ephemeral life, rarely leaving a paper trail. Other than a conscious decision to engage in hands-on social service or community work, the other mechanism that installed potential structure, thus raising the survival chances of such groups, was the more or less irregular production of written material reaching a wider audience or, conversely, the organization of study sessions and the common reading of relevant journals of national and international repute. Thus, the school teacher and Left Catholic journalist, Ettore De Giorgis, reminisced about the early 1960s in the following terms:

At the beginning of the sixties, the cultural ambience of Turin Catholics was one of the most depressing in all of Italy. Nonetheless, there were certain islands of restlessness. The most notable exception was perhaps the presence of a discrete group called Amici di ‘Adesso’, named after the fortnightly journal founded by Don Mazzolari and then directed by Mario Rossi. In these milieux a notable influence was exerted by certain role models of French Catholicism which found journalistic expression above all via the publications Temoignage Chretien and

Esprit. [... ] A group operating along similar lines, even if on a more intellectual level, was run by former activists in Democrazia Cristiana (DC) and the GIAC, giving birth to the Circolo Emmanuel Mounier, inspired above all else by Don Mazzolari and the founder of Esprit [... ].[4]

The strong influence of French nouvelle theologie and the pioneering vanguard role of Don Primo Mazzolari is a notable feature of Left Catholic life at the margins of Italian Catholicism at the very beginning of the 1960s, as is the recourse to journals as an organizational backbone to embryonic efforts to construct a Catholic Left. In fact, reading clubs such as the Circolo Emmanuel Mounier should be regarded as the first wave of base communities, preceding and in fact preparing the terrain for a favourable reception of Vatican II.

When Vatican II got under way, such efforts to form autonomous groups spread beyond the limits of the sprawling megalopolis of Turin. ‘One of them was Il Tamburino, animated by a number of young people from Rivoli who expressed themselves by means of a mimeographed sheet. This was an effort aiming for a space within the Catholic pillar. In fact, the members were activists within the left wing of DC, within the CISL and the ACLI [...].’ In Pinerolo, a working-class town with a strong military presence literally at the base of the foothills of the Alps, De Giorgis pointed out, a progressive Catholic journal, La fornace, made waves, ‘modelled after Esprit and run by Catholics, who for the most part operated within the DC Left, but which also counted on the support of Waldensians and secular activists’.[5] As already noted, from 1965 onwards informal and autonomous study and reflection groups suddenly began to multiply, though usually still focusing on ecclesial or ecclesiastic themes. ‘From 1967 to 1969, the situation within the Torinese church—hitherto rather erratic [with regard to the embryonic Catholic Left]—began to stabilize and evolve towards progressively more radical positions’;[6] a characterization appropriate to similar milieux elsewhere in Northern Italy as well.

A brief synopsis of the history of yet another one in this rapidly growing number of Turin base communities, the Comunita di Lucento, in a working- class neighbourhood about 4 km northwest of the city centre, provides some further interesting detail.

The group of young people from Lucento began to form about seven or eight years ago [i.e. about 1968/9] and initially engaged primarily in youth work within the parish under the guidance and coordination of a priest. As a result of the

‘politicization’—by which is meant the desire to question and to better understand the relationship between the profession of faith and social responsibility within the realm of politics—of several members of the group, some conflict- ridden situations arose precisely on those issues. Attempts were made to have the group reorient towards new topics and tasks, such as the setting up of a course on the Introduction to Politics and an effort to popularize a materialist reading of the Bible.[7]

The rapid evolution of the Comunita di Lucento from ecclesial youth group towards an activist group increasingly oriented in the direction of radical political action in the conjuncture of 1968/9 was, of course, a sign of the times. ‘If the years from 1965 to 1967 were dominated by religious themes, now politics is in the ascendancy.’[8]

Nothing better symbolizes this sudden paradigm shift than some characteristic changes in the (self-)labelling of these groups. Groups founded between 1960 and 1965 adopted ‘the names of Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, of Esprit’, indicating their spiritual and political orientation in no uncertain terms. But less than two years later, the chosen symbols suddenly change. ‘The groups then emerging adopt the names of Camillo Torres, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Don Milani. The spiritual and reflective component is not discarded. But they no longer suffice. The correct yardstick is now intimately associated with “doing things”, with the achievement of concrete, verifiable and palpable facts. Faith and deeds now count equally.’[9] It was a paradigm shift with lasting consequences. For one thing, as Danilo Zolo noted in April 1968 in an editorial in Testimonianze, Catholic dissent ‘today no longer finds its expression and political outlet in that particular fringe within official Catholicism—the DC Left—which, at some point, collected and channelled the desire for renewal on the part of Catholic elites—which then considered themselves the vanguard— in the direction of a confused mixture of political and religious opposition within the confines of DC. What there remains today of the DC Left showcases itself—in the unanimous assessment of these groups—as standing in perfect alignment with the moderate line of the majority within DC.’21

  • [1] ‘Cinque anni di dopo-concilio a Torino. I gruppi del dissenso’, Testimonianze 14 (nos139-40), November-December 1971, p. 830.
  • [2] ‘Cinque anni’, pp. 831-2.
  • [3] ‘Gruppo Fraternita Emmaus’, in ‘Assemblea delle Comunita Ecclesiali di Torino’ [1972],p. 6—Fondo Gianni Vizio, Fondazione Vera Nocentini (FVN) [Turin], faldone 2, fascicolo ‘g’.The experiment in developing an agricultural collective was soon shifted to other locations buthas continued until today, now located again in the hills east of Turin: .Today, the former Gruppo Fraternita Emmaus is located in Albugnano and, in addition tooperating its agricultural commune, edits an influential journal of the Italian Catholic Left:; information obtained in email communications by FrancoFischetti on 18 November and 22 November 2013.
  • [4] Ettore De Giorgis, ‘Genesi dell’esperienza comunitaria’, unpublished typescript, n.d.,p. 1—Fondo Ettore De Giorgis, Biblioteca Civica, Lanzo Torinese—Scritti e materiali di lavoro:doc. 294.
  • [5] De Giorgis, ‘Genesi dell’esperienza comunitaria’, pp. 1-2. On the Confederazione ItalianaSindacato Lavoratori (CISL) and the Associazioni Cristiane Lavoratori Italiani (ACLI), seeChapter 5.
  • [6] ‘Cinque anni’, p. 833.
  • [7] Comunita di Lucento, ‘Storia della Comunita di Lucento’, p. 1—Archivio Privato di GiovanniBaratta, Turin.
  • [8] Cuminetti, ‘Una lettura’, p. 33. 3 Fabro, I cattolici, p. 55.
  • [9] 21 Danilo Zolo, ‘Editoriale’, Testimonianze 11 (no. 103), April 1968, p. 195.
<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics