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A COMMUNITY IN OPEN BATTLE

Then, on Sunday, 15 September 1968, Holy Mass in the church of the Isolotto was followed, as usual, by a discussion and conversation involving parishioners. This time the occupation of the cathedral in Parma of the night before, carried out by forty members of a Parma base community (see Chapter 4), dominated the discussion. Isolotto parishioners were particularly outraged by the decision of the priest officiating Holy Mass in Parma cathedral to call on the police to have the youthful activists evicted, causing a scene which filled the front pages of newspapers across Italy. No longer strangers to forthright initiatives, the Isolotto parishioners thus resolved to draw up a letter of solidarity with the Parma protesters. The next day, a committee was formed to draft such a letter. Signed by ‘four priests and 102 lay Catholics of Florence’, the letter was approved by the assembled parishioners and sent ‘To the Christian Assembly which has occupied the Duomo di Parma’, with carbon copies sent to the bishop of Parma and the pope. In subsequent days thousands more signatures were collected. The letter had the effect of a bombshell in the middle of a major windstorm![1]

Cardinal Florit sent a letter to Don Enzo Mazzi on 30 September 1968 expressing his condemnation of such an open defiance of church authorities.

He gave Don Enzo one month to reconsider this insubordinate act. In case Don Enzo did not see fit to publicly retract his action, the Florentine archbishop threatened to remove Don Enzo as parish priest of the Isolotto. Mazzi, Gomiti, and Caciolli immediately realized the severity of this threat by their superior. The Comunita dell’Isolotto now decided to regroup. In a series of assemblies held in the parish church, they decided to draft an open letter to all parishioners in which the issues were restated and everyone was invited to attend a General Assembly in the parish church on Thursday, 31 October 1968, the deadline of Cardinal Florit’s ultimatum, at 21:15. This ‘Letter to Parishioners’ further upped the ante, as could be surmised. On the morning of 23 October, the main daily newspaper of Florence, La nazione, appeared with the front-page headline ‘Don Mazzi Disowned by the Cardinal’, next to a large photo of the parish priest. Within days the case of the recalcitrant and insurgent Comunita dell’Isolotto became headline news throughout Italy, with e.g. the Rome II messagero, the Milan Corriere della sera, and the Vatican’s own Osservatore romano providing detailed—if rather partial— news coverage.

On the evening of 31 October an overflow of several thousand people crowded the Isolotto parish church and the neighbourhood. After an introductory statement by Don Enzo, a large number of parishioners took to the floor. An eight-point summary of the proceedings expressed the community’s solidarity with their parish priest and stated ‘our decisive disapproval of any condemnation or other such authoritarian interruption of our experiences and our parish project’, which had been constructed in fifteen years of concentrated efforts.105 On 6 November 1968, 108 parish priests of the Florence diocese signed a joint letter to Cardinal Florit, pointing out the democratic deficit of the Florentine diocese, which had, they argued, been kept isolated from the spirit of Vatican II, the Florentine priests enjoining the archbishop to reconsider his course of action with regard to the Isolotto and Don Mazzi. The deadline came and passed without any further action initiated by Florit. Then, on 14 November, arrived a last written warning by Cardinal Florit. On 20 November, the Comunita dell’Isolotto responded with a restatement of their unaltered firm position. Florit then engaged in one more diplomatic manoeuvre. He invited Don Mazzi for a face-to-face meeting. The Comunita dell’Isolotto decided to have a lay delegation and the other two priests accompanying Don Mazzi. After a lengthy and fruitless exchange of opinion, Florit asked all others except Don Mazzi to leave the premises. A short, hostile, verbal altercation ensued between Don Mazzi and Florit, ending by Florit pulling out a prepared letter in which the destitution of Don Mazzi as parish priest was proclaimed. Ermenegildo Florit then ostentatiously signed the

105

Comunita dell’Isolotto (ed.), Isolotto, p. 223.

decree in front of Don Mazzi. The official act arrived in the post on 4 December 1968.

The next day, 5 December 1968, all elementary and middle schools in the Isolotto neighbourhood shut down in a protest strike promoted by the parents and teachers of these community schools. At ten o’clock in the morning the Isolotto parish church filled with an enraged crowd, and one pupil after another took the microphone to propose concrete actions. By 3 p.m. a crowd of hundreds of schoolchildren, mothers, and teachers began a protest march to the archbishop’s seat in downtown Florence. At the head of the demonstrations hastily put together banners proclaimed: ‘What are the people within the Church? Everything. How much do we count? For nothing. What do we want? At least something.’ After a five-minute silent prayer outside the archbishop’s office, whose windows had been firmly shut, the crowd then moved through the city streets to the Duomo and then Santa Maria Novella, proudly displaying as their central slogan: ‘One can remove a priest but not a people!’[2] On 6 December, Sergio Gomiti stepped down as parish priest in the La Casella parish next to the Isolotto in an act of open solidarity with Don Mazzi. On 8 December 1968, a Sunday, no mass was held in the Isolotto parish church; instead a protest march of considerable proportions left the Isolotto neighbourhood for the archbishop’s residence. Before returning home in light and steady rain, the demonstrators lined up their placards and banners against the main entry to the world-famous Duomo and in the staircase of the archiepiscopal palace to bear witness to the curia’s attempt to crush a vibrant parish which had become an extraordinarily successful base community of huge proportions.

A flood of letters now arrived in the Comunita dell’Isolotto, expressing in often moving and heartfelt terms the solidarity of Catholics from all over Italy and Europe, often taking the form of collective letters signed by up to several dozen individuals at a time. Fifty-seven students at the Collegio Universitario Augustinianum of the Catholic University of Milan expressed their support in a letter sent on 5 December. Thirty-three seminary students from Trento sent their letter on 9 December. On 11 December a collective letter by ‘The Students of the Theological Institute in Utrecht’ was posted in the Netherlands. Countless individual letters poured in as well—such as a handwritten letter by ‘Christoph Hahn, Amsterdam’, in which the author asked Don Enzo for advice on how he could best help out: ‘If you wish, we will occupy a church in solidarity with you.’ A few days after Cardinal Florit’s action, a petition to demand the dismissal of Florit was launched by parishioners in the Isolotto neighbourhood, spreading like wildfire throughout

Florence, Tuscany, and Italy, gathering more than 20,000 signatures in one month.[3] There was little room left for compromise.

The most contentious issue now became the question of the future of Sunday church service. On Saturday, 14 December, the vicar mandated by Florit to preside over Holy Mass, Bruno Panerai, announced that mass would be offered in a nearby church, avoiding the thorny issue of what would become of the Isolotto church. On Sunday, 15 December, then, close to 2,000 faithful filled the Isolotto parish church for a reading from the Bible, as Mazzi was no longer allowed to hold Mass. On 20 December, Don Enzo Mazzi received a letter written by Pope Paul VI, the latter, in an unprecedented move, trying one last-ditch effort to conciliate the opposing camps. Then, on Sunday, 22 December, the hierarchy upped the stakes. Two emissaries sent by Florit celebrated Mass that day within the Isolotto parish church. No more than fifty persons were in attendance, half of them from outside the Isolotto parish. When the two priests left the church after the service was over, 2,000 faithful parishioners immediately filled the church for a prayer session. A game of cat and mouse began.

Christmas passed with Mass being held in the Isolotto church by emissaries representing the hierarchy. On 26 December, Jose Maria Gonzalez Ruiz addressed the crowd inside the church, a courageous act of solidarity by the fearless theologian of international renown. On 29 December, the curia offered several Masses, each one attracting a paltry twenty to fifty individuals. In between Holy Mass, assemblies of the Comunita were held in the church, with the crowd of up to 1,500 parishioners either leaving the church or remaining in silent prayer when the curia’s vicars arrived to hold the official ceremonies. On New Year’s Day, at 10:30 a.m., more than 1,000 parishioners filled the church for a Bible reading. When the archiepiscopal emissary arrived to celebrate Mass, all but thirty persons got up and left the church. At noon, 5 p.m., and 7 p.m., the identical scenario repeated itself.

  • [1] Copies of this letter and most documents referred to in the subsequent paragraphs can beconsulted in Alceste Santini (ed.), Il Cardinale contestato. Da Parma al Isolotto (Rome: Religioneoggi, 1968), pp. 50-5; Marco Boato (ed.), Contro la chiesa di classe. Documenti della contest-azione ecclesiale in Italia (Padua: Marsiglia, 1969), pp. 237-40; and Comunita dell’Isolotto (ed.),Isolotto 1954/1969 (Bari: Laterza, 1971), pp. 152-6—in what follows I have relied on thecomments and documents in this mass market paperback edition printed and first publishedin February 1969, which publicized the case of the Isolotto throughout Italy.
  • [2] ‘Cosa e il popolo nella Chiesa? TUTTO. Cosa conta? NULLA. Cosa vogliamo che conti?QUALCOSA’, in Comunita dell’Isolotto (ed.), Isolotto, p. 264; the other slogan is on p. 265.
  • [3] Out of this substantial number, 5,408 were collected in Florence city and the province ofFlorence. Attentive readers of Chapter 2 will not be surprised to note that the greatest number ofnon-Italian signatures arrived from the Netherlands. I first learned of this remarkable initiativein a conversation with Sergio Gomiti on 22 February 2012. For the letter from the CollegioAugustinianum students, see Archivio Storico dell’Isolotto (ACI) [Florence], LT 0248; for theTrento letter, see LT 0334; the Utrecht letter is in LT 0352; and for the Christoph Hahn missive,LT 0328.
 
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