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FROM COLD WAR TO OPEN CONFLICT

On Sunday, 5 January 1969, a new escalation occurred. Early church services at 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. were celebrated without incident. At 10:30 a.m., a crowd of close to 2,000 parishioners arrived for a prayer session. At 11 a.m., Florit’s representative, Don Alba, took the microphone announcing the beginning of Holy Mass. As had happened repeatedly before, the crowd remained silently in the church. Then, suddenly, a loud voice was heard from somewhere within the crowd: ‘Under these conditions we do not wish to celebrate Mass.’ Alba retorted that he did not wish to be kept from celebrating Mass by a minority of discontent. He was immediately challenged to furnish proof of his allegation, and thus Don Alba approached the microphone and exhorted the parishioners: ‘Who does not wish for Mass to be celebrated, do raise your hand.’[1] It was a classic faux pas of a clueless representative of the Florentine curia. For now the unexpected did in fact occur. In complete silence, 2,000 hands went up. Alba gathered his vestments and left the building. On 6 January, the church of the Isolotto parish filled with representatives of base communities from all across Italy, who came to express their gratitude for the courageous stance of the Comunita dell’Isolotto and to demonstrate their solidarity. On 23 January 1969, the Comunita dell’Isolotto had to hand over their keys to the parish church to representatives of the Florentine curia in a highly charged and emotional act inside their church.

On 14 January 1969 the civil judiciary joined forces with the curia. Five priests from outside Florence—amongst them Vittorino Merinas of Turin’s Comunita del Vandalino—and eleven Isolotto lay parishioners now stood accused of breach of the peace, instigation to commit unlawful acts, ‘obscene language’, and ‘the disturbance of religious functions of the Catholic Church’. On 30 January 1969, the Comunita responded with an open letter, sent to the state prosecutor in Florence, signed by 702 Isolotto residents, claiming full co-responsibility for all acts supposedly committed by the sixteen accused scapegoats. The state responded by indicting a further 438 individuals, an apparently random selection of the signatories. The defence of the accused in this mass show trial now used up enormous amounts of the energy of the parishioners and solidarity activists elsewhere in Italy. In July 1970, the presiding judge granted an amnesty to eighty of the accused, i.e. to all those accused who had been either under eighteen years of age at the moment of their ‘crimes’ or over seventy years of age. In the end, five priests and four lay parishioners had to stand trial from 3 May to 5 July 1971, the trial ending in a full acquittal of all of the accused.[2]

In the meantime, however, the Comunita dell’Isolotto continued its fight against the curia. Space is insufficient to fully address the vicissitudes of the community’s exemplary struggle which had become by then a national and, indeed, international cause celebre. One further escalation of the unequal tug of war cannot be kept from the interested reader. For, although it may be difficult to imagine this, things heated up even further by the summer of 1969. No more Masses had been held inside the church since the fateful showdown of 5 January. Instead, during the first half of 1969, the Comunita dell’Isolotto regularly held prayer sessions in the open air outside the church. Slowly but surely these outdoor assemblies began to address more than merely religious issues, and the Sunday gatherings became occasions for other struggling communities in Italy, such as workers from blue-collar communities engaged in fightbacks, or spokespersons for the South African liberation movements, or Greek students reporting on their resistance against military dictatorship, to make their case. The Isolotto neighbourhood became an organizing centre of resistance to the combined powers of the curia and the state. Enzo Mazzi and Sergio Gomiti in turn formed part of the crowd of rebellious priests who attempted to lobby the 7-10 July 1969 assembly of European bishops in Chur, Switzerland (see Chapter 2). Beleaguered by the large pool of journalists, the two Florentine priests, after first refusing the honour, held a news conference on the final day of the Chur assembly, with 150 journalists from all over the world eagerly snapping up the information provided by the Florentine priests.

On 20 July 1969, then, the Comunita dell’Isolotto took a further qualitative and unprecedented step by celebrating Mass in the open air, presided over by priests from outside the Isolotto neighbourhood. Such an act of provocation could not pass without a response by the hierarchy. Cardinal Florit now threatened Don Mazzi, Don Gomiti, and Don Caciolli to revoke their ordination. Hitherto, Don Mazzi had been removed as parish priest of the Isolotto but had not lost the status of ordained priest. A period of negotiations behind the scenes ensued, and for a moment it appeared as if a total break might be avoided, with the rebel priests willing to consider compromise solutions. But the hard-line stance of Ermenegildo Florit gained the upper hand, and on 24 August the Comunita dell’Isolotto resumed its soon famous—or infamous, depending on one’s point of view—messe in piazza. The ultimate showdown was near. On the evening of Saturday, 30 August, a spokesperson of the archbishop telephoned Don Mazzi to inform the Comunita that Cardinal Florit himself would come and celebrate Mass the following morning in the Isolotto parish church thus breaking through the impasse created by Don Alba’s exit from the church on 5 January.

  • [1] Comunita dell’Isolotto (ed.), Isolotto, p. 320.
  • [2] Two book-length publications cover the judicial nightmare undergone by the Comunitadell’Isolotto and their sympathizers: Comunita dell’Isolotto (ed.), Isolotto sotto processo (Bari:Laterza, 1971), published in April 1971 and thus before the trial itself, and the recent Comunitadell’Isolotto (ed.), Il processo dell’Isolotto (Roma: manifestolibri, 2011).
 
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