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TRENTO AND PARMA

Continuous frictions and bouts of campus occupations after November 1967 made La Cattolica a national symbol of Catholic dissent. But there were other locations which exemplified the spirit of 1968, several of them associated in particular with student activism. One such lieu de memoire became the University of Trento, a brand-new campus founded in 1962, de facto a Catholic institute of higher education. Trento University students preceded La Cattolica’s students in taking to the streets, starting with a first campus occupation in January 1966. By the time La Cattolica in Milan joined the fray, Trento already possessed seasoned student leaders. I have addressed events in Trento in detail elsewhere.[1] In the context of this chapter I merely wish to draw attention to an event on 26 March 1968. On that Tuesday at a quarter past seven in the evening, between fifty and sixty students literally invaded the Trento cathedral where a church service was being held, challenging the priest who was known for his conservative views and then shouting: ‘This is not true! Everything is a lie!’ Irate parishioners quickly removed the sociology students. Headed by the devout Paolo Sorbi, several days later another group of thirty to forty students sat down in the front rows of the Trento Cathedral, quietly rising from their seats as soon as Mass began to be celebrated. The students silently marched out of the building and then commenced a counter-celebration in front of the cathedral, reading from texts by dissident Catholics, such as Don Lorenzo Milani or Don Ernesto Balducci.[2]

Yet the most shocking and prominent challenge to church traditions, coupled with an invasion of sacred ground, was the church occupation in Parma on 14 September 1968. The following account is largely based on a reconstruction of this action by Brunella Manotti. Her evocative description commences several years before this headline news event. The story of the base community of Santa Maria della Pace may stand for other personal and political itineraries of dissident Catholics up to 1968. The sole difference consists in the unusual climax of their organizing efforts which can be traced back to 1963.[3]

A branch of the Gioventh Studentesca had been founded in the parish of Santa Maria della Pace in Parma to enable a group of mostly high school students to provide an alternative to the regular fare of church-sponsored activities. In November 1964, this small circle of friends obtained an important ally with the appointment of the 24-year-old Don Pino Setti as parish priest. He energized the informal group, and soon they published a small magazine, IIponte, initially subtitled ‘Internal Bulletin of Gioventh Studentesca’. By 1966 they gave themselves a proper name: I Protagonisti. Don Pino Setti offered a range of options for his parish youth, including frequent outings into the open air, where Mass was held and ideas were freely debated. The balance of activities and ideas was clearly tilting towards the left. Young people, who had few other outlets for creativity and the exchange of limitless ideas, were encouraged to speak out. For women members of this group in particular, I Protagonisti is remembered still decades later as a source of great empowerment. New non-alienated and non-hierarchical interactions between priestly authority and laity were central to the success of this particular group.

Links were established to other base communities. Dissident Catholic thinkers were invited as guest speakers, including the Florentine iconoclast Ernesto Balducci. I Protagonisti established study groups where the works of nonconformist intellectuals and activists were discussed, including such figures as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ignazio Silone, and the famous songwriter and musician from Genova, Fabrizio De Andre. When I Protagonisti began to explore the meaning and the message of Luigi Tenco, an icon of Italian youthful rebels in the 1960s who had committed suicide in January 1967, I Protagonisti began to make inroads into a previously untapped group of cultural rebels, the countercultural milieu, exemplified by provocatively dressed young women and young men with ostentatiously long hair, i capel- loni. One such recruit to I Protagonisti via the focus group on Luigi Tenco was the Parma-based Francesco Schianchi, a student at Milan’s La Cattolica, about whom more below.

In March 1967, Don Pino Setti decided to organize an event which put Parma on the map of dissident Catholicism in the Italian state. Profiting from new links to countercultural iconoclasts, he arranged for one of Italy’s most infamous rock bands, I Corvi, to join Don Setti for what became Italy’s first Beat Mass. The event drew a substantial crowd. Not only was the church filled with unusual musical sounds, but appeals for peace in Vietnam were launched from the pulpit, and loudspeakers carried the message to the overflow crowd assembled outside. The conservative local paper, the Gazzetta di Parma, described the scene in rather unflattering terms, concentrating on what local notables regarded as scenes more appropriate to an inferno than to a holy site: ‘Ragazze in minigonna, capelloni e barboni.’ [Girls in miniskirts, young men with long hair and shaggy beards.] Don Pino Setti now drew the attention of his superiors as well.

In November 1967 I Protagonisti decided to link up with a Walk for Peace in Vietnam, heading across Italy from Milan to Rome and making a stopover in Parma. Don Pino Setti wanted to join up as well, but church authorities explicitly forbade him from joining the youthful crowd. Don Pino ignored his superiors and along with secular and other religious figures, including Danilo Dolci, he addressed an immense crowd from a balcony overseeing the Piazza Garibaldi in Parma’s city centre. The authorities now directly intervened, and Don Pino was removed from his post and sent into internal exile to serve as a village priest in a remote mountain hamlet in the Appenines. I Protagonisti were besides themselves with rage and plotted further actions, now no longer relying on Don Pino’s advice. At first they believed that they could persuade church authorities in Parma to lift the ban on Don Pino. They met with the bishop, but the conversation led nowhere. Only when I Protagonisti felt that all other avenues had been tried and tested did they decide on the action which made I Protagonisti, still mostly composed of local high school students, into a household term for the Italian Catholic Left.

At this point it is worth stressing the arrival of Francesco Schianchi on the scene in the wake of the study group’s intense discussion of the meaning of Luigi Tenco’s life. A student at La Cattolica, Francesco Schianchi had participated in the student unrest in Milan, including the never-ending succession of site occupations. The idea to occupy the Parma cathedral was launched by none other than Francesco Schianchi;[4] as soon as it was aired, I Protagonisti set about to implement this plan. A member of I Protagonisti recalls: ‘There had been the occupations of the universities. The student movement occupied the university; we are Catholics, so we occupied our home. For us the church was our home; we did not regard it as the home of priests only. We are the people of God... We were in line with Vatican II.’

On 14 September at 4:30 p.m. about a dozen activists walked into the Dome and sat in a circle around the altar. Emulating the practice of university students who frequently used campus occupations to hold alternative seminars and discussion groups on topics frowned upon by traditional authorities, I Protagonisti began to host a teach-in on the theme of poverty. A much larger crowd of supporters soon gathered; outside the Dome in central Parma a banner soon proclaimed: ‘La Cattedrale e occupata.’ Church authorities in Parma were bewildered and responded by the sole means they felt would restore their authority. They called on the police to evict the students from the temple of God.

Three hours after the initial nucleus of protagonists had walked into the church, a much larger number of dissidents were literally carried out of the church. With protesters employing passive resistance techniques, police began to manhandle the demonstrators with impunity. Photographers from the local press were clicking away, taking great pleasure in producing shots that would shock and please their conservative and voyeuristic readers. Aiming to cast aspersions on the morality and ethics behind the students’ actions, the cameras recorded in particular images of young women dragged away by policemen, unable to straighten their skirts while in the hands of the law enforcement officers. The Dome in Parma was returned to its previous state of austere silence, but the effect of this event sent shockwaves across Italy.

Solidarity statements were sent from base communities across the land, principled statements which in turn engendered serious consequences for some of their authors, who explicitly declared their agreement with the act of disobedience by Parma students—such as Don Enzo Mazzi and the Comu- nita dell’Isolotto. It would lead too far astray to detail further steps along this road which led to the flowering of dissident Catholicism in Italy throughout the decade of the 1970s. But the point has hopefully been made. Not only did Italian Catholicism begin to experience serious challenges from within, but Catholic students took up front-line positions in this fight.

  • [1] See the relevant pages in my chapter on student activism in my Spirit of 1968, pp. 74-83.The most comprehensive treatment of radical Catholic activism at Trento is now AlessandroChini, Il dissenso cattolico. Dalpostconcilio al referendum sul divorzio in Italia e a Trento (Trento:Edizioni U.C.T., 2009), which, on pp. 49-200, draws a rich portrait of events at this cradle of theItalian student movement.
  • [2] A detailed account of this challenge to Catholic authority is the chapter, ‘Trento. Laprotesta entra in chiesa’, in Beretta, II lungo autumno, pp. 74-81.
  • [3] Brunella Manotti, ‘ “La mia religione era un profumo”: Parma e il dissenso cattolico. Il casode I Protagonisti’, in Margherita Becchetti et al., Parma dentro la rivolta. Tradizione e radicalitanelle lotte sociali e politiche di una citta dell’Emilia rossa 1968-1969 (Milan: Punto Rosso, 2000),pp. 33-84.
  • [4] On the catalytic role of Francesco Schianchi, see, once again, Beretta, Il lungo autumno,pp. 72 and 147.
 
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