Francis 'rewriting Italian church history' with visit to priests' tombs in June

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis will be making an unusually brief visit to two Italian cities in June in order to pray at the tombs of a pair of 20th century priests who were ostracized by church leaders partly due to their support for pacifism and conscientious objection.

The pontiff will head first June 20 to Bozzolo, a small town near Verona about 300 miles north of Rome where Fr. Primo Mazzolari is buried. The pope will then travel to Barbiana, near Florence, where Fr. Lorenzo Milani is interred.

In its announcement Monday of the six-hour trip, the Vatican said the pope was going in a "private and non-official" capacity. It said Francis will simply pray at each tomb and offer a few words to those present at each location.

Massimo Faggioli, an Italian theologian who teaches at Villanova University, said that by making the trip the pontiff is "rewriting the history of the last century of Italian Catholicism."

"These two priests were ostracized and sanctioned by ecclesiastical authorities during their lives and [were] victims of a process of removal of their legacies from the institutional memory of the Catholic Church in Italy," he said.

Mazzolari was born in 1890. Like Francis would many years later, he advocated for a church that was poor and spoke to and for the disadvantaged people of his time. He was also a pacifist who criticized the church's just war teaching.

In a 1959 meeting shortly before Mazzolari's death that year, Pope John XXIII called him a "trumpet of the Holy Spirit."

Milani was born in 1923. He set up what he called a "school of the people" that was open to both Christian and non-Christian families, and sharply criticized educational systems that privileged the rich over the poor.

He was put on trial in 1965 for advocating conscientious objection in a letter to Italian military chaplains. He died of leukemia in 1967 at age 44.

Faggioli said that by honoring the two priests Francis is "opening the dossier of the identity of the priest in the Church today."

"Mazzolari and Milani were perceived as too 'progressive,'" said the theologian. "They embody a Catholic Church that is exactly the opposite of the Church of Francis’ conservative and traditionalist opponents."

The pope's visit to the priests' tombs comes as he has put a special emphasis on Jesus’ teachings of nonviolence in recent months. In his message for this year’s World Day of Peace he called on Christians to emulate Jesus way of acting nonviolently.

“Jesus marked out the path of nonviolence,” the pope said in that message. “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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