FAST FOOD: Thirty-Eighth Helping

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A True Story from Church History

Don Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967) was an Italian Catholic priest who unambiguously and undauntedly proclaimed the Nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and His Nonviolent Way. “It is all too easy to demonstrate,” he wrote, “that Jesus was opposed to violence and that He did not accept even legitimate self defense, per se.”

Lorenzo was brought up in fascist Italy. He was ordained a priest in 1947. His first priestly assignment was to the parish of San Donato in Calenzano, a run down urban neighborhood in an industrial zone. He caught on immediately with the younger parishioners, but not all the adults. He noticed that many young people left school in their mid-teens to work in the factories in order to eke out a borderline subsistence living.

To respond to this Milani proceeded to put together an after-hours institute for them to learn. To learn not only, or even primarily, how to pass the National School Exam, but how to think and judge and make decisions that always had the good of the community in mind. He regularly invited artists, labor union leaders, politicians, farmers, professors, artisan, scientists, technicians etc. to speak to and to be questioned by the students. These dirt-poor dropouts were—as many said later in their adult years—surprised that they had such an appetite for learning and such an ability to learn.

Don Lorenzo, however, was not wise in the ways of the curia. Being liberal, being well liked by the young, being exceptionally competent in his undertakings, being the bearer of an aspect of Catholic orthodoxy, Gospel nonviolence, that was not understood, apparently caused the arrival of many dark spirits among his ordained colleagues, who made sure that negative words concerning him were born back to higher-ups in the archdiocese. By the grace of God he had two highly respected priests in their seventies who protected him.

Within a few weeks after the second of these two priests died, Don Lorenzo was given a new assignment. He was assigned to Barbiana, a church in the woods on a hillside above Mugello. The area had no water, no postal service, no road, and no electricity. The Archdiocese of Florence had no more remote and no more impoverished church than Barbiana. Don Lorenzo was acutely aware of what was going on, but no longer had any protectors or supporters among the clergy.

He looked about him in Barbiana and saw the obvious. Brutalizing poverty and its inevitable consequence. The educational opportunities available to the children in the area were atrocious, as Milani understood they were intended to be, so that poorly educated poor youngsters would simply have as their only option disappearing into the factories of the large cities and giving their labor for bare-bones wages. He had been, even before ordination, a severe critic of educational opportunities being tied to economic class. So, he did what he did in his first parish, he opened a school in his house. After a few years his “scholars” would journey into one of the large cities and take the national examination. Years passed without a single pupil failing in a single exam or in a single subject.

Lorenzo and his school became famous. His creative, radical approach to teaching and learning were recognized and honored far beyond Italy. A book that he wrote with his students, LETTER TO A TEACHER, has been translated into forty languages and is considered a pedagogical classic.

Then in February 1965 something happened. At that time Italy had no laws permitting conscientious objection to war. Conscription was universal for teenage males. However, in the previous year or so a few Catholic young men, as a matter of Christian conscience, chose to accept prosecution and imprisonment rather than accept going into the Italian military. This generated some public discussion of the issue of conscientious objection to war. On February 11, 1965, a group of retired military chaplains publicly expressed their indignation at conscientious objection and in particular at conscientious objectors in a statement which was carried in the press. Its concluding paragraph read in part:

“As for what some call ‘conscientious objection’, the chaplains consider it to be an insult to the Fatherland and to the Fallen, as something alien to the Christian commandment of love, and as an expression of cowardice.”

Within less than a month Don Lorenzo and his pupils composed a reply to the military chaplains of Tuscany who signed the public statement. Don Lorenzo signed the statement and sent it to newspapers and magazines. It read in part:

“Tell us military chaplains what you in fact have taught the soldiers. Obedience at all cost? What if orders were for the bombardment of civilians, a reprisal mission against a defenseless village, the summary execution of a partisan, the use of atomic, bacteriological or chemical weapons, torture, the execution of hostages, the drum-head trial of mere suspects, a war of obvious offensive aggression, an order from an officer in revolt against the sovereign people, or the repression of public demonstrations? Let us page through history together.” [Milani then goes on for pages detailing the atrocities in the name of obedience committed by the Italian military in all of Italy’s wars during the prior hundred years, e.g. Mussolini’s ordering the mass gassing of Ethiopian.]

He then continues,

“These actions and many others of the sort are the bread and butter of war. When they took place in front of your eyes either you lied or you kept silent. Or do you wish us to believe that you have been insisting on the truth time after time, eye-to-eye with your ‘superiors’ in defiance of prison or death? If you still have your lives and your promotions, it is a sign that you have raised no objection at all.

Certainly we owe our Fallen troops our respect. They were hapless farmers and workers who were turned into aggressors by military obedience. The same military obedience you chaplains glorify.

Let us respect suffering and death and pray for those unfortunate people who have, through no fault of their own, been poisoned by the propaganda of hatred. But let us not dangerously confuse the young people, who look to us priests, to learn about good and evil, about truth and error, about the death of an aggressor and the death of a victim.”

Don Lorenzo’s response appeared in its entirety in La Rinascita, the magazine of the Communist Party in Italy. When Pope Paul VI sent word to Milani that he thought it indiscreet to have his response to the military chaplains published in a Communist journal, Milani responded that he did it only because the Catholic press refused to carry it.

A few months later a criminal complaint was filed against Don Lorenzo by a veterans’ organization demanding prosecution of him for his response to the military chaplains. The Magistrate accepted the complaint and instituted criminal proceedings against him for incitement to criminal activity, advocating criminal activity, subversion of the constitutional system and endangering public order.

On February 15, 1966 the Fourth Criminal Division of the Tribunal of Rome acquitted Don Lornezo Milani of all charges.

However, under Italian law the acquittal is subject to appeal by the prosecutor. The prosecutor doggedly appealed until, over a year and a half later, the Court of Appeals in Rome handed down its decision on October 28, 1967, in the case of the Republic of Italy versus Don Lorenzo Milani: “Guilty.” The verdict came four months after Don Lorenzo had died of leukemia on June 26, 1967.


Note: Much of the material for this FAST FOOD Helping comes from a book, A JUST WAR NO LONGER EXISTS, by Biblical theologian James T. Burtchell, C.S.C, whose scholarly work decades ago first introduced the heroic Christian life of Don Lorenzo Milani to the English speaking world.

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