Precisely one year later, from 3 to 6 January 1976, 150 worker priests reassembled in Serramazzoni. Piedmont, Lombardy, the Veneto, and the Emilia Romagna had delegates from every single diocese present in the Appenine outpost. ‘In Rome, Naples, the Marches, Tuscany and the Islands, the implantation is less complete but still considerable; by contrast the movement remains unorganized in the Basilicata, Puglia and Calabria.’[1] Several open- minded theologians had been invited to participate in the assembly, amongst them notably Enzo Bianchi, the founder of an ecumenical monastery near Turin, who in subsequent decades became one of the most well-known nonconformist theologians in all of Italy. The Turin Cardinal Pellegrino and the bishop of Ivrea were the sole members of the hierarchy officially invited to attend. Pellegrino was forced to decline the offer because of ill-health; Bettazzi chose to stay away, counselling the worker priests not to burn all bridges with the Italian church hierarchy.

And, in fact, in the run-up to the second Serramazzoni gathering, the festering conflict between the operai-preti and the Assembly of Italian Bishops (CEI) had come out into the open. Sandro Magister, now writing for the mass- market magazine Espresso, noted in a background article to the 1976 Serra- mazzoni gathering that the CEI had promoted a modus vivendi between the two camps more or less benevolently until late 1971. With the deepening of the ideological and theological gulf, mutual recriminations then became more heated. In late 1975 the CEI ‘went onto the attack. On 20 December 1975 [the CEI delegate Bishop Cesare] Pagani met in secret with Angelo Piazza’, Pagani offering an agreement between the CEI and the association of worker priests, in which the hierarchy offered to recognize them officially and to agree to a wide-ranging autonomy for the movement to continue its journey, in many respects a remarkable concession to ‘the signs of the times’. Piazza was reported to have answered: ‘Monsignore, you must not expect any sort of response from me. Only the collective has the power to decide.’[2]

Thus, the official interlocutor for the Assembly of Italian Bishops, Cesare Pagani, was forced to make the arduous journey to Serramazzoni by car. When he arrived, the bishop was greeted by the 150 worker priests ostentatiously singing the symbolic chant of the Chilean Popular Unity coalition, ‘Venceremos’.[3] The assembly had chosen ‘Venceremos’ not solely for its obvious political connotations. ‘Venceremos’ was also the very song which the most famous songwriter of the Latin American Left in the long sixties, Victor Jara, had sung in the infamous football stadium of Santiago de Chile, converted into an open-air mass prison in the immediate period after the overthrow of the Chilean Socialist President, Salvador Allende. Having crushed all the fingers, hands, and ribs of the accomplished guitarist and singer, his torturers mockingly challenged the severely injured Victor Jara to play his guitar. Jara defiantly intonated ‘Venceremos’ in front of his torturers and fellow-prisoners. He was subsequently machine-gunned to death. The Chilean Catholic hierarchy famously had remained silent in the face of the military overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in September 1973. The Serramazzoni gathering intonating ‘Venceremos’ thus warned Bishop Pagani that his mission would be tough. Photos of this more than symbolic and decidedly less than friendly ‘welcome’ ceremony made headline news across Italy.

The CEI’s proposition of an ‘organic accord’ was hotly debated by the assembled priest-activists. Enzo Bianchi, himself no stranger to controversy, at one point intervened: ‘We are very bold to talk badly about bishops, but are we in fact capable of constructing an alternative discourse? None of us support class collaborationist positions. None of us wish to remove ourselves from our commitment to tackle the social question. But we do not need Christ to engage in class struggle. We stand in solidarity with the workers’ liberation movement until the end; but we must know that faith means more than that.’[4] Yet a majority of the assembled priests argued differently. The fear was prominently expressed that all the CEI had in mind was to reclaim for its own purposes ‘the workers’ movement in this particular political conjuncture lived by the country as a whole’. Why this sudden interest in forging links with blue-collar working-class communities by the hierarchy? In the name of the group of worker priests hailing from Lombardy, Mario Colnaghi, employed by the flagship enterprise Pirelli, turned to Bishop Pagani: ‘We realize that, in this particular moment, you feel alone and isolated. It is the same sense of isolation which we have lived with for twenty years. You should do some penance yourself, in the name of your brother bishops.’[5]

In the end, a majority of 55 (against 31) worker priests voted against an accord with the CEI, asking the CEI instead to recommend to its bishops, if they truly ‘believe in the necessity for a positive link with the world of labour’, to establish such ties locally, within each diocese, where such a measure would be far more meaningful, rather than perfunctorily on a national level.[6] A majority of worker priests was clearly convinced that the future lay in the hands of the Italian working class rather than those of the Italian episcopacy, and that this future would be ‘red’. Or, in the words of one of the most actively engaged worker priests in the course of those heady years, Gianni Fornero: ‘We experienced the 1970s under the sign and in the expectation of an imminent revolution. We had hoped for and believed in the proximate arrival of a grand historical catharsis. How many times did we not prefigure this new world which was bound to arrive?’[7] When Bishop Pagani left the gathering, the farewell gesture by the assembled worker priests was once again a musical interlude. The often-bearded worker priests then sang ‘The International’ while raising their clenched fists.

As it so happened, the seemingly unstoppable ascent of the Italian working class in the wake of the Hot Autumn came to an end precisely at the very moment when Italian worker priests definitively cast their lot in favour of the societal mission of blue-collar workers. After 1976 Italian workers began to encounter increasingly serious difficulties in obtaining their seemingly utopian goals, and a series of defeats cast a first range of dark clouds over their future societal trajectory. As we now know, the changing tide of 1976-7 was merely the beginning of an ignominious end to the role of Italian emancipatory working-class politics in Italian society in general. Fifteen years later the world witnessed the remarkable self-dissolution of the PCI, the western world’s leading Communist Party, and the meteoric rise of media-tycoon- buffoon Silvio Berlusconi to pole position in national politics. For the worker priests, too, the tide change of 1976/7 meant the necessity to adjust their own course as well.

The next national convention after Serramazzoni II, a gathering from 22 to 25 April 1977 in Salsomaggiore (Parma), gradually began to reconsider the worker priests’ partially self-imposed alienation from their church hierarchy, with the Piedmont delegates in the forefront of those favouring dialogue rather than continued confrontation.[8] At the Frascati gathering in March 1981, the 300 Italian worker priests voted to engage constructively in official channels of dialogue with the CEI, the near-split of 1976 having been successfully over- come.[9] As fate would have it, however, with the decline of the centrality of working-class struggles and working-class politics in Italian society in subsequent years, the mission of the worker priests lost part of its meaning as well. The cohort of Italian worker priests soon lost its inner cohesion and social influence as well, due to a series of minor internal squabbles but, above all, due to ‘the almost total absence of new recruits’,[10] which alone would have revitalized a failing cause. The era of priests clad in working-class blue was drawing to a close.

  • [1] Vittorio Monti, ‘Requisitoria dei preti-operai contro i “peccati” della Chiesa’, Corriere dellasera, 7 January 1976.
  • [2] Sandro Magister, ‘Preti operai? No: operai preti’, Espresso, undated clipping, p. 23.
  • [3] Francesco Santini, ‘Preti operai col pugno chiuso salutano l’inviato del Vaticano’, Lastampa, 6 January 1976.
  • [4] Bruno Marolo, ‘Preti operai e vescovi. Dialogo difficile’, undated and unidentified clipping,but referring to the second Serramazzoni gathering.
  • [5] Santini, ‘Col pugno chiuso’. The last sentence went like this in the Italian original: ‘Fai unpo di penitenza anche tu per i tuoi confratelli vescovi.’
  • [6] Magister, ‘Preti operai?’, p. 23.
  • [7] Fornero, ‘I preti-operai’, p. 344. A 1971 movie by Elio Petri, La classe operaia va inparadiso, attempted to provide a filmic context for such aspirations, obtaining the Grand Prixat the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.
  • [8] Sambrune, ‘Dio nella fabbrica’, p. 191.
  • [9] Lamberto Furno, ‘Con un applauso 300 preti operai accettano il disgelo con la Chiesa’, Lastampa, 8 March 1981. The title of the piece reads like this in English: ‘With a round of applause,the 300 worker priests accept the thaw with the Church.’
  • [10] Sambruna, ‘Dio nella fabbrica’, p. 191.
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