Spontaneous Ecclesial Communities

COMUNITA di base

The official report on the 1970 Amsterdam Congress by the French-language periodical produced in Leuven, Savez-vous que, began with a raving account of the way the Dutch organizers had solved the problem of housing the nearly 400 delegates. ‘In Amsterdam we were living for six days in one of those “base communities” which are at the moment the talk of the town. The roughly 400 participants were not accommodated in hotels, but they were all placed within families. The friendly reception by the latter, their open-minded viewpoints on all sorts of subjects of interest to human interaction and religion, their passionate interest in the problems of contemporary Christianity will remain, for the participants, an extraordinary memory.’[1] The preparatory conference immediately preceding Operation Synod in Rome, organized in Turin from 4 to 5 September 1971, was in fact logistically in the hands of one of the earliest—and most notorious—base communities in all of Italy, the Comunita del Vandalino (about which more below).[2] Operation Synod itself was, one may recall, facilitated on location by a mere handful of individuals hailing from the Christian Solidarity movement. The key person animating the Roman IDOC, Leo Alting von Geusau, noted several weeks in advance of the Synod: ‘Independent or “spontaneous” base communities around the entire world have increasingly devoted their attention to the Synod.’[3] In the planning for Operation Synod in Rome itself, base communities likewise performed valuable services. Given the minimal presence of organizers sent by the Christian Solidarity International Congress, the organizing committee noted: ‘Roman base communities will have to play an important role.’[4] One faction of Sette Novembre, readers may recall, decided to cast their lot with the future of Italian base communities. And the stunningly successful Dutch section of the Christian Solidarity Movement, Septuagint, transformed itself into a motor force within the burgeoning Dutch base communities with which, in effect, Septuagint eventually merged. What were these base communities which seemed to have become all the rage, and where did they come from?

In this chapter, attention will be exclusively directed towards base communities in Italy, for Italy—apart from Spain, starting in the late 1960s—saw the most vibrant development of such informal associations oftentimes combining ecclesial and social action outside of the regular channels of the church. Unlike Spain, however, where few paper trails remain with regard to the early history of base communities during the final paroxysms of the Francoist dictatorship, the Italian comunita di base can be reconstructed in all their vibrant kaleidoscope of incarnations and colourful detail. This, however, was no easy task. Thriving on informality and decentralization, the various pieces of the puzzle have to be put together in often difficult forensic work, as there is to date no central archive of the movement which, like its Spanish counterpart, continues to operate until today.[5]

In Italy, the highpoint of this veritable rage can be pinpointed to the mid- 1970s, perhaps more specifically to their 25-7 April 1975 Third National Congress in the Florentine Palazzo dei Congressi, with 2,000 individuals representing more than 200 local communities from all over Italy in attendance. At any rate, the Italian network of base communities usually traces its point of origin to the first such national gathering in Rome in October 1971.[6] In this chapter, however, I have chosen to concentrate on what I regard as the formative period of Italian base communities, the 1960s and the very beginning of the 1970s. For it was precisely in this gestation period of base communities where the multiplicity of varieties can be best studied in almost laboratory conditions. The honeymoon period of second wave Left Catholicism, running from the end of Vatican II to 1968/9, provided a free-flowing favourable context to the testing of new waters in all sorts of imaginative ways, giving rise to an astounding range of experiments in virtually all walks of life. Alessandro Santagata has recently pointed to this brief interlude full of apparent hopes and promises as the decisive moment in the evolution of post-conciliar Italian Catholicism;[7] and it was indeed precisely then that base communities emerged into a visible and audible social force within church and society.

Readers somewhat familiar with Italian comunita di base will no doubt remark that the term ‘base community’ was not yet commonly—if at all— employed in the second half of the 1960s when, instead, terms like ‘ecclesial groups’ or ‘spontaneous groups’ were frequently chosen to denote such phenomena. The following pages will hopefully make clear that, regardless of the labels affixed, the informal groups arising outside of the regular channels of the church prior to the Roman National Conference of October 1971 belong to the same genus of ‘base communities’ as their more numerous and nationally organized successor organizations.

Apart from isolated precursors, loose organizations which, in retrospect, could easily be classified as base communities did not get seriously off the ground until the first half of the 1960s. To be sure, Christian ‘autonomous groups, with a critical attitude vis-a-vis the official positions of the “Catholic world” existed also in the 1950s’.[8] But circumstantial evidence suggests that it was the years of Vatican II (1962-5) when things began to truly stir. ‘Thus emerged groups exclusively composed of Catholics, some via the initiative of this or that priest, and under his guidance’, but more often ‘at the instigation of lay activists and with lay people in position ofresponsibility, with priests in the role of sympathetic assistants. In these groups the experience lived by clergy and laity freely mixed and merged. And there likewise emerged groups, initiated or co-led by Catholics, in which believers and non-believers jointly considered issues and topics’ in the areas of culture and/or politics which had been central preoccupations of Catholic dissidence for quite some time. Nando Fabro, one of the few intellectuals to play a role in both the first and second wave of Italian Catholic dissent, placed his finger on the particularly crucial year when Vatican II came to a close: ‘It was in the course of 1965 when ideas and individuals began to circulate with greater speed. Even when geographically separated by a certain distance, the groups organized debates, raised questions and began to propose manifestations of dissent or protest.’[9] What precisely happened within these early groups?

One of the most insightful participant-observers of Italian base communities, Mario Cuminetti, described their mode of functioning as such:

In the beginning, when they were not yet called spontaneous groups, their thematic orientation was, for the most part, explicitly ecclesial or ecclesiastic: an insistence on the necessity for the church to become less anonymous, to be experienced via small groups; rethinking of the role of bishops and priests within the larger process of the declericalization of the life of the church; demands for a new liturgy; an ecumenism manifesting itself not solely via high-level exchanges at the apex of the respective hierarchies and an adjustment of nominal positions; rediscovery of the obligation to act within the secular sphere in a critically constructive manner and more closely linked to an analysis of societal changes; a church of the poor; a church no longer engaging in proselytism. The discourse of such groups was then still focused on the inner life of the church.[10]

  • [1] ‘L’Assemblee Internationale des Chretiens Solidaires’, Savez-vous que 2, no. 1 (November1970), p. 1—Katholiek Documentatie Centrum (KDC) [Nijmegen], Aktiegroep Septuagint(LXx), fo. 150.
  • [2] See the relevant documentation surrounding the September 1971 Turin meeting in KDC,LXX, fo. 195.
  • [3] Leo Alting von Geusau, ‘Specificiteit en verwachtingen van de synode in Rome in 1971’,8 September 1971, p. 2—KDC, LXX, fo. 132.
  • [4] ‘Reunion des delegues a Louvain les 12 et 13 mars 1971 en vue des evenements a Geneve(avril) et Rome (octobre)’, p. 11—KDC, LXX, fo. 162.
  • [5] Information on the Italian base communities today can be obtained on their informativewebsite: . The equivalent website of the Spanish Comunidades cristi-anas populares is: .
  • [6] A list of national gatherings, starting with the October 1971 convention, can be found in themost comprehensive history of Italian base communities to date: Mario Campli and MarcelloVigli, Coltivare speranza. Una chiesa per un altro mondo possible (Pescara: Tracce, 2009),pp. 196-201. The same team of authors also underlines the singularity of the 1975 Florenceconvegno on pp. 65-8. As we will discover in subsequent pages of this chapter, there were, ofcourse, earlier national gatherings of Italian base communities, but the official count mostfrequently begins with the October 1971 Roman gathering, which indeed ushered in a periodof organizational consolidation after an earlier turbulent gestation period.
  • [7] Alessandro Santagata, ‘Dal Concilio al “dissenso”’, in Vincenzo Schirripa (ed.), L’ltalia delVaticano II (Rome: Aracne, 2012), p. 57. See also his Ph.D. thesis: ‘Il post-concilio. Cattolicesimoe politica in Italia dal Vaticano II al dissenso (1966-1969)’, Facolta di lettere e filosofia,Universita di Roma ‘Tor Vergata’, 2011-12.
  • [8] Mario Cuminetti, ‘Una lettura storica del “dissenso” dal ’65 al ’78’, in Massa e meriba.Itinerari di fede nella storia delle comunita di base (Turin: Claudiana, 1980), p. 31. ErnestoBalducci’s Il Cenacolo may well have been one of the first.
  • [9] Nando Fabro, I cattolici e la contestazione in Italia (Fossano: Esperienze, 1970), p. 53. OnNando Fabro and the journal for which he edited, see now Paolo Zanini, La rivista ‘Ilgallo’. Dallatradizione al dialogo (1946-1965) (Milan: Biblioteca Francescana, 2012). An earlier publicationcovers the intellectual itinerary of Il gallo all the way up to the early 1970s: Chito Guala andRomano Severini, ‘Dialogo, Obbedienza “critica” e dissenso nel “Gallo”. Momenti di una lungapresenza’, in Sergio Ristuccia (ed.), Intellettuali cattolici tra riformismo e dissenso (Milan:Comunita, 1975), pp. 99-164.
  • [10] Cuminetti, ‘Una lettura’, p. 31.
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