From about 1969 to 1972, the most (in)famous base community in Northern Italy was a group operating in Turin, which had formed in 1966. Characteristically, its origins can be traced to two component parts, a group of friends who knew each other socially and had formed a biblical study group, and a circle of activists coming out of GS, of whom Vittorino Merinas, the spiritual dynamo of the group, had been the chaplain.[1] An early self-statement of the group provided an excellent snapshot of this circle in early 1967:

The group consists mainly of young people, many of whom are still in search of their chosen path within society and within the Church (choice of occupation, family, sacerdotal and religious life). The group, however, also includes several persons (the priest and several married couples) who have already chosen their career. These individuals provide stability; they are serving as permanent reference points, inasmuch as they guarantee a certain kind of continuity to the entire group and, most importantly, a human and Christian equilibrium. As far as professional and social choices are concerned, the group includes university students, young blue-collar workers, teachers, white-collar employees and professionals.[2]

A report penned two years later points out that the core of the group then consisted of ‘about twenty individuals, most of them young married couples, who live in adjoining apartments in a working-class district on the western edge of Turin’.[3]

A long article in the flagship Italian national daily, Corriere della sera, in November 1968, brought the Comunita del Vandalino into the national limelight, focusing on the colourful figure of Vittorino Merinas, the priest who guided the Comunita del Vandalino throughout the half-dozen years of its existence. Along with other Torinese dissidents, Vittorino Merinas had already been present at the first international assembly of rebel priests in Chur in July 1969.[4] ‘Don Merinas represents the vanguard of those who wish for a deep-going renewal of the Church in Piedmont’, wrote Alfredo Pieroni, who had paid a visit to Don Merinas’s home. ‘He speaks, sitting at the table in his room, wearing regular trousers and a jacket, and what he says he tells as a member of his community, as his words are the convictions of all members of the group. The walls are covered with posters and proclamations reflecting an open mind: an artistic rendering of Mao next to another one of Che Guevara— or is it Castro?—next to a cartoon betraying the absence of much sympathy for Paul VI.’ This relatively neutral portrayal of Merinas and the Comunita del Vandalino in Italy’s premier daily newspaper was entitled in bold letters: ‘A Portrait of Mao in the Home of a Priest’. At that point, relations with the rather tolerant Archbishop Pellegrino were still relatively neutral, and Pellegrino, also interviewed by the journalist, was likely thinking of the Comunita del Vandalino ‘when he said, jokingly, and expressing a tolerant attitude: “This diocese is difficult to govern. Some are firmly behind Vatican I; others have already arrived at Vatican III. There are only very few here who subscribe to the positions of Vatican II.”’[5]

One national publication which no doubt felt affinities with Vatican I was Il borghese, which ran an article in January 1969, entitled ‘The Super Christ of Priest Merinas’. Piero Capello, reporting for Il borghese, had also visited Don Merinas in his third floor apartment at Via Vandalino 40. As was the case with the journalist for the mainstream conservative Milan daily, Corriere della sera, Capella focused on some exterior trappings to get the point across to his readers that base communities, certainly the Comunita del Vandalino, constituted an entirely unprecedented and unusual phenomenon: ‘A workshop is located in front of his home, with two sheds attached. The priest has rented one of these garages, filled it with chairs, put a table in the middle of the open space and put a modern crucifix on the table, fastened with two iron ropes attached to the ceiling. It is impossible to say whether the crucifix is made of tin-glazed pottery or painted wood. On the crucifix one can discern the face of Christ, chequered and dark, as if shrouded in fog.’ Clearly, the journalist for Il borghese disapproved. ‘On the walls of the church a manifesto was prominently affixed, on which one can read these foolish lines: “Mao: yellow prophet; Luther King: black prophet; Christ: more than a prophet. All of them have been active in protest movements. We protest against a Christmas of consumption. We want a Christmas of struggle [Vogliamo un Natale contestatario].” ’ The host, used in the Eucharist, to the journalist’s great horror, appeared to be made of the same ingredients as ice cream cones and tasted like it. Piero Capello summed up his visit: ‘This is the “church” in which the priest, who does not see himself as a priest and who regards a church service as a type of happening, sees fit to receive his handful of faithful believers.’[6]

The sentiments and interpretations of Il borghese aside, most observations appeared to conform to the factual truth. Except for one assertion. The

Comunita del Vandalino was attracting far more than a handful of disaffected parishioners. By all less biased accounts, the church services in the former workshop of the Via Vandalino became a rousing success. For several years, Sunday Mass held by Vittorino Merinas normally attracted close to 100 participants, on special occasions up to several hundred at a time, the overflow crowd gathering on the street in front ofthe large shed. Sermons often addressed topical issues of interest to the crowd, those present in the church being invited to share in the joint discussion of ideas. An atmosphere of great informality bestowed a special imprint on the proceedings, no doubt accounting for part of its popularity. Smoking was allowed in the church, and the throng often stayed for at least two hours. When, after three hours, people were still not ready to leave, Vittorino Merinas literally had to chase people away. The mass in the garage of the Via Vandalino became an event. Curious adolescents from all over the city came to partake in the non-traditional ritual, even and especially if they were not necessarily particularly religiously inclined.[7]

Core members of the Comunita del Vandalino engaged in various sorts of concrete community projects, such as work with the mentally handicapped, or work with migrant labourers housed in substandard barracks on the outskirts of Turin. And in this context it is important to underline that the Comunita del Vandalino did not see itself in the time-honoured and time-worn tradition of charitable works performed by church members for many centuries. ‘Rather than carrying out the regular work of social workers, they aim at the empowerment of the various families to reject the status quo and, instead, to seek humane solutions’ on their own in interaction with other families, public officials, and relevant agencies.[8]

  • [1] Information provided by Dario Oitana, a member of the Comunita del Vandalino, duringan interview on 30 November 2011. Dario Oitana had been the President of the University ofTurin’s FUCI in 1957-8. He has also been a member of the editorial board of Ilfoglio from itsvery beginnings until today.
  • [2] Taken from a letter fragment, addressed to ‘Reverendissimo Padre’, dated 19 January 1967,p. 1—Archivio Privato Dario Oitana, Turin. All subsequent information on the Comunita delVandalino, including newspaper sources, stems from this precious collection of data.
  • [3] Raffaele Guiglia, ‘Una “nuova comunita” a Torino’, Il regno 14 (no. 172), 1 January 1969, p. 12.
  • [4] ‘Teilnehmerliste’—KDC, LXX, fo. 158.
  • [5] Alfredo Pieroni, ‘Il Ritratto di Mao in Canonica’, Corriere della sera, 20 November 1968,p- 3
  • [6] Piero Capello, ‘Il Super Cristo del prete Merinas’, Il borghese, 23 January 1969, p. 205.
  • [7] Il regno, in the article cited in note 26, suggests, for instance, ‘at least more than eightypersons’ as being in attendance at the Mass the journalist witnessed. The atmospherics of HolyMass in the Via Vandalino can also be ascertained by some of the photographic evidence in thenewsclipping collection held by Dario Oitana. In my 30 November 2011 interview, Oitanafurnished many of the colourful details included in this paragraph. And it so happens that theproprietor of the bed and breakfast where this author stayed for several of his archival visits toTurin, recounted her surreptitious outings on Sunday morning to the Via Vandalino as a curious16-year-old teenager in or around 1970.
  • [8] Guiglia, ‘Una “nuova comunita”’, p. 12.
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