The Isolotto housing complex constituted one element in the remarkable series of social housing projects launched in 1949 by the Italian national government, notably promoted by the Minister of Labour, Amintore Fanfani, and then adapted to Florentine conditions by the first post-liberation mayor of the Tuscan capital, the Communist Party’s Mario Fabiani. The neighbourhood, gradually emerging between 1954 and 1961, was built on the outskirts of Florence, on the left bank of the Arno, downstream from the city centre. When Don Enzo took up his post in November 1954, there was literally no social, transport, educational, or commercial infrastructure providing services to the construction zone which gradually saw its population grow as apartment complexes were finished. One of the first projects tackled by Don Enzo was thus a makeshift social club organized in an abandoned factory, allowing space for a day-care centre, assembly halls, a library, and facilities to provide after-school coaching for the schoolchildren of socially disadvantaged families for whom the Isolotto would become a new home. In December 1957, a new church was consecrated, showcasing an innovative interior design, with the altar as the centrepiece to allow maximum interaction with the parishioners, a prescient anticipation of the liturgical innovations a few years later introduced by Vatican II. The Isolotto parish church was a joint project of the architects and Don Enzo Mazzi, with the benevolent assent of Elia Dalla Costa.

The young parish priest, outgoing and vivacious, soon forged close links with his parishioners, and the Isolotto parish rapidly developed an intensive community life, with hands-on Bible study a solid anchor, a relative rarity in the Italy of the 1950s. In July 1957, Don Sergio Gomiti joined Enzo Mazzi as vicar, with Don Paolo Caciolli replacing Don Gomiti when the latter took up a post as parish priest in a similar newly built neighbourhood adjoining the Isolotto between 1965 and 1968. The young team quickly began to involve volunteer parishioners in various tasks that were not part of strictly sacerdotal functions. More remarkably yet, Don Mazzi and his team broke with the venerable pecuniary tradition of the Catholic church which stipulates as a matter of course a system of fees for sacerdotal services rendered, such as the dispensation of the sacraments, the celebration of special masses, and the like. Most astoundingly, when individual parishioners proffered donations, the parish priests politely but consistently declined such favours. The idea was to recreate the true spirit of Christian communitarian ethics, where Christian love rather than material advantages would constitute the foundation of parish life.

Soon the Isolotto parish priests began to de-emphasize and then quietly ignore a number of non-essential, decorative elements of traditional Italian Catholic liturgy, utilizing the resulting extra time and space for an ever-greater involvement of the parishioners. The preparation of Sunday sermons was eventually no longer the exclusive preoccupation of the parish priest in his study chamber. Every Thursday evening, at first a restricted number of lay people—by the mid-1960s all parishioners—were invited to join an assembly of interested parties in order to discuss ideas and eventually to determine the content of Holy Mass for the following Sunday. The idea for such assemblies can be traced back to a particular moment in late 1958/early 1959 when a factory employing many parishioners announced a massive wave of lay-offs.

The workforce decided to stage a sit-in of the targeted Galileo factory, the struggle intensified, and the need soon arose for a general assembly of the affected workforce. On 11 January 1959 a huge crowd of Galileo workers and their families met in the spacious church placed at the disposal of the workforce by Don Mazzi and Don Gomiti. The general assembly was presided over by one of the laid-off workers. An idea had been born, though it took the intervening years—and the additional inspiration by Vatican II—for it to mature.

On 15 April 1965, while the world’s bishops were still deliberating in Rome, the first general assembly of the Isolotto community took place. It was a family event with hundreds of people in attendance. Anyone who wished to speak was encouraged to do so. There were no restrictions placed on the possible topics for discussion. Weekly assemblies now became regular features of parish life for the ensuing two years. Some sessions were devoted to the discussion of specific texts. In the spring of 1967, Populorum Progressio, the most progressive post-conciliar encyclical, penned by Pope Paul VI in that brief honeymoon phase of progressive Catholicism when the spirit of Vatican II was not yet disturbed by the complications of global 1968, became the chosen topic. Don Enzo Mazzi decided to invite Giorgio La Pira to present the document for discussion by the enthusiastic parishioners. This is when the Florentine Catholic hierarchy decided to put a preliminary end to one of the most successful apostolates in a working-class community in all of Italy.

Elia Dalla Costa was replaced by Ermenegildo Florit in 1961 upon Dalla Costa’s death. Florit had been parachuted into Florence by the conservative Pius XII in 1954 as an assistant to Dalla Costa. In reality he was to serve as a conservative watchdog to restrain the liberal instincts by Elia Dalla Costa, who had become one of the betes noires of Pius XII. The Comunita dell’Isolotto to this day is fond of recalling the words they claim were uttered in the Florence Duomo during the official welcoming ceremony of Florit presided over by Dalla Costa: ‘I present to you the new bishop who has been sent to me from Rome without me having asked for him.’[1] Eleven years later, having replaced Dalla Costa as head of the Florentine Catholic church, Ermenegildo Florit forbade Enzo Mazzi to continue with his plans to have lay members of the parish discuss the papal encyclical in the open assembly inside the Isolotto church. In telephone conversations the very morning of the planned assembly, Ermenegildo Florit suggested to Don Mazzi to move the event to a cinema, if the parish really felt that it was necessary to go through with such plans. Don Enzo retorted that there was no cinema within walking distance of the Isolotto neighbourhood. Florit then proposed a compromise solution. Giorgio La Pira was allowed to address the crowd, but no parishioners were permitted to speak. ‘Lay people are not allowed to speak in a church.’ The event took place that afternoon as mandated by the representative of the church. But the battlelines were now drawn. The general assemblies, by then regular and cherished features of parish life, were suspended until further notice. The People of God had been forbidden to speak in the House of God by a Vicar of Christ.

  • [1] As reported by Sergio Gomiti in a conversation with the author on 21 February 2012. Thewords in the original Italian are: ‘Vi presento il nuovo vescovo che mi hanno mandato da Romasenza che io l’abbia chiesto.’
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