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from issue no. 03 - 2009

Don Primo Mazzolari. The priest of the parish church on the riverbank

The gift of faith, “the poorest of Masses”, the controversy over his articles and books, the affection of his bishop, the meetings with Montini and Pope John XXIII

by Paolo Mattei

Don Primo Mazzolari with the children of Bozzolo <BR>[© Fondazione Mazzolari]

Don Primo Mazzolari with the children of Bozzolo
[© Fondazione Mazzolari]

On 28 January 1959, Don Primo was untroubled. Despite everything. Despite the uproar going on regarding him: perhaps he’d grown used to it. Or maybe not. On the other hand it was by then more than forty years that “the preacher of the lower Mantua region” had been carrying on his shoulders the onerous burden of controversy that his words generated in the Church and the world.
“The classics of Christian preaching”, he would say, “are for me the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers, and the writings of saints and mystics, knowledge of which would bring substance and breadth to doctrine. Theology provides the knowledge, the soul has to be found elsewhere”. For many years the preacher Don Primo Mazzolari answered the calls that came from all over Italy. He had always wanted to talk “with charitable authority” and “with fatherly feeling”, he was convinced that it was necessary “to feel the people to whom you speak close and dear, to read their souls”. He had always discussed with everyone, without pretension or ideological and religious foreclosure, because he knew that “one cannot give faith to oneself or anyone else. I can make it known, give witness to it, but ‘the oil in the lamp’ comes from the ‘Father of light’. It is indeed surprising that, while one can give everything, because everything is put into the hands of man so that he may make a brotherly gift of it, no one, other than God, can give faith”. “One believes”, continued Don Primo, “because one loves (believing without love would be hell), and our love, which acts as support to the assent of faith, is only an answer: The answer to an appeal, to an initiative of God who, under the gentle and merciful name of grace, makes man willing for the ‘new’”. His words aroused not only controversy but also enthusiasm and hope in many people, Christians and not.
That Wednesday in late January 1959, Don Primo Mazzolari, a sixty-seven year old priest from Boschetto, a village in the province of Cremona, was untroubled because he was about to meet a man whose intelligence and paternal affection for himself he well knew: Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan, who more than a year before had asked him to preach during the Mission to the city, which was held in November of 1957 in the Ambrosian metropolis. And he had asked him in one of those tempestuous moments in which Don Primo came to find himself, burdened this time by yet another scolding from the Holy Office because of his declarations in favor of the free vote for French Catholics and articles in the fortnightly magazine Adesso, of which he had been the inspirer for almost ten years.
Don Primo wanted to see Montini after learning that the Bishops’ Conference of Lombardy intended to publicly disclaim Adesso, the offices of which were in Milan. The line and the “tone” of the magazine were not shared by many of those bishops, irritated particularly by the recent publication of a Letter to the Bishops of the Po Valley, which urged them to back the social struggles of peasants and laborers, and also by its printing of the unpublished Address to bishops – “defenders of the city”, “of the poor” and “of freedom” – given by Cardinal Suhard in the Advent of 1948. Perhaps even the review in Adesso – positive, yes, but not without reservations – of Pastoral experiences by Don Milani did not please the Lombardy bishops very much.
Don Primo would speak to the kind heart and vivid understanding of Montini. A few days before that meeting, he had written to him: “If Your Eminence had not intervened, with a goodness for which I shall always be grateful to you, by inviting me to the Mission in Milan, no one... would have noticed that one cannot condemn for life a priest who has always loved the Church rather than himself”.
Montini knew well the man and his tireless work as a preacher. But also his quiet and humble life as parish priest, spent among simple people in small country churches on the banks of the Po, his life as a country priest who wanted – as Don Primo himself once said – to offer his parishioners a witness made up “more of silence than protests, of prayers than violence, of waiting than attack”.

Don Primo, Chaplain to the Alpine regiment [© Fondazione Mazzolari]

Don Primo, Chaplain to the Alpine regiment [© Fondazione Mazzolari]

“Repeater of the words of Jesus”
It was, in fact, on 1 January 1922 that Monsignor Giovanni Cazzani, Bishop of Cremona, appointed him parish priest of Cicognara, the village on the left bank of the Po where he was to remain for ten years. Little more than a thousand souls dwelt there, many of whom, exasperated by poverty, had worked to chase away the previous parish priest, not too much loved by them more likely for his stingy management of the rich benefice from land enjoyed by the parish than out of the nevertheless widespread anticlericalism. Monsignor Cazzani was sure that Don Primo would be able to find his bearings with dexterity in a region hostile to anything that even remotely resembled a priest. Besides, a couple of years previously he had sent him as episcopal delegate to Bozzolo, a town of socialist and anticlerical sentiment, where, moreover, the population was divided between two traditionally rival churches. There Don Primo had implemented his “pastoral style”: no Catholic associations as under the old scheme, to avoid further divisions, and maximum openness to all, whatever political or religious faith they adhered to. He visited all the families, both Catholic and socialist, he looked with sympathy on the trade-union struggles of the workers, condemned the first Fascist violence from the pulpit, abolished the usual charges for liturgical services, took care of assistance to the sick in hospital. But rarely intervened in the meetings of the parish priests of the area. And in that “city without walls” – as Don Primo liked to call his parish – he said Mass, “the most important gift”: “Not a pontifical Mass, not a Mass in a Basilica or in a Benedictine Abbey, but the poorest of Masses, said by the poorest of priests, my Sunday Mass”. There really was no need to invent anything there: “In the Mass I’m not an inventor, but a repeater... I must therefore read the Mass and the Gospel as it is... When I preach to my poor people I am the repeater of the word of Another: I have to repeat what Jesus said: not my Gospel, but the Gospel of Jesus... I bend over the bread and repeat the divine words. Because of these words tremblingly repeated by the poorest of priests in the poorest church, Christ takes His place among my people and His presence changes everyone’s face”.
Naturally criticism flew thick and fast from the clericalists of Bozzolo who disapproved of his friendship with the socialist mayor and his disregard for Sturzo’s People’s Party which he willfully didn’t join. Whereas Monsignor Cazzani had begun to appreciate the character of the priest, who had trained in the diocese seminary administered by Geremia Bonomelli – a bishop of Catholic-liberal and conciliatory ideas – and ordained in 1912. He began to grow warm towards the young priest who on the threshold of the First World War had gone to work as a missionary among Italian workers in Switzerland: there, in the midst of emigrants returning home to the looming war, Don Primo – growing up during the years of Modernist crisis reading Hugo, Tolstoy, Duchesne, Péguy and fascinated by the openness to the “separated brethren” and to the poor recommended to the Church by his bishop Bonomelli – came across a poverty deeper than that of the peasants of the Cremona countryside. Then, in the years that followed, he was to experience the torment that the First World War was inflicting on the minds and bodies of civilians and soldiers. And his own heart was rent by the death of his brother Peppino, killed at the front in 1915. Thus, in 1916, he wrote in his diary: “Sometimes, when I’m alone and I think of the futility of my life and the brutalizing to which I’m condemned, I weep and weep for hours, but not out of sadness, however, but naturally brought to tears in seeing myself a little more like Jesus than in the past, and the emotion of suffering directly with Jesus for my sins and those of my brothers. In the designs of Providence nothing is without value and without purpose: and if neither one nor the other reveal itself to us, we accept the facts with docility as we wait to know the meanings”.

A portrait of Don Mazzolari [© Fondazione Mazzolari]

A portrait of Don Mazzolari [© Fondazione Mazzolari]

Ludit Deus in orbe terrarum
“Paganism is returning and giving us a pat on the back and few people feel ashamed of it”. Don Primo jotted down that phrase as far back as 1922, thinking of the increasingly convinced support many Catholics were giving to the advancing regime. He looked at it with concern from Cicognara. In 1929, after the signing of the Lateran Pact (“we shall be married even without ‘loving one another’”), he confided the following to a friend: “What do I think? Nothing, except Ludit Deus in orbe terrarum. Real politics, thankfully, gets done up there, not by us little mortals, who the more we believe we are makers of history the more ridiculous we become”.
In the not easy surroundings of Cicognara he managed to win the liking of many people, especially the socialists and anticlericals. And also in Cicognara, as earlier in Bozzolo, as a result of the friendship that had arisen between the priest and the people of the town, small things happened that almost always displeased not only the local adherents of the regime, but also the pro-fascist Church supporters. Indeed Mazzolari then immmediately joined in the politico-economic rebellion of his people, took part in the 1st of May festivities, set up a non-denominational children’s camp on the river, without patronage from the Fascist party. And again in Cicognara he didn’t bother to encourage Catholic associations, because he did not want to put a label on the few simple parish initiatives, such as the harvest festival that the people of Cicognara celebrated on 15 August every year on the bank of the Po.
“I spoke for five minutes. The Lord knows what I said because He inspired me and I don’t remember it any more. I know that when the crowd, invited by me, stood up as one man to recite the Our Father, there were many of us weeping”. So Don Primo told his bishop of what happened in the town in November 1925, after his refusal to sing the Te Deum in church in thanksgiving for the foiling of a plot against the Duce’s life. The Fascists had forced the people to sit in church for the solemn event that the priest was meant to preside. Don Primo arrived last and, taking the town’s hierarchs by surprise, managed, by simple recitation of the Our Father with the faithful, not to submit to the order given him and to send everyone away peacefully. “The conclusion?” says the letter to Monsignor Cazzani: “Just one: the Lord wishes me very well”. The bishop knew as much, and he, who also wished him well, did what he could to defend him before the judges who would have liked to get rid of him as an anti-fascist subversive. But it was a few years later, in August 1931, that he ran into the greatest threat to his safety when he was grazed by three shots fired by two killers.

John XXIII: Pope Roncalli received Don Mazzolari in audience on 5 February 1959

John XXIII: Pope Roncalli received Don Mazzolari in audience on 5 February 1959

Every man is a beggar
By the early ’forties Don Primo had published a dozen books and the reputation of the priest preacher – in the meantime back in Bozzolo as archpriest and pastor – moved beyond the borders of the diocese. Don Primo also preached at the conferences organized by Catholic university students in Camaldoli, Florence, Padua, Sanremo, Milan, annual gatherings during which he tackled the issues he would then develop more amply after the war: the popularity of communism, towards which he invited the Church and Catholics to change their characteristic attitude of rigid hostility to and distinguish the sinner from the sin (“I fight communism, but I love the communists”), inviting them rather to reflect on why that ideology was able “to last and take root among peoples where the excuse of primitivism or serfdom doesn’t work”, or on the fact that “the humble and honest” are “in upheaval because of inhuman living conditions”.
In the books that saw the light in those years, Don Primo gives an account of his desire for reform of the Church’s evangelizing action, going into the themes of the “separated brethren” and concern for the poor and the marginalized. Openness and concern for all men. He wrote: “And when I say ‘I want to see the man’, I don’t mean the man of the philosophers, who does not interest me, as I am not interested in the god of the philosophers. I mean the real man, the true man, in flesh and blood: one I can touch. And this man I can touch and who asks for mercy is me myself. Man is poor, every man. Not because of what he doesn’t have, but for what he is, for what isn’t enough for him, and which makes him a beggar everywhere, whether he holds out his hand, or whether he closes it”.
It was one of these books, The finest adventure. On the track of the “prodigal” – the outcome of his preaching in working-class missions between 1929 and 1932, and published in 1934 with the imprimatur of the Brescia Curia – which brought Don Mazzolari his first severe reprimand from the Congregation of the Holy Office, then called “Supreme.” The book, which Ernesto Buonaiuti described as “of a most intense loftiness and density”, set alarm bells going because of the reception it found among the Protestant community in the area, and the Holy Office laconically judged it “in error”. It was a heavy blow for Don Primo, who spoke of the matter to his bishop as follows: “Your Excellence, I regret with all my heart that people abuse my book. But everything has been abused and is abused here below: even St Paul, St Augustine, even the Gospel. I respect all personal opinion, but I bow only in obedience to the opinion of the Church”. Monsignor Cazzani replied, “Dear Archpriest, do not be brought low for being made the object of a recommendation for special vigilance, humbly offer this trial to God... I wish you could read in my heart the keen love – of father and pastor – that I bear you, and also my loving trepidation for you in this painful trial”. Cazzani was to collect positive statements from the parish priests and bishops of dioceses in which Mazzolari had preached in those years and send them to the Holy Office, along with his personal assurances about the behavior of the priest (“he would be ready out of his charity to embrace everyone and bring them to church, even the separated brethren, and that disposes him to a perhaps excessive generosity towards the separated brethren...”). A task, this, that the Bishop of Cremona was often to find himself engaged in from then on.

The page for 13 November 1956 
in Don Mazzolari’s diary recording 
a conversation with Giulio Andreotti, during which the then minister spoke 
of the book <I>I, too, wish the Pope well</I>; underneath, a letter from Giulio Andreotti to Don Mazzolari dated 11 November 1954: Andreotti asked the priest for an article for the first number of the magazine <I>Concretezza</I>

The page for 13 November 1956 in Don Mazzolari’s diary recording a conversation with Giulio Andreotti, during which the then minister spoke of the book I, too, wish the Pope well; underneath, a letter from Giulio Andreotti to Don Mazzolari dated 11 November 1954: Andreotti asked the priest for an article for the first number of the magazine Concretezza

Salvation and unwilling mobilization
The activity of the parish priest of Bozzolo was rarely to cease, and neither was the attention – often superficial – of the Holy Office to his writings.
In the months following the armistice Don Primo – who also had to abandon his parish for some time because hunted by the Fascists – made contact with leaders of the future Christian Democrat Party in Milan and Mantua, and established contact with the Resistance.
After the Liberation he continued to go wherever he was called in those years of reconstruction and starting over.
“May the troubles of all kinds that I’ve gained by writing and speaking serve with my flock to get me forgiven for a neglect that never existed in the soul and intentions of their parish priest. Return to Bozzolo was always for me a going home and staying there such an affectionate and sunny joy that leaving forever I already feel as the most costly toll”. Don Primo went over in his heart all the years packed with often frenetic work when in 1954 he set down this passage in his SpiritualTestament: the years of the first general election of 1948, when he traveled Italy campaigning for the Christian Democrat Party, with the desire that it might go back to being “like the one we knew in the happy times of our youth”; the years of accusations and calumnies that came at him mostly from “those at home” and some close associates; the years of Adesso, through which he drew censure from the Holy Office for the “tone” with which he dealt, in articles signed with his name or with transparent pseudonyms, with the issues he had been preaching about for a lifetime: denunciation of social injustice, the defense of the poor and criticism of the DC that seemed to have forgotten them after gaining power thanks to their votes; encouraging the dialogue of the Church with the “separated brethren” and with the Communists; the appeals for the safeguarding of peace and for the prohibition of nuclear weapons at the time of the Cold War; conscientious objection to military conscription.
“The same love has made me violent at times and over-the-top”, Don Primo wrote in his Spiritual testament. “Some people may have thought that the preference for the poor and the separated brethren narrowed me towards others: that certain decided stances taken in spheres not strictly pastoral closed the door for me with those who for whatever reason could not stand interventions of the kind. But none of my flock has closed their hearts to their parish priest, who saw himself made the target of contradictory allegations, only because he made a point of distinguishing man’s salvation and his needs, including human ones, from the ideologies that from time to time are lent him by those movements that often mobilize him unwillingly”.

Don Primo with a great-nephew <BR>[© Fondazione Mazzolari]

Don Primo with a great-nephew
[© Fondazione Mazzolari]

“The Lord keeps His word”
So on that 28 January 1959, Don Primo opened his heart to Montini, who suspended the deliberations of the Lombardy Bishops’ Conference against Adesso. The archbishop knew, in fact, that the priest was about to meet Pope John XXIII, and perhaps foresaw that good news might come out of that audience. A presentiment that was to be confirmed a few days later, and evidence for which lies in the words that Montini was to speak, a few years later as Pope in remembrance of Don Mazzolari: “It has been said that we did not wish well to Don Primo. It is not true: we, too, wished him well! But you know how things went. His stride was too long and we struggled to keep up with him...”.
The following 5 February Pope Roncalli was indeed to welcome Don Primo affectionately, making an appointment with him for the work – announced about ten days before – on the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, which was then to adopt many of the insights of the parish priest from the lower Mantua region. Don Primo left Rome “most consoled” by the Pope: “He is a providential point”, he said in a letter to a friend.
“And so the last steps”, he had written a year before these events, “become light in the certainty that the Lord keeps His word even to his useless and little generous servant”.
Don Mazzolari died on 12 April fifty years ago. It was a Sunday, his favorite day, the day on which he celebrated Mass in his parish: “When I am in the sacristy, I feel that my spiritual fatherhood has reached its peak and its joy in the parish Mass, and I dispose myself, with trust, for the weekly toil, waiting for the new Sunday: the return”.

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