Home > Archives > 08 - 2009 > The humanity of the Christian
from issue no. 08 - 2009

Alcide De Gasperi

The humanity of the Christian

The faith and piety of De Gasperi were transparent in all his actions, ordinary and extraordinary. They were part of his general approach, and it was easy to see them in every initiative of his, even if he never flaunted his faith

Giulio Andreotti

De Gasperi with his family in St Peter’s Square

De Gasperi with his family in St Peter’s Square

The faith and piety of De Gasperi were transparent in all his actions, ordinary and extraordinary. They were part of his general approach, and it was easy to see them in every initiative of his, even if he never flaunted his faith and many times decided not to add words or gestures that would show his membership of the Church. Especially when talking to young people he based his speeches on the social encyclicals of the popes, but it is in looking at all his great ideas for reform – from land to the peasants to progress in the south of Italy, to the process of European unification – that one sees a coherent policy that I would describe as naturaliter christiana.
I remember, for example, that at the time of the beatification of Maria Goretti, he noted with joy that the land reform had done away with the phenomenon of nomadic farm laborers which the family of the saint had faced. And, in a sense, the law he decided on to fight horrific publications or likely to disturb the sensibilities of adolescents (1947-48), was a sign of his concern to safeguard the faith of the people. Even the fact that politics did not spoil him, nor that power so exalted him that he lost objectivity and peace of mind, is a sign of his great faith, of his uprightness, his extraordinary decency.
There was an episode in which he showed me his way of living the Christian life. It happened, the day in St Peter’s Square, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption. De Gasperi said in a low voice: “Let’s hope that this is no obstacle on the path of dialogue with Protestants”. Then, perhaps worried he might have caused me some problem, he added: “Remember however, my book of meditation is The Imitation of Christ and that as a boy I never went to bed without first reciting the rosary, no matter how tired I was”.
That De Gasperi who does not flaunt his religion is also confirmed by the fact that he went to Mass on his own, and often with the family on Sundays he went to St Peter’s like an ordinary believer. He was almost never present at religious events involving politicians in various ways. The exception was his taking his turn in the night exposition of the Blessed Sacrament reserved for Catholic politicians that then existed. Instead he backed collective recital of the Veni Creator at the opening of the Constituent Assembly, justifying it with the words of Benedetto Croce, according to whom we cannot not call ourselves Christians.
There were some priests with whom De Gasperi was familiar on a strictly religious plane. I remember Father Caresana, parish priest of the Chiesa Nuova and Father De Bono. Above all it was the bishop of Trent, Monsignor Endrici, a basic element throughout his life, his mentor as a boy, who was close to him when, under Fascism, his political troubles began. De Gasperi had also great affection for Don Giovanni Battista Montini, but perhaps, more than to Montini priest and Montini at work for the Secretariat of State, on which Catholics could count to revive a political movement, De Gasperi was attached to Monsignor Montini as son of a great friend of his, a deputy from the Popular Party (Partito Popolare).
Another fixed point for De Gasperi was his family, for which he had a particularly strong affection. He often spoke of the sacrifices made by his wife in the difficult years of Fascist persecution and unemployment. And I saw him deeply moved when his daughter Lucia entered the Assumption convent. Certainly his great political work cost him considerable sacrifice in his family life, but his attachment to his wife and daughters was very strong, and he devoted the little time he had free to them, hardly ever allowing himself any relaxation. Bowls during the summer or lunch some Sundays with Bonomelli at Castel Gandolfo were his only recreation.
I mentioned the economic difficulties he faced during Fascism. De Gasperi remains an example for his personal integrity: he never compromised on principles, and when he came to power he never took advantage of public life to get what might possibly have been a fair return for the times when the society deprived him of his possessions and his rights as a citizen. I would like to recall a phrase, almost mocking, that has always gone against the grain, something once said by Commandant Lauro about De Gasperi: “They’re always saying ‘De Gasperi is good’, but a man that gets to seventy and hasn’t put aside a fortune, it means that he’s not that good”. De Gasperi, it’s true, never saved a fortune, the house where he lived in Rome, in Via Bonifacio, was rented and was modest. When the Christian Democrat party gave him a villa near Lake Albano, in the Castelli Romani, De Gasperi was very pleased, and it was the first time he became a property owner. But he never took pity on himself, though he was sometimes a little bitter, remembering those who had melted away when the Fascist regime came in and had pretended not to know him. They were also, as said, times of great economic hardship for him, and, because of the political persecution, the Vatican also struggled to find a ploy to give him a little work in the library. Yet he never had feelings of revenge or retaliation. Indeed, when many erstwhile acquaintances showed up only because Fascism was waning, he welcomed them with open arms. I am reminded of the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Alcide De Gasperi and Giulio Andreotti at a meeting of the government in 1948

Alcide De Gasperi and Giulio Andreotti at a meeting of the government in 1948

Apart from the regular observance of Sundays and days of obligation, other aspects of his religious life provided me with exemplary moments. I remember when in 1951 Ivanoe Bonomi, a socialist, was seriously ill, he got me to seek out urgently Monsignor Barbieri (an acquaintance from the underground period), to go and see him as a priest. He was concerned about contact with the Church of another “non-practicing” Catholic, the minister Sforza, picking out Cardinal Celso Costantini (who had worked in China, a country dear to Sforza) as the right priest for making contact. And, visiting the remains of Giuseppe Grassi, a minister from the Liberal party who had died in the sacraments, De Gasperi told me that there were highly respectable people who were not Christian Democrats, and that we must always be concerned for their religious life, with a spoken word at the right time, but more than anything attracting them by the exemplary nature of our lives.
In this regard he often spoke of his early life and of the apostolate he had engaged in among the students and also among workers, both in Trent and in Austria. He was proud of his early beginning in the apostolate to the unions.
De Gasperi was different and superior to others and those who had the good fortune to work close to him felt the charm of a passionate, profound, untiring commitment. I have already referred to his severity, of which he was the first to set the example. Once, struck by the critical assessment that I had given on our political opponents, he said to my wife: “As an old man your husband will be more malignant than Nitti”. I mention this little episode only to say that De Gasperi wanted us, his collaborators, never to cross the bounds, and in personal conduct to do even more than our duty. In that he was more a religious than a political leader. He was parsimonious with praise, but a word of appreciation, in his dry fashion, was worth more than a ceremonial commendation. In his choice of people he sometimes relied on old family connections, but for positions of responsibility in the ministries he rigorously judged only by the abilities of the candidates.
As leader of the majority and of the Christian Democrats he also caused envy and attempts to ditch him. Especially after the Democratic victory in the elections of 1948. Personally he was pleased with the success and with the position of power but he never used them for his own purposes. He felt he had a mission, a service to perform for his neighbor (something easy to say but much harder to put into practice) according to a design of God for which He confers gifts and opportunities. People perceived it, and the crowds at his rallies were exceptional.
Another aspect was that he never happened to learn of concrete needs without trying to help. Solutions can always be found, he would say. Headlines were made by De Gasperi’s phone call to the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, to get the ships loaded with flour for the bread ration (source of sustenance of the Italians in the postwar period), but actions of that kind were an everyday business for him and all his public life was inspired by the raising of the humble. And people knew. That is why even his funeral was magnificent: the train carrying the body met with large crowds at every station. In Rome, both the vigil in the Chiesa del Gesù, and the funeral mass and procession to San Lorenzo al Verano were packed not only with public authorities, but with ordinary people, deeply moved and in prayer. It was a spontaneous triumph coupled with sympathy from countries all over the world.
De Gasperi was a great Christian. And I say this without going into the matter of the cause for beatification, because while it is true that De Gasperi taught us to pray in difficult times, he was a great Christian above all because he remains the clearest example of politics with a capital “P”. So much so that De Gasperi’s faith, as I have said, can be seen primarily by retracing his political history.
Towards opponents he was never aggressive in vulgar fashion, even when the others were towards him (Togliatti spoke of “kicking De Gasperi’s tail”).
He was undoubtedly polemical, tough, persevering. He was uncompromising with opposing ideas. After 1945 he urged people not to underestimate the danger of a return of Fascism using the same tactic as in 1922. But he was no less firm towards Communism, even though I have the impression that up to 1947 he did not consider the Communist threat excessive.
The sphere of greatest confrontation with the Communists was Italian adhesion to the Atlantic Treaty in 1949. De Gasperi was accused by the Communists, and even by some Catholic circles, of leading the nation toward a military alliance that would trigger World War III. In their fury the Communists also mocked the policies for the social development of the underprivileged that De Gasperi promoted, such as land reform and the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno [the credit bank for development in the south of Italy, ed.]. The popular effect of De Gasperi’s policies was muffled by this perfidy of the Left. Even Padre Pio, so close to the poor people and the agrarian world, allowed himself to be persuaded and spoke critically of the agrarian reform.
As a good Catholic De Gasperi would never have done anything to harm the Church or religion, but I would not describe him as a man of the Vatican. He was aware of the autonomous responsibility of the Catholic involved in politics. And he was of the idea that the Lord grants the grace of state for the functions that are specific to each calling. So great concern for the problems of the Holy See, but what is Caesar’s should be left to Caesar. Thus, except for the mean-minded accusations of the Communists, no one could think of him as belonging to the clerical faction. He had judged the Lateran Pact as positive and repeatedly told me that if there had not been the concordat between Church and State in 1929, it would have been extremely hard for us Democrats to put it through in the early years of the new Republic. It would have been a great stumbling block for the political presence of Catholics after Fascism.
Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi 
and Konrad Adenauer, the three founding fathers of a united Europe

Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer, the three founding fathers of a united Europe

But there is a delicate point, and it concerns the relationship between De Gasperi and Pius XII, because it is still the opinion of many that Pacelli had no sympathy for the Christian Democrat statesman and indeed was against him.
Granted that Pius XII was quite authoritarian in temperament, and that the Pope was very worried about the danger of the success of the Communists, something he had experienced in Germany and who were responsible for terrible persecution of the Church during those years, it is not true that Pacelli did not value De Gasperi. And on more than one occasion he had the opportunity to demonstrate his esteem publicly. There were also significant courtesies, such as the invitation to De Gasperi to attend a private performance of Claudel’s Annunciation to Mary in the Vatican before the Pope.
With the Curia De Gasperi had collaborative but not frequent relations, and if an exception is made for those with Montini (whose clout in the Vatican in the early ’fifties, however, was not stellar) and with Monsignor Kaas, I would not use the word friendship. De Gasperi was grateful to those who had protected him during the period of occupation, but one cannot hide the fact that criticism of De Gasperi by the left Democrats found some echo in the Vatican.
De Gasperi remains an irrepeatable character. But what remains of him? Above all, the great ability to see far ahead, not to be content, to see that the horizons are expanding. He did not have time to hear about globalization, but in fact his multi-cultural education led him to be the strongest promoter of a united Europe, the most convinced assertor that the idea of peace would last only in a context broader than the traditional one of relations between individual states. He sensed that it was necessary to go beyond nationalism even if it had been the basis for the establishment of many European States.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português