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Religion and Society

The "holy mayor" and the powerful of the world

When receiving the mayors of Italian communes on 26 April 2004 John Paul II observed that 'poor people', of whom La Pira was a friend and a defender during his life, called him 'the holy mayor'. The Pope went on to say that in front of the powerful of the earth La Pira expounded in a forceful way his ideas as a believer and as man who loved peace, and invited those he was addressing to engage in a common effort to promote this fundamental good in the various areas of society, in politics, in the economy, in cultures, and in religions.



In political theory and practice, La Pira perceived the need to apply the methodology of the Gospel, basing oneself on the commandment to love and to forgive. The Conferences for Peace and Christian Civilisation remain emblematic. These were organised in Florence from 1952 to 1956 in order to foster friendship between Christians, Jews and Muslims.



On the trunk of those conferences, which have never been forgotten, arose other initiatives, ranging from the Conference of Mayors of Capital Cities (1955) to the Mediterranean Colloquiums (from 1958 to 1961), and on to tireless pilgrimages in areas beset with the severest of conflicts, from the Middle East to Vietnam, where he always sought to 'break down walls and build bridges'.



The text that is presented here once again also belongs to this strategy. A man of prayer and a man of study, La Pira had chosen to live in voluntary poverty in the Dominican Monastery of St. Mark in Florence, in one of the cells that had been the home of such famous friars as Beato Angelico and Girolamo Savonarola. Political commitment was not a part of the political vocation of that young lecturer in institutions of Roman law who had arrived from Sicily and had immediately become, in his own words, 'a Florentine only by adoption' who was in love with the city of Dante and its great history.



It was rather political injustice in those years of the dominant Fascist regime that irrupted into the peace of the cloisters. The totalitarian system, the racial laws against the Jews, and the disastrous alliance with Nazi military expansionism all represented an increasing and unbridgeable distance from the Christian principles that nourished his life. When in 1938 Hitler went to Florence to meet Mussolini, and the whole of the city was bedecked with flags, the Cardinal Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa closed the doors of the Archbishopric because, as he proclaimed publicly, 'he could not receive a man who wore a cross that was not the cross of Christ'.



From the Monastery of St. Mark La Pira organised the publication of a small review named Princìpi, as a supplement to the periodical of the Dominicans, Vita cristiana. This was a stratagem because otherwise the regime would not have allowed a permit for the publication of a new review.



At a time that was characterised by doctrines of hatred, of apology for war, of superior and inferior races, overall by the domination of a 'demonic bow' that was preparing a planetary catastrophe, it was necessary to rediscover the 'guiding star' of the Gospel. It was no accident that Princìpi was the only Italian review that in September 1939 adopted a stance against the joint Nazi-Soviet aggression against Poland. 'The trajectory of Cain is not at an end', wrote La Pira, 'there is the fascination of love that has Christ as its source and there is the fascination of hate that has Satan as its source. The first fruit of death: the only Christian dam that acted as a defence against two non-Christian worlds has also heroically fallen. If the murder of a man is the greatest of crimes, then this is even more the case with the murder of an entire nation. Balance is broken and from broken balance comes only war and ruination. Thus it remains to us only to reflect deeply on our Christianity...



Only one hope still arises in the spirit. God will never abandon this mankind that is in so much pain and whose leaders are much more wolves than shepherds; and the maternal protection of Mary will not abandon without hope so many oppressed children who by now trust only in her'. We should reflect on the impact that words such as these had amidst the warlike rhetoric that in those very days was widespread in the totalitarian propaganda of leaders who were more wolves than shepherds. There was one Pastor in harmony with La Pira Pius XII with his cry that was not listened to: 'Nothing is lost with peace. Everything can be lost with war... May the strong listen to us so that they do not become weak in injustice... And this old Europe, which was the work of Christian faith and genius, is with us. The whole of humanity that expects justice, bread, and freedom, not iron that kills and destroys, is with us. That Christ who made brotherly love his first commandment is with us' (radio message of 24 August 1939).



But the infernal mechanism by that time appeared to be unstoppable. And it was no accident that the small reviewPrincipi was banned after it had dedicated, in February 1940, an edition to the great subject of freedom: 'The more the desire for freedom, which is the most vital of the wishes of man, is violated, the more it is reinvigorated. Systems of tyranny are unnatural and transitory. The golden 'indignation' of G.B. Vico applies to them 'things outside their natural state neither settle well nor last'. And this is even more the case in the severe sentence of the Gospel: a building built on sand is destined for certain and great ruin'. The review was banned and the author was hunted by the police who wanted to put him in prison.



La Pira found refuge in the homes of friends, first in Tuscany and then in Rome. Important homes were opened to the meek and mild little professor: Casa Rampolla, Casa Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) and even the secret rooms of the Sant'Uffizio. He could even give lectures at the Pontifical Lateran University on subjects such as 'the premises of politics' or 'towards a Christian architecture of the State'.



After the Second World War he took part, with the so-called Catholic little professors (Dossetti, Fanfani, Lazzati, Mortati), in the drafting of the Constitution. He would have liked to close himself up in his closed garden of prayer and study but many people insisted that he took part to the full in the new season of democracy. As under-secretary at the Ministry of Labour, under his friend Fanfani who was Minister, at the time of the first De Gasperi administration, La Pira wrote two essays for the review Cronache Sociali: 'The Hopes of Poor People' and 'The Defence of Poor People', which stressed in a vigorous way the need to combat unemployment. This was in 1951, at the time of the Korean War, at the beginning of the conflict between the West and the East. 'We must take careful note', wrote La Pira, 'the real dichotomy in the world is the economic gap between the North and the South'. And it was specifically in 1951 that the decisive turning point took place.



Encouraged by a holy priest who had founded Opera Madonnina del Grappa, Don Giulio Facibeni, La Pira agreed to stand for the mayoralty of Florence on behalf of the Christian Democrats. Tuscany, including its capital city, was a 'red zone' dominated by the Communist Party. It was therefore politically inaccessible in the opinion of most people of the time. However, La Pira, the Christian friend of 'poor people' supported by the most working-class sections of society, achieved a major electoral triumph. His first action was to put back on the faade of the municipality, the very old 'Palazzo della Signoria', the motto of Savonarola: 'Christus Rex regum et Dominus dominantium'. This was not a merely formal act. Indeed, the mayor scandalised the powerful by taking the side of the workers at the massive Fabbrica Pignone. Threatened by dismissal, thee workers had occupied the factory. A harsh polemic was unleashed. A red fish in the holy font, a little communist from the sacristy! But the Cardinal Archbishop, Elia Dalla Costa, had a different opinion: 'how can one not be on the side of those who are troubled over the insecurity of their future?' A little Communist as the mayor? No, replied the Archbishop, La Pira is a copy of the living Gospel. The factory would later be saved through the intervention of the president of ENI, Enrico Mattei, who had been a friend of the mayor since the time of the opposition to Fascism. And it would be La Pira himself who would point out to Mattei the possibility of extending the petroleum market on the other side of the Mediterranean.



In the meantime, in another characteristic prefiguring of the times, the mayor had taken another initiative: to spend the patrimony of beauty brought together by the centuries in Florence so as to break down walls that in that nuclear age, 'the edge of the apocalypse', that threatened peace. Every year he organised the 'Conferences for Peace and Christian Civilisation'. The message was clear. 'We would like all the treasures of history, of grace, of beauty, and of intelligence that Providence has accumulated in Florence to constitute a gigantic message of peace addressed to all the peoples of the earth: a message that calls them all, almost irresistibly, and despite every form of resistance and every opposition - spes contra spem - to begin a new history of a thousand years of civilisation and peace. A civilisation and a peace destined to refract fully onto the earth the loving light of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men'.



The titles of each individual meeting, in which men of culture of countries that at a times were even at war with each other took part, bring out the character of this initiative: prayer and poetry, history and prophecy, human hopes and theological hopes, unity in diversity. There was an attempt, that is to say, through culture, to achieve a constructive political refraction of civilisation. Two subsequent follow-ups to these conferences organised by La Pira, namely the 'Conference of Mayors of Capital Cities' of 1955 and the Mediterranean Colloquiums of 1958-1964, indicated two areas in which the very special insights of La Pira were at work: the realistic space of the city that overcomes dominant ideological slaveries and the Mediterranean area as a neuralgic point of world peace. To mayors from all over the world who had come to Florence, including the amazed mayors of Moscow and Peking, he said: 'the crisis of our time is a crisis that is disproportionate and ill related to what is really human', and 'within the circle of city walls the problems of the present time take on a perfectly comprehensible human dimension.



To everyone it is clear that in a city there must be a place for everyone: a place to pray (the church), a place to love (the home), a place to learn (the school), a place to work (the workshop), a place to get better (the hospital)'. Thus cities are alive and states have no right to kill them. He would also take this work hypothesis to Moscow in 1959, adding at the Kremlin, in front of the Supreme Soviet, that in order to build peace it was by now necessary to 'remove the corpse of state atheism' in the face of the inevitable new flowering of Christian faith that was pre-announced by Our Lady at Fatima 'in the end my immaculate heart will triumph, Russia will convert, and a time of peace will be given to the world'. Certainly, only La Pira could have had the audacity to quote Fatima in the Kremlin, perceiving before that event the fall of Communist atheism, and this thirty years before that extraordinary year of 1989.



And then the commitment to the 'reconciliation of the family of Abraham: Jews, Christians, Muslims', the Mediterranean Colloquiums, and also the journeys begun through his friendship with the King of Morocco, Muhammad V, the meetings with Nasser and Ben Gurion, Taha Hussein and Martin Buber.



In December 1967 La Pira said: 'why not give to the world proof of the great fact that marks out the contemporary historical age, the fact, that is to say, that war, including 'local' war, does not solve human problems but aggravates them; that war by now has become an instrument that has been finished with forever; and that only agreement, negotiations, shared construction, shared action and shared mission for the raising of all the peoples of the earth, are the instruments that Providence places in the hands of men so that they may construct a new history and a new civilisation? Thus the breaking down of walls and the building of bridges: the symbolic beginning of the peace that is to come! And may this peace come amongst the children of the Patriarch Abraham himself! It will not only be peace between the two children of Abraham but will also be the rainbow that announces for always, for the whole world, the end of the flood (war) and the definitive beginning of a new historic age for the world'. Was this a utopia that La Pira was espousing? You are a poet, he was told by the most benevolent of his critics when his initiatives seemed too audacious. As a young man, he replied, I took a school diploma in accounting. However, do not forget that poets have insights.



A hundred years after his death, in 2004, many people in Italy addressed their thought to the insights contained in the utopia of La Pira. Even Pope John Paul II. La Pira was without any doubt a man of faith, of charity and of hope. In dark days he liked to repeat the lines of Edmond Rostand: 'It is during the night that it is beautiful to believe in the light/we must force the dawn to be born, believing in it'. He certainly believed. We also believe.