BOZZOLO, Italy – Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to northern Italy on Tuesday to honor two 20th-century parish priests whose commitment to the poor and powerless brought them censure from the Vatican.
Francis flew by helicopter to Bozzolo, near Cremona, to pray at the tomb of Don Primo Mazzolari. Mazzolari, who died in 1959, was an anti-fascist partisan during World War II who, like Francis, preached about a “church for the poor.”
Afterward, Francis flew to Barbiana, near Florence, to pray at the tomb of Don Lorenzo Milani, a wealthy convert to Catholicism who founded a parish school to educate the poor and workers. He died in 1967.
Both priests were considered rebels in their lifetimes and were censured by Vatican authorities for their writings. By honoring them with his brief visit, Francis sent the church a message of the type of priest he wants today: simple, guided by Gospel values, devoted to the poor and uninterested in careerism.
At his first stop, Francis stood in silent prayer before the simple tomb of Mazzolari, who is considered now to be “Italy’s parish priest.”
He then delivered a lengthy tribute to the priest, quoting Mazzolari’s writings about the need for the church to accompany its flock that Francis himself could have penned.
The Argentine Jesuit, who has emphasized the church’s merciful face during his four-year papacy, recalled Mazzolari’s exhortation that a priest’s job isn’t to demand perfection from the faithful, but to encourage them to do their best. Quoting Mazzolari, he said: “Let us have good sense! We don’t need to massacre the backs of these poor people.”
Mazzolari’s social activism got him in trouble with church authorities: For a time he was forbidden from preaching outside his diocese without permission, and a magazine he founded was so controversial the Vatican suspended its publication in 1951.
Church authorities announced Tuesday that the process to beatify Mazzolari would begin in September.
Milani, for his part, also emphasized social justice issues, especially about the rights of workers to go on strike. The Vatican in 1958 ordered the retraction of a book of his on his pastoral experiences.
Francis said Milani taught the importance of giving the poor the capacity to speak up for themselves, “because without the word, there’s no dignity and therefore no justice or freedom.”