Lorenzo Milani (1923-67) was born 100 years ago into a well-to-do, intellectual and secular Florentine family. He disappointed his parents by not going to university and taking up painting instead. His encounter with religious art made him read the Gospel. He became a transformed person. His mother, Alice said: “My son was in search of the Absolute. He found it in religion and in the priestly vocation.”

He was sent as a curate to San Donato, not far from Florence, where he started a night school open to people of all political and religious persuasions, atheists included. This upset some of his fellow priests, leading parishioners and local members of the Christian Democratic Party close to the Church. They complained to the local curia. In 1954, the ecclesiastical authori­ties sent him into exile to a small hamlet in the mountains above Florence.

At the launch of Milani’s Complete Works in 2017, Pope Francis said: “His family education came from non-believing, anti-clerical parents who had accustomed him to an intellectual dialectic and a frankness that could at times appear too rough, when not marked with rebellion. He maintained this characteristic, acquired in the family, even after his conversion in 1943 and in the exercise of his priestly ministry...

“His was a spiritual restlessness, nurtured by love for Christ, for the Gospel, for the Church, for society and for the school that he always dreamed of as a ‘field hospital’ to tend to the wounded, to recover the marginalised and the discarded.”

Alberto Melloni, who edited the Complete Works, describes Milani as “a complicated man, difficult to fit into a label… You cannot reduce his thoughts to two sugary slogans ‘I care’ and ‘Obedience is not a virtue’. He was capable of a Christian realism that sees injustice as a scandal and commits itself to working for justice.”

In his book Pastoral Experiences (1958), Milani says of himself: “And yet I do not shine with holiness. Nor am I a nice priest. In fact, I have everything it takes to keep people away. Even at school I am fastidious, intolerant, ruthless.”

He practised tough love with his students although ‘I care’ was his school’s motto. For him, education was about ‘lessons in life’. All the subjects were tackled in a way to make them relevant for the real world: to understand it and to change it. His achievement: “I have brought up admirable youngsters; excellent citizens and excellent Catholics. Not one of them has grown up an anarchist. Not one of them has grown up a conformist.”

Not a do-gooder

Fascism and World War II had shown that: “Obedience is no longer a virtue. That cowardly schooling – consciously or unconsciously, I do not know – paved the way for the horrors three years later. It prepared millions of obedient soldiers. Obedient to Mussolini’s orders. Or, rather, to be more precise, obedient to Hitler’s orders. Fifty million dead…”

He told the military chaplains: “Tell us exactly what you taught the soldiers. Obedience at all costs? And what if the order was to bomb civilians, reprisals against a harmless village, the summary execution of partisans, the use of atomic or biological or chemical wea­pons, torture, the execution of hostages, summary trials for simple suspects?

Pope Francis acknowledged that the Church recognises Lorenzo Milani’s exemplary way of serving the Gospel, the poor and the Church- Evarist Bartolo

“Yet, these and many other similar things are common practice in every war. When they happened before your eyes you either lied or kept quiet.”

In 1965, Milani was put on trial for promoting conscientious objection in his ‘Letter to Military Chaplains’. He agreed with the Italian constitution that “the defence of the Fatherland is a sacred duty for every citizen”. But he attacked colonial wars as “Italy repudiates war as an instrument of aggression against the freedoms of other peoples and as a means for settling international controversies”.

He insisted: “I cannot tell my pupils that the only way to revere the law is to obey it. I can only tell them that they should hold mankind’s laws in such esteem as to observe them when they are fair (that is, when they uphold the weak). When they see that they are not fair (that is, when the laws sanction abuse of power by the strong) they should fight to change them.”

Milani denounced the education system structured to reproduce and reinforce an unjust society. Children coming from farming and working class families could not fit and succeed in such a system.

A ‘Letter to a Teacher’, written by eight of his students, describes how this system treats ‘disruptive’ students: “We, too, soon found out how much harder it is to run a school with them around. At times, the temptation to get rid of them is strong. But if we lose them, school is no longer school. It is a hospital, which tends to the healthy and rejects the sick. It becomes just a device to strengthen the existing differences to a point of no return.”

For Milani, good education was not about method, pedagogy and syllabi but about a total commitment to develop the students’ knowledge, competence and values to be better human beings than those of the ruling class. For him, this could not be achieved through a system bringing the children of social classes together. Education was not about being a do-gooder but about siding with the oppressed and fighting for a fair and equal society.

Pope Francis said Milani “…had only one concern: that his children grow with an open mind and with a welcoming heart, full of compassion, ready to stand up for the weak and to assist those in need, as Jesus teaches (cf. Luke 10:29-37), without looking at the colour of their skin, their language, their culture, their religious belief”.

Visiting his tomb in 2017, Pope Francis acknowledged that “the Church had made him suffer so much, (now) recognises in that life an exemplary way of serving the Gospel, the poor and the Church herself”.

Evarist Bartolo is a former Labour minis­ter for education and foreign affairs.

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