photo source: via Famiglia Cristiana
The priest did his utmost in favor of the least, especially the young, also building a school whose experience is still remembered today – 60 years later. What stood on the hills of Barbiana was a school that Don Milani had set up to help peasant children to emancipate themselves, to develop their critical sense: in short, to become worthy citizens. The priest’s activity was – as often happens – appreciated only in retrospect, after the disappearance of Don Milani: let us then retrace the stages in the life of a man to whom the Italian school still owes a lot.
Who was Don Milani: from agnosticism to Catholicism
Lorenzo Milani was born on May 27, 1923 into a wealthy family in Florence. He wasn’t a particularly brilliant student: enrolled in the ‘Berchet’ high school in Milan, he didn’t excel in performance. Decided to break with the family tradition, he did not want to enroll in university after obtaining his diploma: a choice that created numerous contrasts especially with his father from whom he distanced himself at a young age.
When the family moved to Milan, Lorenzo Milani chose to convert to Catholicism and a few months later he entered the seminary. Those properties for which he is still remembered today emerged: Milani was very critical of the exteriority of some rites: according to him, central to religious life was to be a rigorous, wholly interior search for the truth.
Training and thinking
The context in which he lived is essential for understanding the philosophy of Lorenzo Milani: the war and fascism, and the awareness of an extremely privileged origin, from which he wanted to free himself, led him to assume radically critical positions towards social injustice and authoritarianism. He officially became a priest in 1947, his first assignment was that of chaplain in the parish of San Donato in Calenzano, a small town between Prato and Florence. Here he set up the first popular school. An open and free school for workers and peasants.
He developed some fundamental reflections on language and teaching. Mastering the language is the first and essential tool for any struggle aimed at achieving equality and overcoming social injustices: education therefore became a means of emancipation, freedom and political awareness.
His positions were immediately criticized especially in ecclesiastical circles. When in 1951, and then in 1953, the parish priest expressed himself in public supporting the freedom of the vote and stating that everyone should vote according to his conscience, he contravened the clerical laws which prevented priests from speaking about voting and elections. A stance which cost him his place in Calenzano and his sending – on a permanent basis – to the anonymous municipality of Barbiana.
The educational project: the Barbiana experience
Barbiana is a small fraction of Vicchio in Mugello, where in the mid-1950s there was still no middle school. Don Milani decided to build a school for local young people, children of poor farmers and with few tools to emancipate themselves. School kept the kids busy all day, every day of the year. There was no recreation, considered useless and a waste of time.
The technique of collective writing was practiced; the newspapers were read, they discussed and the commentary was written together. Weekly conferences and meetings with trade unionists, politicians and intellectuals were planned. The first to ask questions to those present had to be those with the lowest educational qualifications. The goal of this educational project was the emancipation of the lower classes.
Don Milani, an “uncomfortable” priest
That of Barbiana was a formative experience for the parish priest himself. The more he came into contact with the devastated realities of the territory, the more a sense of justice oriented towards the weak grew in Don Milani. At that time, together with his students, he wrote ‘Obedience is no longer a virtue’, letter in defense of conscientious objection, sent to all the press of the time. Subsequently, it was the turn of ‘Lettera ad una professoressa’, written after having witnessed the failure of two of his students in the state exams: it is a letter of denunciation of the Italian training system, according to Milani – at the time – characterized by connotations classists.
In the same text we read some nodes to be reformed, including the system of rejection and full-time. Don Milani lived in a radical way, extreme for the role he filled, and often in conflict with his superiors. It was he who highlighted the exposed nerves and all the contradictions that animated the society of the time: for this very reason he is remembered as an “inconvenient priest”.