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A conversation of souls

· A historical and spiritual document detailing the correspondence between Giorgio Montini and his son Giovanni Battista ·

In 1986 Nello Vian's collection of Lettere ai familiari, published by the Istituto Paolo VI of Brescia, consisted of 1,098 documents (letters, postcards, telegrams) which Giovanni Battista Montini wrote between 1919 and 1943.

With familiari he referred to all the members of his family with whom he corresponded, individually or collectively: his parents, Giorgio Montini and Giuditta Alghisi Montini, his paternal grandmother, Francesca Buffali Montini, his aunts and uncle on his father's side, Maria, Elisabetta and Giuseppe Montini, and his brothers, Lodovico and Francesco, during the period when they were living at home with their parents. The following year, in Lettere a casa, Vian brought to light another 18 messages that the very young Montini sent to his relatives between 1915 and 1919.

The praiseworthy Brescian institute is now publishing the correspondence between Giovanni Battista Montini and his father Giorgio (G. Montini, G.B. Montini, Affetti familiari spiritualità e politica. Carteggio 1900-1942, edited by Luciano Pazzaglia, Brescia-Roma Istituto Paolo VI-Edizioni Studium, 2009 [Quaderni dell'Istituto, 30]; ; 50).

There is a total of 427 documents, 106 of which were written by Giovanni Battista – all formerly published in 1986 except for the first 10, which date from the years of his childhood to 30 April 1918, of which only one letter was published (in 1987) – and 321 of which were written by Giorgio. These latter have never been published before.

In comparison with the 1986 and 1987 editions, now, for the first time, it is possible to listen to the entire epistolary conversation between father and son. In addition, Giovanni Battista wrote other, hitherto unpublished, individual letters to his mother and to each of his two brothers.

One could and should write at length about this book in which the Istituto Paolo VI's long experience in editing correspondence and texts by Montini is fully demonstrated.

All of the Institute's expert members played a part – from Renato Papetti to Caterina Vianelli (who edited the philological edition of the letters, making an invaluable contribution to compiling the notes) and to Lino Albertelli (who facilitated consultation of Pope Montini's personal library and the library of the Istituto Paolo VI in Brescia).

Thus this book is the result of team work and, in a certain sense, of unanimity (indeed, the contributions of Anna Brichetti, Elisabetta Luzzago Montini, Maria Ludovica Snider, Carissimo Ruggeri, Renata Bressanelli and Sara Lombardi should not be overlooked). Thanks to them the accuracy of the presentation of the texts is accompanied by very detailed descriptions of events, circumstances, situations and reports, spanning “important” history as well as local and family history. This is therefore an exemplary collection of letters that is also extraordinarily rich in content.

In the comprehensive introduction of almost 200 pages which almost seems to take the form of a monograph, Luciano Pazzaglia carefully reviews the productive intersection of the paths of the two protagonists in the period covered by the correspondence.

It was a natural step for Giorgio, from being editor of Il cittadino di Brescia (from 1881) and leader of the Catholic movement of Brescia (in which he gathered the testimony of Giuseppe Tovini, who died in 1897), to move on to assume national responsibilities. In 1917 he became President of the Electoral Union (for the organization of Catholic participation in administrative and political battles) and then in 1919 was elected deputy in the ranks of Luigi Sturzo's “Partito Popolare” [Peoples' Party].

In the meantime young Battista was growing up, at home, at the “Collegio Arici”, at the “Oratorio della Pace” and at the seminary (until his ordination on 29 May 1920). He was sent to Rome to continue his studies.

So it was that at the beginning of the 1920s father and son would meet to spend brief periods together in Rome. Between them a mature dialogue developed. It continued through the important experiences and trials of Fascism that had come to power in Italy, of the Conciliation and of the consolidation of totalitarianism in the 1930s, when clear signs of the catastrophic Second World War were looming up.

Giorgio Montini died in the middle of the war, on 12 January 1943, at the age of 84. His wife Giuditta died soon after him on 17 May.

The correspondence offers us a testimony and an interpretation of all these experiences. In them, as the book's title effectively indicates, family affection – what tender, human love breathes through these letters! – is combined with a spirituality that truly orients all things to the service of God, to understanding and fulfilling his will, and thereby also illuminates the historical and political evaluations, decisions, opinions and states of mind.

The father – as the number of letters sent by each of them demonstrates – wrote to the son more often than the son to the father. While with the passing years the father was reducing his commitments, the son was ever more absorbed by his increasing responsibilities (from 1937 he was Substitute of the Secretariat of State), caught up in paperwork and business matters “which, although they are not always linked to the loftier thinking from which they stem and to which they aspire – fill rather than satisfy the heart” (Giovanni Battista, 1 December 1942).

On several occasions Battista, feeling dismayed “in the midst of this incessant and implacable bureaucratic work” (Giovanni Battista, 13 July 1940), apologized for not writing more often since his work “invades every available moment, tranquillity and thought and is so demanding – because of the excessive number of grave things one is obliged to think about and do – that it leaves the heart ever unfulfilled and the task ever incomplete” (Giovanni Battista, 22 April 1938).

Yet the unanimity of sentiments and the spirit that he shared with the world from which he came and the presence of his relatives in his love and thoughts are so vivid that he must never have experienced any remorse for having forgotten them.

It is impossible to give a more detailed analysis of the texts in the brief space of a presentation that is intended to be simply an invitation to pick up the book. These texts may be read in many ways, following the multiple paths of interpretation that Pazzaglia perceptively suggests.

It is possible to follow in them the slow development of positions on democracy and on the political commitment of Catholics and the reactions and comments on daily events; similarly one can note how the events of “important” history are mixed with small family happenings in a dialogue that always has in the background, whether or not it is expressed, the desire of both correspondents to serve the Lord on the paths that his Providence will reveal to them.

By comparison the father seems to be the happier of the two, the most courageous, the most serene even in the trials of old age, in the progressive loneliness caused by the death of so many of his travelling companions on the journey of life (Defendente Salvetti in 1933, Giovanni Grosoli in 1937, Filippo Meda in 1939, Filippo Crispolti in 1942) in the darkest hours of the Italian homeland that he served and loved as a Catholic.

This correspondence therefore constitutes a historical, but also a spiritual document in which the closeness of a discreet family circle, far removed from any ostentation, is revealed naturally in the light of a faith that constantly enlivens every step, from beginning to end, and for this very reason unites the various careers of the members of the family.

On 30 November 1919, the day of his tonsure, Battista expressed “the gratitude I must have to those who brought me up to enjoy such good fortune [that is, the supernatural destiny and vocation], to my family, to you, dear Papa and to our forebears, who through faith have bound us for ever to the Lord and his Gospel”.

And then he straight away connects his father's political militancy, amid the “clamour” of Roman life, with the priestly journey on which he was setting out: “But I know that I have learned from you to refer external, human events to the spiritual principles of the Christian conscience and it is precisely from this that our policy draws its purpose and strength; and I hope, indeed your telegram assures me of it, that I have in you a continuous remembrance that links the business and your work over there to the very humble work of my spiritual life, like two forces which, in spite of being unequal and different, work together for the same social purpose: the Kingdom of God”.

At the other end of this moving conversation between “my beloved Father”, and “your Father”, having turned his gaze to the tragic situation in the Europe of his time, Giorgio likewise linked his distant son's work to his own, as if it were a vicarious continuation of it: “My heart is wrung in the face of daily events that show what agitation is rife in the society in which we live: Russia, Mexico, Spain, even the poor, most Catholic Spain that should have had its own stock of resistance.

“And will Italy be immune from contagion? Will it keep its providential religious function at the heart of Catholicism? How necessary it is to work in depth whereas we live so superficially as Catholics!

“I would like to be able to do something too, and I now feel the full truth of that apostrophe of St Philip to the young: ‘Blessed are you who have time to do good!’. You, my dear, you are doing it and will do it. Have trust in Providence who will never let you lack strength: Do something too on my behalf, for when I could have done it I uselessly wasted so much time” (Giorgio, 28 April 1936, p. 535).

Hence this volume of correspondence is of great historical relevance but also of special and all-consuming human beauty, characterized by delicate tenderness and affection that are revealed above all in moments of trial.

When, in 1932 the first attack was unleashed against Fr Battista, accused of “liturgism” in his work among Catholic university students, Giorgio consoled him during the storm: “Dear Fr Battista, you can well believe whether or not the hearts of your mother and father, always beside your own heart, have shared your suffering: but, knowing you to be sincere, we have also had the consolation of seeing that you have faced the tribulations with manly fortitude and Christian patience, defending yourself as a duty and suffering humbly.

“We too sought to imitate you; to suffer together, to offer the Lord the suffering and to cherish it for life and beyond life is to lighten the burden. We do not doubt that everything will turn out to be a blessing to you. In my long and busy life, the Lord, knowing me to be weak, has more than once wished to make me see, even here below, how from evil or from what has clashed with our limited vision, the best would always come.

“From this you may derive great comfort in which to trust: you will see that it will be the same for you, but you know that the more devout and humbly patient you are, the more abundant the Lord's graces will be. We are all praying for you and for your work” (Giorgio, 18 May 1932).

However, at the end of the journey the roles were reversed and it was he, “your old Father” as he called himself, who entrusted to the filial devotion and priestly zeal of Battista “my weakness, my inertia, the carelessness that is so easy and so dangerous when relatively good health masks reality instead of evoking the inevitable sunset”, thus confiding to the charity of his son's prayers “these last stages that can be neither long nor numerous but are the crucial ones” (Giorgio, 3 July 1939).

The son, after he became Pope, was to recall with prudent discretion his father from whom, as he remembered on 29 June 1963, he had received “together with natural life so great a share of our spiritual life”.

And in Dialogues avec Paul vi he was to tell Jean Guitton that it was to Giorgio that he owed “the examples of courage, the urgent need never to give in supinely to evil, the oath never to prefer life to the reasons for life. His teaching may be summed up in a word: being a witness. My father was not afraid”.

This extraordinary correspondence – in which a father and son, an old man and a young one, a layman and a priest, encouraged each other, edified each other and comforted each other on the journey toward the Kingdom of God – confirms it.

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