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My father

· 30 years since the murder of Vittorio Bachelet ·

“The Lord said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me’. Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home’” (Jgs 7:1-3).

My mother, my sister and I chose these verses, very dear to my father, to go with his photograph. Following the Lord's instructions Gideon sent home 32,000 men and kept with him only 300. With them, armed with jars, trumpets and lighted torches – and great courage, founded on the Lord's word – Gideon broke into the camp of the Midianites during the night. Seized by panic, they fled in a disorderly fashion.

It demanded courage and faith on my father's part to accept – at the age of 33 from John XXIII and at 38 from Paul vi – respectively the vice-presidency and then the presidency of Catholic Action with the formidable mandate of bringing the Council into effect in Italy.

The aim was to introduce the Bible and the new liturgy into every family and every parish. Catholic Action was to be transformed into a laboratory of the Church of the future, a new combination of internal democracy (with leaders elected by the members for mandates that could be renewed only twice) and serene fidelity to the Pastors (who were also entitled in the new Statutes to have a crucial say in important decisions).

Vittorio Bachelet had to concentrate on the Gospel and on Christian formation, restoring political commitment – and the organization of sports and other good things for which Catholic Action had until then invaluably provided – to the autonomous responsibility of the laity.

He was also required to turn over a new leaf with regard to what Mario Rossi had described as “the days of omnipotence”, even at the price of a painful numerical and financial slimming down process. This required Gideon's courage and trust in the Lord.

The full confidence of the Pope and of the National Chaplain, Bishop Franco Costa, both of whom inspired a whole generation of priests and lay people in love with freedom and democracy and, after the War and the Resistance, with the Republic, with the Constituent and with the Constitution, helped Bachelet to “pay attention to the reality of his contemporaries without withdrawing into Pharisaic arrogance, without being a faction among factions or a powerful organization, but salt and light in the world instead”, as he said to the Diocesan Presidents in 1966.

Only a President and a Chaplain  who were in such complete agreement on the distinction of tasks between clergy and laity, as they were against any type of factiousness and favouritism, could succeed in bringing about the miracle of guiding the different emerging points of view.

These were physiologically bound to the coming of associative democracy, to the “continuous growth of a style of brotherhood and freedom and a constructive force” that my father mentioned joyfully in his last discourse to Catholic Action in 1973.

I subsequently understood many of these things better. I was then between elementary and secondary school, and Bishop Costa was a Genoese priest with whom we went to the mountains, with other families. He was a Bishop with a ready sense of humour who, for example, refused to let children kiss his hand, improvising an exhilarating, unexpected game of arm-wrestling. I knew he was National Chaplain to Catholic Action and that a Council was going on; yet among this  group of mountaineers the switch from Latin to Italian and the introduction of three Readings, the sign of peace and the guitar seemed as natural as my moving up from elementary to secondary school.

Only as an adult did I realize that elsewhere those same conciliar changes were experienced with less naturalness and at times met with strong resistance.

Only as an adult, thanks to my mother's accounts, did I learn, for example, that Bruno Paparella, the General Secretary of Catholic Action during my Father's presidency, who often lunched at our house and was known to us children especially for his jokes, was not so enthusiastic about the new conciliar approach.

In those years, behind the brotherly and peaceful conciliar journey of Catholic Action (and with it of a large portion of the Italian Church), there was evidently great faith but also a great capacity for listening, for understanding with the pastors, for humility in accepting progress made in small steps, with the result that it reached everyone. “Privileges” formerly reserved for the clergy and, until the Council, accessible at most to Catholic university or degree students – such as the Prayer of the Hours, the reading and commentary of the Bible and the understanding of, and full participation in, the Eucharistic Liturgy – were gradually and smoothly transferred to the entire People of God.

My father's sense of humour often prompted him to smile rather than weep at the slowness and anxiety in implementing the dictates of the Council. He would smile when an elderly parish priest ended his homily with an unexpected annotation, completely out of context: “I personally do not see priests being married! Praised be Jesus Christ”.

He would smile in quietly reminding a Bishop friend that “in a democracy being right is not enough; it is also necessary to get 51 percent of the voters to admit it”.

And he would also smile when the Italian Bishops arranged a plenary meeting of their Conference on the very eve of an election, in spite of the distinction the Council had made between the political community and the Church: “after centuries of throne and altar”, he would say, “to change our habits we need a few decades at least...”.

The “religious option” of Catholic Action was based on the centrality of competence and knowledge, on the legitimate plurality of views in many areas of human action and on the clear distinction of roles between the political community and the Church of Gaudium et Spes .

“At the time when the plough of history was making deep furrows, turning over the clods of Italian social reality, what was important? It was important to scatter good seed”, said my father.

The Church, therefore – and Catholic Action with her – was to focus on her own priority mission: to evangelize or re-evangelize the world undergoing rapid change. Yet this decision was far from involving the return of lay people to the sacristies and contempt for politics: on the contrary, it was based on respect for their autonomy and on the appreciation of their irreplaceable role, so that Paul vi even described it as “the loftiest form of charity”.

By his character and vocation, however, my father was deeply attached to the university and to Catholic Action, and less to politics and the Christian Democrats.

He did of course vote for this party, convinced that “that the few who resemble us belong to it”, yet I believe that in 1976, although he did not imagine that four years later it was to cost him his life, my father experienced the candidature of the “new dc” of Moro and Zaccagnini as a duty rather than a pleasure.

He was elected to the Municipality of Rome and shortly afterwards Parliament designated him a member of the Superior Council of the Magistrature, of which he was elected Vice-President.

In those years several politicians, still lively and active, coined the slogan: “Neither with the State nor with the Red Brigades!”. There were even some who schemed and plotted in the shadows between lodges and bombs on trains. Being with the Magistrature demanded courage; as was seen later.

Don Abbondio maintained that one cannot give courage to oneself. Cardinal Borromeo cried out the question: “Don't you think that... there is One who will infallibly grant you courage when you ask him for it? Do you believe that all those millions of martyrs had courage naturally?” ( I promessi sposi, XXV).

My father, like Gideon and like Bonhoeffer, whom he cited at the last assembly in 1973, found courage and strength in the Lord: “I believe that in every difficult situation God gives us the strength we need to resist. However, he does not grant it to us beforehand, not until we abandon ourselves entirely to him rather than to ourselves. Every fear for the future must be surmounted with this faith”.

From the time when we were small children this faith was visible to us in the prayers of our parents, of our mother and father together. In them prayer appeared as a primary need like food or sleep: ancient and modern prayers, the Psalms and the Rosary and Compline, in Italian and in Latin; in the morning, in the evening, before meals and while travelling. In one of my sweetest childhood memories my father and mother are kneeling by my bed and before I fall asleep I hear the words of one of their evening prayers: Oremus pro pontifice nostro Ioanne... since then we have prayed for Paul, for John Paul, and today we pray for Benedict; we loved and love the Pope not because, as father once said, he is called John or Paul, but because he is called Peter.

A few days ago mother told me she had come across a booklet at home that she had never noticed in the past 30 years: Faith and future, It was written by Pope Benedict as a young man a few years after the conclusion of the Council. My father had underlined two passages in pencil.

The first says: “Only those who give themselves create the future. Those who merely seek to teach, solely in order to change others , remain barren”.

The other passage, in the last paragraph, entitled: “The future of the Church”, said: “The future of the Church... will not come from those who make prescriptions... or, on the other hand, from those who adapt to the passing moment... or criticize others and consider themselves an infallible measure... or those who declare obsolete all that imposes sacrifices upon the human being.... this time too, as it always has, the future of the Church will come from new saints”.

Faith, love and obedience unfortunately prove incomprehensible to many who look at the events of the Church from the outside and believe they see within her only a gigantic chess game. On the contrary my father was convinced that: “Free and honest Christians can live in obedience and peace in the Church today and in the future, as did Angelo Roncalli who was a free and faithful priest, Bishop and Pope because he had faith – not in his own strength but in that of the Spirit who guides the Church”.

I too am convinced of this and, 30 years after my father's death, I ask the Lord for faith and courage, obedience and peace for myself and for my children, for lay people and for the priests of my Church.

( Vittorio Bachelet was murdered by the Red Brigades in 1980 on the grounds of La Sapienza).




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 17, 2020