Great understandings

The “singular friendship” between the beguine and the priest

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04 September 2021

Reversal of roles between Romana Guarnieri and Giuseppe De Luca


“I was cursing this head that wouldn’t stop thinking, and this heart that was always panting: And I find myself with a confidence and a serenity that I can’t understand where it comes from...I feel secure...I feel all gratitude, nothing but gratitude, just like that, for everything and everyone; I can’t tell you well how it is” (letter 21, February 23, 1939. Tra le stelle e il profondo. Carteggio tra Giuseppe De Luca e Romana Guarnieri 1938-1945 [Between the Stars and the Deep. Correspondence Between Giuseppe De Luca e Romana Guarnieri] 1938-1945, Morcelliana).

We find ourselves towards the end of the 1930s. She, Romana Guarnieri (1913-2004), is a young and brilliant scholar from a middle-class Italian-Dutch family; he, Don Giuseppe De Luca (1898-1962) is a priest from a humble southern background, whose dream is to promote Catholic culture at higher and less provincial levels. There is to become a special relationship, we could say an example, among the most intense of the entire twentieth century of “an excellent woman-priest relationship” and that, as in the best tradition, has often seen the woman hold the strings of spiritual direction. The nature of their spiritual relationship, however, is not limited to this frequent reversal of roles. The exchange between them, made up of theological, existential and psychological insights and common projects would produce many intellectual, theological and practical fruits, such as the foundation of the Editions of History and Literature, conceived not only as an important publishing house but also as a true spiritual and cultural enterprise. There will be an end to the eccentricity of this encounter, for she was greedy for life, modern and secular, passionate about literature and art. Romana was “completely ignorant and uninterested - as she would tell him so- in matters of church and religion”. So as to be “on a par with the priest”, she converted to become “a beguine”, and so challenge the winds and the fashions that would like a secularized and emancipated woman to be outside any religious dimension, much less an ecclesial one.

La sua prorompente, quanto duratura conversione avviene tramite questo prete romano tutto interno alla formazione tridentina che coltiva il sogno di un’erudita ricostruzione della tradizione cattolica nel confronto ravvicinato con la cultura laica più alta, insieme alla pietà popolare, dei semplici e degli ultimi. Ossimori e polarità, affondi mistici ma anche razionali progetti culturali e politici ci rimandano ad uno scambio tra due vite vero, autentico, immediato e diretto, concitato ed emotivo, nel quale i piani si intrecciano e ciascuno può cogliere un frammento piuttosto che un altro di un affresco comunque quanto mai cangiante. Ma di cosa si tratti veramente lo si comprende soltanto dal commento postumo della stessa Romana Guarnieri; i suoi ricordi ci restituiscono la cifra vera del loro rapporto, disvelano la loro sostanza spirituale, quasi sacramentale, perché il loro è un vero confessarsi, un mettere nel crogiolo della conversione tutta la vitalità della relazione, i suoi bisogni e le sue pulsioni. Di Giuseppe De Luca, grazie alla pionieristica ricerca di Luisa Mangoni, In partibus infidelium (Einaudi), conosciamo il percorso tormentato, le amicizie intellettuali, le importanti realizzazioni. Di Romana  Guarnieri sono note le ricerche sulle forme di aggregazione femminile che non hanno dato luogo ad una fondazione conventuale monastica vera e propria, come il bizzocaggio, studi ripresi dalla storica e amica  Gabriella Zarri e da studiose impegnate nell’approfondimento della religiosità femminile. Le sue più grandi intuizioni avvengono sulla mistica femminile: la “scoperta” della mistica olandese Margherita Porete, autrice dello Specchio delle Anime semplici, arsa insieme al suo libro nel 1310, ripresa, in particolare, da Luisa Muraro, femminista e teorica del  pensiero della  differenza.

Her unbridled and long-lasting conversion took place through this Roman priest, who belonged to the Tridentine formation. He cultivated the dream of an erudite reconstruction of the Catholic tradition in close dialogue with the highest secular culture, together with popular piety, of the simple and the lowly. Oxymorons and polarities and mystical depths, but also rational cultural and political projects refer us to an exchange between two lives that is true, authentic, immediate and direct, excited and emotional. In their relationship, the planes intertwine and everyone can pick up one fragment or another of a fresco that is ever changing. However, what it was really about can only be understood from Romana Guarnieri’s comments read posthumously. Her recollections return to us the true figure of their relationship, and reveal their spiritual, almost sacramental substance, because theirs was a true confession: a putting into the crucible of conversion all the vitality of the relationship, its needs and its drives. Thanks to Luisa Mangoni’s pioneering research, In partibus infidelium (Einaudi), we know about Giuseppe De Luca’s tormented life, intellectual friendships and important achievements. Romana Guarnieri is known for her research on forms of female aggregation that did not give rise to a true monastic foundation, such as the so called “bizzocaggio”, studies taken up by the historian and friend Gabriella Zarri and by scholars involved in the study of female religiosity. Her greatest insights came from female mysticism: the “discovery” of the Dutch mystic Margherita Porete, author of the Mirror of Simple Souls, a book that was burned with her in 1310, and taken up, in particular, by Luisa Muraro, the feminist and theorist of the thought of difference.

Very little has been written about the relationship between Guarnieri and De Luca, while the most beautiful things were written by Romana herself in the 1980s and 1990s in the Bailamme magazine. This periodical, as the subtitle of spirituality and politics stated, was where strange thinking heads, Catholics, ex-communists, Jews, feminists, lay people and consecrated persons, met to exchange views. At that time in her eighties, and still a very lucid and volcanic like scholar, in a column in that magazine entitled Ricordando [Remembering], returned with her memory to the salient moments of their relationship. The result is a historical overview of Rome during the German occupation and the post-war period, enticing stories about the greatest intellectuals, be they men of the Curia, or politicians of the time. These are portraits of a high-level memoir, written with the expressive vivacity that is a constant feature of her communication, and expressed in the most diverse literary genres, from letters to scientific essays, to articles for newspapers and magazines, to which she devoted herself until the last days of her life.

In fact, her conversion occurred in the midst of youthful impulses, and took the form of a radical renunciation, of leaving everything behind. On the part of a young neophyte, who knew nothing about the church or religion, when “in my total ignorance and simplicity, every biblical word had a particular, immediate flavor that touched me deeply and came to me from the depths of the centuries as if said to me, only to me and to no one else but me. A blessed season of spiritual childhood, a season that also never returned, never again. Even the soul has its ages, and the mature one is not always light to bear”.

This is what Romana wrote in Ricordando [Remembering] (Bailamme, n. 10, December 1991), when she recounted how, on June 1, 1943, after the harsh ultimatum from her parents, she and Don Giuseppe decided “on the spot, that’s enough!” She explains, “We left my house rather distraught, and set off with no idea where we were going. After devoutly saying a Hail Mary and invoking my guardian angel, in a manner reminiscent of the Saint Francis of the Fioretti, we arrived at the Porta di San Pancrazio and, having taken the road down towards Saint Peter’s, we knocked on the door of the first convent we came across on our way and asked for the Mother Superior”. 

A tear, a rupture, a never looking back, like the rich young man in the Gospel. The emotional turmoil, the existential marasmus of the young Romana, which she experienced with a pride for she was aware of her many intellectual and human gifts, which made her feel so close to the parable of the talents, is therefore the scenario of her rapid conversion, of her falling in love and entrusting herself to the Lord.

Don Giuseppe was the intermediary and the inspiration; with her, he is first, a priest. This is how Romana wanted to describe him, “speaking of De Luca, many end up discussing the very fine writer, the extraordinary scholar, the learned humanist, the secret politician, the friend without equal: all things alive, real, and very noble in him, gifted as just a few: but by chance they forget to speak of the best, of what he himself cared for above all else in the world, of him being a priest”, (Bailamme, n.1, April 1987).

We could speak of Romana in quite the same way. Apart from her scholarly talents, little is known of her faith, of her being tied entirely to tradition, and experiencing the spirit of the Second Vatican Council fully. Little is known of her being a “beguine” too, and challenging the winds of the Council fashions, which wanted women to be emancipated, “on a par with priests”. Thanks to this feminine identification, she lived the last period of her life serenely, in that very complicated moment for the Church and for the world in which she had to grow old. A joyful faith, not without ruffling a few feathers, due to that indomitable character, at times irascible, on which she tried to work with patience and modesty but with which she had to come to terms and which she ended up accepting.

It is difficult, as we were saying, to imagine a more extreme polarity in terms of character, convictions and affiliations, which is intertwined in a powerful spiritual and loving relationship and which merged into a common passion for God.

by Emma Fattorini
Professor of Contemporary History “La Sapienza” university, Rome