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Giovanni Franzoni – Pen portrait of the life and works of a Fringe Catholic

by redazione

Sul nostro sito il 21 luglio già abbiamo pubblicato la “memoria” di Giovanni scritta da Luigi Sandri. La stessa è stata ora tradotta in inglese e spagnolo, a beneficio di chi ci segue nell’area anglofona e ispanofona. Di seguito il testo inglese (ringraziamo Michael Grech e Lara Zammit per la traduzione). A questo link trovate quello in spagnolo.

By Luigi Sandri

Drawing a pen portrait of the life and work of Giovanni Franzoni a few days after his death (which occurred on the 13th of July 2017) is an arduous task. We, the members of the San Paolo Christian Base Community, are still emotionally charged following the night vigil held at the Community’s meeting place between the 14th and 15th of July, and the subsequent funeral held in the lobby of the retirement home at Schuster Park, next door to the Roman Basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura[1] – next door but not within the Basilica and Monastery where Franzoni had been an Abbot from March 1964 to July 1973. As Abbot of this Basilica, Giovanni had the status of a bishop. This enabled him to attend to the last two sessions of the Second Vatican Council as a Conciliar Father. He was also a member of the Italian Episcopal Conference (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana or CEI).[2] Following ecclesiastical pressure, Franzoni was later ‘forced’ to resign from the post of Abbott.

In due course these events will be discussed thoroughly and in detail. Here I only intend to draw a little portrait of his life, hoping to satisfy the curiosity of some our readers regarding the exceptional person that was Giovanni Franzoni. I sketch the most significant events of his life and refer to some of the important works he published. I state at the outset that mine will be a very personal portrait.

A man and his limits

Whenever an important person dies, people tend to sing the praises of the individual and rarely focus on his or her limits. To me Giovanni Franzoni was neither perfect nor someone who even appeared to be so. He was frequently stubborn and litigious. I remember him insisting stubbornly to me that a particular statement was made at a particular ancient Church council rather than another, even though, as it befits the ANSA[3] correspondent I once was, I would have already verified, re-verified and checked my sources for the umpteenth time. He would only ‘concede defeat’ after being presented with the tangible sources that would back my claims. Or else, when writing about some particular topic for some publication I would be editing, he would go off on various tangents, and would include brackets (and at times brackets within brackets) in his text. To convince him not to include unnecessary details was an arduous task.

As he and other members of the community have done for years, Franzoni would intervene during the Eucharistic Celebration held every Sunday at the headquarters of the San Paolo Christian Base Community in Via [street] Ostiense in Rome to discuss readings from the Holy Texts. As he became old and visually impaired, he tended to become repetitive in his observations, rehashing ideas and lines of argument he had already expressed in previous weeks, and with which most of us we already familiar. This used to irritate some members of the congregation. Giovanni had these and other defects. He was neither a saint nor saintly. He was however a sincere and honest human being. He was also meek, generous, determined and ready to pay a hefty personal price for the ideas he upheld and the values he promoted. Assuming that mine is a partial and limited judgement, which in no way pretends to be objective or to reflect some God-inspired perspective, I can attest that Giovanni was a genuine follower of Jesus of Nazareth. My humble opinion is that Giovanni was a great Italian Catholic who in the past few decades honoured and blessed the Catholic Church and the Universal Ecclesia. Other Italian Catholics will have different, more or less reasonable, ideas and opinions. Readers might think that my judgement is biased, subjective, and unreliable given my affection for the person. (Our friendship goes back 40 years!) Still, contra facta non dantur argumenta. I believe that there are facts that buttress my contention. The following are some:

From Conciliar Father to… “La terra è di Dio” (The Land Belongs to God)

Mario Franzoni was born in Bulgaria in 1928. His family had moved to this Eastern European country because of his father’s employment. They came back to Italy a little time after Mario’s birth, settling in Florence where he grew up. After completing his secondary studies, he enrolled at the Capranica ecclesiastical college in Rome. Mario also became a Benedictine novice, taking the name of Giovanni Battista (he later used this name throughout his life). He later became a Benedictine monk and furthered his studies at the Pontificio Ateneo Sant’Anselmo. In March 1964 he was elected by his fellow monks as Abbot of the Roman Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura. This made him a member of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), since the Abbott of this Basilica has the same status as a bishop. As stated in the introduction, it also gave him the right to attend the last two sessions of the Second Vatican Council that was being held in Rome at the time.  Although he was a Conciliar Father, he never addressed the Council, but only followed the proceedings. Originally, as he himself recounted a number of times, Franzoni aligned himself with the ‘Conservative’ camp within the Council. After some time though, he ‘‘converted’’ to the ‘Progressive’ camp, and started supporting ‘Liberals’ in relation to issues like episcopal collegiality, the understanding of the Church as the people of God, and participation by the laity in the celebration of the sacraments and in the making of decisions that concern the Christian communities to which they belonged, religious freedom, the denunciation of anti-Semitism, Ecumenical interchange and encounter with the followers of other religions, and dialogue with Marxists on issues like human rights, peace and justice.

When the Second Vatican Council came to a close, Franzoni attempted to implement the teachings and values of the Council within his community. In particular he wanted to see the people of God participating in what goes on in the Church. One of the initiatives he took was meeting interested parishioners[4] each Saturday evening to discuss, reflect upon and discern the Biblical passages that would be read at Mass on the following day. The meetings used to be held inside the monastery’s ‘Red Room’, named in this way because of the red tapestry that adorned its walls. These meetings would involve factory workers, other employees, mothers and fathers, theologians, university students, and others. On the basis of these discussions and reflections, Giovanni would then compose the Sunday homily that he would then deliver on the following day, during the 12.00 o’clock Mass. These discussions led him to engage, at times in a painful and quarrelsome manner, with the day-to-day realities that people outside the Monastery faced in Rome and in Italy. It also brought him face-to-face with a world riddled with war and injustice.

Unlike some other members of the priesthood, Giovanni trusted the Church’s grassroots. He had an instinctive trust in ordinary people which, on a different sphere, lead him to support, even if in a critical and judicious manner, the various movements which attempted to give dignity to people who historically had been side-lined and whose rights had generally been denied. The encounter with ‘the people’ – “The Church as the people of God” as the Second Vatican Council had proclaimed – induced Franzoni to take a public stand on a number of political and social issues. He believed that this was part and parcel of his pastoral duties as Abbott of San Paolo, not an spare or additional involvement. Abbott Franzoni publicly expressed support for a group of workers that had been laid off by a factory in the Ostiense zone, next to the Basilica. He sought to promote non-violence as the way to end conflicts between different sets of people, fasting for peace in Vietnam and Bangladesh (a war between East and West Pakistan that had broken out when the latter wanted to become independent). In 1970 he publicly suggested to the President of the Republic Giuseppe Saragat to stop commemorating the feast of the Republic (2nd June) with a military parade, and to have a parade of NGOs and trade unions instead.

Peace was one of the ideals that Franzoni consistently promoted throughout his career as Abbott and after. At parish level he backed initiatives that promoted peace and justice, like supporting parish members who in 1971 and 1972 took part in a work-camp organised in Northern Ireland by the Anglican Cathedral of Coventry in England. He also supported a young member of the congregation who went to a war-torn region in Africa to do work as a voluntary nurse. Franzoni did not understand peace as mere tranquillity and order. He knew that one cannot achieve peace without justice. He also knew that peace does not only involve nations and armies, but is something that needs to be worked out even in the smallest and most intimate spheres.

Together with other people (not just those with whom he prepared the Sunday homily), Giovanni decided to start procedures to have some youths who were recovered at the Santa Maria della Pietà mental asylum in Rome released and integrated back in society. This was in line with the initiatives of Franco Basaglia, a psychiatrist who denied the therapeutic function of mental asylums and promoted a law which caused these institutions to close down. (The law was enacted in 1978.) Basaglia thought that the best way to have these patients deal with their problems is to integrate them back into the community. In light of these ideas, Giovanni took it upon himself to have a number of patients released and to help them assimilate once more within the society from which they had been torn.

Other events from this period included the decisive role Giovanni played when in March 1972 the periodical ‘Com’ was launched. This was a publication that provided a platform to various Christian Base Communities and also to many ‘critical Catholics’, and which had no ties to ecclesiastical hierarchies. In 1974 ‘Com’ merged with the evangelical publication ‘Nuovi Tempi’ (New Times) and that the magazine ‘Com-Nuovi Tempi’ (Com-New Times) was born. This was later renamed ‘Confronti ‘(Encounters) in 1989, and became a monthly periodical. Franzoni gave an important contribution to these publications, both in terms of their editorial lines as well as by contributing a number of articles. For the past ten years he had a column in ‘Confronti’ called Note dal Margine (Notes from the Side-line). The July-August 2017 edition of ‘Confronti’, which was completed a few days before his death, carries one of his last pieces. Another article, concerning issues that are related to the termination of life!, is to be published in the September edition.

Franzoni carried out his pastoral duties in a popular district, one where most people voted for Left-Wing parties. Giovanni could not avoid the issue – an issue that will appear trivial to many today – of whether Catholics should be politically ‘united’ by voting for one party, a party that would safeguard Catholic values and interests. For years, many in the Italian Church’s hierarchy thought that good Catholics could only vote for one party: the Democrazia Cristiana (DC – Christian Democratic Party).[5] Catholics who voted for other parties where viewed with varying degrees of suspicion. Those who voted for the Far-Right, Neo-Fascist, Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI – Italian Social Movement)[6] were generally tolerated. Bishops and conservative clerics tended to be disappointed if Catholics voted for secular parties like the Partito Liberale Italiano (PLI – Italian Liberal Party)[7] or the Partito Republicano Italiano (PRI – Italian Republican Party)[8], which were considered to be anti-clerical (though they were usually allied with the Christian Democrats in government coalitions in the period following World War II up to the mid-nineties of the twentieth century). Church authorities could not tolerate or forgive those Catholics who voted for the Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI – Italian Socialist Party)[9] or, worse, for the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI – Italian Communist Party).[10] Many of Franzoni’s parish members, including many who attended the Saturday meetings at the Red Room, tended to vote for one of these  two left-wing parties. Giovanni had a very good relation with these members of his parish. People within the Vatican and the Roman Curia though, were not happy with his attitude, especially after he repeatedly stated that a Catholic could, in good conscience, vote for any political party s/he deemed fit for governing the country. For him there were no First and Second division Catholics depending on which party these faithful voted. The existence of political pluralism within the parish was natural and beneficial.

In those days however, if a priest took a critical public stand on some social or political issue or other, or even if he addressed ecclesiastical issues that could be remotely related to the political sphere, he would inevitably end up irritating the main political party of the governing coalition, the DC (the Christian Democratic Party). This would also be taken by some as a challenge to the Ecclesiastical hierarchies that supported this party. It is not surprising therefore, that Giovanni was frequently accused of ‘meddling’ in politics’. Interestingly, such accusations were never levelled at those ecclesiastics who implicitly or explicitly gave public support to the DC. Theirs was just ‘pastoral work’!

The Second Vatican Council promoted Ecumenism and dialogue between different churches. As Abbott of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Franzoni hosted with full honours the Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras in 1967, and the Coptic Pope Shenouda III during 1973, in their respective first visits to Rome. They had come to the city to meet the Roman Pontiff, Paul VI. On both occasions they engaged in what was called ‘Pauline Dialogue’; meetings involving Catholics and other Christians, meant to enhance the study of the life and work of the Apostle Paul.

Franzoni also supported the liturgical renewal brought about by the Second Vatican Council, trying to curtail the top-down manner in which liturgies where normally celebrated and instead, involving the congregation as much as possible. One way of doing this was by allowing and encouraging the faithful to present their own prayers during the appropriate segment of the Mass. This was an uncertain though interesting experiment. Some of the prayers reflected depth of thoughts and feelings. At other times though, the quality was poor or commonplace, as when people would limit their prayers to invocations for a bed-ridden grandma, or imploring God to guide their son to find a suitable employment! There were also more disturbing types of prayer. A case in point involved a member of the congregation who was a member of a Neo-Fascist group whom I shall call Ottavio, and who thought that Catholic Civilisation was menaced by recent developments in society and in the Church. He would attack Giovanni for initiatives the latter took, and would normally end his diatribe with the words: “Abbott Franzoni, you are a traitor!” Those within the Roman Curia who did not like Franzoni where not troubled by similar attacks. In contrast, they were very upset when members of the community came out with prayers like: “Oh Lord, see that when my son grows up, the Church will no longer be riddled by scandals like the IOR scandal.”[11] The prayer referred to case opened against this Vatican Bank by various international authorities, which accused this financial institution of shady operations. Some ‘loyal’ members of the congregation reported Giovanni to the Roman Curia, and he was summoned to the Vatican to answer questions regarding this and similar prayers in the spring of 1973. During the meeting, the Vatican authorities he faced ordered him to curtail the spontaneity of such prayers. Giovanni refused and, on seeing that the Curial side did not budge, started to understand that his time as Abbott was coming to a close. He offered to tender his resignation by mid-July.

Giovanni did not offer to resign earlier because, together with a group of people, he was putting the finishing touches to the pastoral letter La terra è di Dio (Land belongs to God). This letter was primarily addressed to the parish and congregation of his Basilica. Franzoni also intended to publish the letter in book-form, so that he could share the thoughts it contained with a wider audience. The letter was written in relation to the Jubilee year that Pope Paul VI had proclaimed for 1975. The theme chosen for the Jubilee was “Renewal and Reconciliation”. In the letter, Franzoni discussed the issue of the land, which he claimed should be considered a gift from God and a ‘common good’. In light of this understanding, he invited the Church to uphold the ideal of poverty and to denounce the construction spree (and the related financial activities) that was taking place in Rome during those years. Some of these activities were even supported by institutions that had close ties to the Vatican. The letter was published in mid-June, at a time when the General Assembly of the Conference Italian Bishops (CEI) was meeting.

The letter received a lot of controversial reviews, and led to a number of debates and arguments in ecclesiastical circles and in public opinion at large. The book marked the end of the ‘Red Abbott’, as Franzoni had been called for some time. Following the celebration of the feast of St Benedict (11th July), Franzoni resigned from Abbott, and left the San Paolo Basilica and Monastery, taking with him a small bag containing some clothes. His departure was followed by the exodus from the parish of many women and men. These individuals could no longer meet in the Red Room, but had stablished ties of friendship with one another that they could not allow to die. Providentially, they had already given birth to the San Paolo Christian Base Community on Via Ostiense, a few yards away from the basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura. The first Eucharistic celebration at the premises of the Community had been held on the 2nd of September 1973.

Giovanni was now a simple monk.

Divorce and Defrocking

A referendum was held on the 12th and 13th of May 1974, to see whether the Italian electorate was willing or not to abrogate, a law that had already been enacted by Parliament which gave married people the right to divorce. A fiercely fought campaign was inaugurated at the beginning of that year, with two political parties – the Christian Democratic Party (DC) and the Neo-Fascist MSI – wanting to abrogate the law and encouraging the electorate to vote ‘Yes’ (‘yes’ to the abrogation of the law), and the other parties calling on the electorate to vote ‘No’. In February of that year, the permanent Council of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) issued a ‘Notification’ calling on Catholics to vote ‘Yes’ and claiming that Catholics had a moral duty to vote for the abrogation of the law. In April Franzoni publically challenged this claim in a booklet entitled Il mio regno non è di questo mondo (My Kingdom is not of this world). In the booklet he maintains that each Catholic has the right and duty to vote as her/his conscience dictates. Those who believe that they ought to vote ‘No’ can and should do so in good conscience. Franzoni noted that the law did not concern marriage understood as a sacrament but the legal statute of a secular state (the secularity of the state is something that Franzoni continuously supported throughout his life). Because of this booklet, he was punished by ecclesiastical authorities. At the end of the month he was suspended “a divinis”, and could no longer officiate sacraments.

Many were concerned by the Vatican sanction, and doubts were raised about its canonical validity. It wasn’t ever clear of what misdeeds Franzoni was being accused. He had expressed an opinion about a political issue which one could share or oppose. He did not discuss marriage as a sacrament. It was not clear why he was being stopped from officiating sacraments. Later on, religious authorities even stopped him from participating to public conferences and gatherings that were remotely related to the referendum. It was evident to many that the real motivations behind the sanctions were not theological but political. Franzoni obeyed, but the sanctions kept coming. For a year he refrained from celebrating sacraments, hoping that ecclesiastical authorities might re-consider their restriction. This did not occur.

An a divinis suspension is normally a temporary suspension, and requires a definite clarificatory process, at the end of which one is definitely condemned or absolved. Given that this clarificatory meeting was not forthcoming and that he believed that his silencing was unfair, Giovanni decided, in 1975, to start taking part in the Eucharistic celebration at the premises of the San Paolo Christian Base Community on Via Ostiense. This Eucharistic celebration had a peculiar liturgical and theological character, one where the priest played a different role compared to the one he plays in traditional parishes. (This is discussed in more detail later). More trouble with the hierarchy was impending.

In an article in Com-Nuovi Tempi Franzoni indicated that in the forthcoming political elections of June 1976, he would be voting for the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Because of this public statement of his voting intents, he was defrocked in August of that year. To understand this punitive measure one should consider the historical context in which it was meted. On the 22nd of July 1976, Pope Paul VI had suspended a divinis monsignor Marcel Lefebvre, the leader of the “traditionalist” Catholics who publicly attacked the Second Vatican Council and the reforms promoted by Pope Montini. Lefebvre’s suspension was opposed by many conservative clerics, including many within the Roman Curia. These claimed that Paul VI’s sanctioning of Lefebvre was excessive, considering how the Pontiff had been extremely lenient in relation to ‘progressive’ non-conformists like Franzoni. They accused the Pope of punishing harshly dissidents ‘on the right’, while tolerating those ‘on the left.’

Giovanni himself later told us that he had learned from a prelate friend of his that this forced the Vatican to find a ‘left-wing ecclesiastic’ to punish to calm down these conservative quarters. Following the weighing up of various options, it was decided that Franzoni was the one to punish. He was defrocked after a farcical trail that was carried out quickly and where he had no possibility of properly stating his case. One thing that really impressed us is that whenever Giovanni recalled these events and how they were brought about, he was never bitter or resentful. Indeed, he almost tried to justify and excuse those who meted the punishment.

Giovanni moved from being a Conciliar Father to an ordinary say person in a matter of months! He considered his new state of affairs as a gift, a blessing and an opportunity. Jesus was after all a ‘lay person’ who did not belong to the Jewish Priestly class.

Franzoni’s reflections on Ordained Life and on the Eucharist

In August 1976 the second phase of Franzoni’s life began. This phase was closely intertwined with the happenings and experiences of the San Paolo Christian Base Community. This community had already began discussing the role, significance and basis of ordained ministries before Franzoni had been defrocked, as early as 1974. The initial question was, ‘What does the New Testament say on these ministries? What insights one may get from the Holy Texts?’ The discussion involved important scholars like the Benedictine Friar Jacques Dupont and the Biblical Scholar Giuseppe Barbaglio. The conclusion that the community reached, a conclusion which was already accepted by many theologians but which were generally not known to the faithful, was that Jesus never thought of ministries in terms of “priests”, i.e. of mediators between God and the faithful. The New Testament speaks of difference ministries understood in terms of services to the faithful, and open to both males and females, regardless of whether they were married or not.

Following prolonged and thorough analyses and debate, and moved by the desire of the community to ‘re-appropriate itself of the ministries’, members of the community agreed to change the way in which the Eucharist was celebrated at the Community’s premises. They agreed to more or less maintain the structure of the traditional Mass, yet introduced important innovations like the absence of vestments. More importantly, they agreed that the Sunday Eucharist ought to be celebrated by all members together, that the cannon is read in unison by all and that the entire community, and not just those who have been ordained priests, ‘breaks the bread’ in memory of the death and resurrection of Christ who had said: “Where two or three are united in My name, there I am between them” (Matthew18, 20).

Giovanni, who was now defrocked, gladly accepted and encouraged these innovations. He produced some theological reflections concerning this new way of understanding and dealing with the ministries and of celebrating the Eucharist, which were subsequently published as Fate questo in memoria di me: Condividere il pane nell’Eucaristia e nella vita (Do this in memory of me: Sharing bread in the Eucharist and in our daily lives). The book was later presented to a Synod of Bishops which had met to discuss the Eucharist in 2005. The full text of the proceedings of the Synod was later published in Adista (Documenti n. 6, 22-1-2005). Episodes like this, (Giovanni presenting a book to a Synod of bishops) indicate that he (together with the San Paolo Christian Base Community) never wanted to detach himself from the rest of the Church or enjoy some form of splendid isolation.  He continuously sought encounter and engagements with other realities within the Roman Catholic Church, including with official ones. Unfortunately, the latter generally tended to ignore him (and the community) as soon as he was no longer a member of the clergy. I use the word ‘generally’, because there were important exceptions. We, the Members of the San Paolo Christian Base Community. still cherish the memory of the visit to the headquarters of the Community at Via Ostiense of the Emeritus Archbishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Samuel Ruiz. Like Franzoni, Ruiz too had been de facto isolated by powers that be within the official Church because of his work and militant activity with the indigenous nations of Chiapas in Mexico. I remember with tenderness his hug with Giovanni. Various Brazilian bishops also took part in our Eucharistic celebrations. Even Monsignor Clemente Riva († 1999), the Auxiliary Bishop of the Southern part of Rome, visited our community and claimed that ours was “a remarkable experience of faith within the diocese”.

Other fruitful engagements – engagements which provided occasions for learning and bridge-buildings – occurred throughout the years with other base communities and grass-roots experiences, especially those in Latin America, in Italy and in Northern Europe. The San Paolo Christian Base Community was also one of the first communities to welcome Catholic LBTIQ groups.

On many occasions Franzoni and the Community sent their reflections and thoughts concerning issues that the Church hierarchy was discussing to Church Synods or Assemblies. Under Popes Wojtyla and Ratzinger however, no Vatican representative or official member of the Synod or Assembly ever answered, gave feedback, or even acknowledged the reception of the documents we would send. Things started to change with Pope Bergoglio. When the San Paolo Christian Base Community sent its thoughts, reflections and suggestions in relation to the 2014 – 2015 Synods on the Family (which also discussed the issue of whether persons who had divorced and are in stable relationship ought to be also allowed to receive communion) the reception of our correspondence was, at least, formally acknowledged.

Franzoni did not merely give an intellectual input to the Community but also introduced simple practices which reflect deep spiritual and human insights. One practice he introduced was gathering together before the Sunday Eucharist celebration all children aged 6 and older, where they would meet in what he used to call the “Religious Laboratory”. Similar practices were common in churches in several countries, for instance, in Britain. They were quite rare in Italy. In this ‘Religious Laboratory’ the children and Giovanni would discuss various issues – God, Jesus, the Bible, the Church, non-Christian religions and world issues – in an open and dialogic manner. Participants would discuss freely and not be bothered by pre-set notions or ideas. Children would be treated as responsible members of the community and each participant would be continuously discovering new things and building his/her knowledge.

A Fringe Catholic

Franzoni was a very prolific writer. The themes he discussed are various, including topics which many were uncomfortable discussing. In Il diavolo, mio fratello (My brother the devil) Franzoni reformulated an idea Origen had propounded in the 3rd century, which holds that at the end of times God will bring everything back to Him. This entails that even Satan will be saved. Here and in other works Franzoni also denied the eternity of hell, since he believed that the idea of hell as an eternal place of suffering is inconsistent with God’s infinite benevolence and mercy.

Another of Giovanni’s favourite topics was Jubilee years. He considered and analysed these in light of Hebrew Scriptures. Franzoni held that rather than occasions for pilgrimages and ceremonies, Jubilee years should be special times where dignity is given to the oppressed and to victims of injustice. They also ought to be times where the earth is restored; where our planet is given a rest from exploitative and egoistic practices. This is after all how Jubilee years were understood in Ancient Israel, including in Jesus’ time.

In the summer of 2005 Franzoni was called to testify in front of the Ecclesiastical Tribunal in Rome that was in charge of the process for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, a process which had begun immediately after this Pontiff’s death. Franzoni expressed his reasons why Pope John Paul ought not to have been raised to the altars, reasons which he later published in a booklet. He claimed that the fact that John Paul II had restricted theological freedom within Catholic academies, hindered those who wanted to investigate and reform the IOR, and isolated prophetic figures like Oscar Romero constitute grievous reasons against the suitability of canonising the Polish Pontiff. These and similar negative considerations by other witnesses were however ignored by the authorities that were put in charge of the beatification process.

Even after his defrocking, Franzoni sustained the ecumenical spirit which the Second Vatican Council had inaugurated within the Catholic church. He encouraged the idea of “Eucharistic hospitality” within the San Paolo Christian Base Community. On several occasions, members of the community attended the Holy Supper celebrated by the Valdesian community at their temple in Piazza Cavour in Rome. In turn, groups of Valdesians or members of Churches that originated from the Protestant Reform would participate to our own Eucharistic celebration at Via Ostiense. Franzoni himself took part in the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu, Romania, in 2007.

Another theme which Giovanni discussed in various publications is the end of life and the respect that should be assigned to those who do not wish to be kept alive artificially. In light of these reflections, the community decided to act when in December 2006 the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini (with the implicit support of Pope Benedict XVI), refused to grant a Catholic funeral to Pier Giorgio Welby. Ruini claimed that Welby had planned his own death, and that this was tantamount to suicide. Giovanni and other members of the San Paolo Christian Base Community invited Welby’s widow Mina to an Eucharistic celebration held in memory of her husband. This was meant to be gesture of solidarity to Welby’s family and a testimony of our support for his choice; a choice that the members of the San Paolo Christian Base Community believed to be morally legitimate, and in no way condemnable in either human or Christian terms.

In many books and articles Giovanni discussed issues related to women. When the abortion referendum was held in 1981, he supported women’s right to choice. Regarding the Church, he called for ministries to be open to members of either sex, as well as to recognise the issue of celibacy. Giovanni himself had married a Japanese woman, Yukiko Ueno, in 1990. Given the different backgrounds from which they hailed, their marriage occasioned the meeting of two different cultures and world views.

Apropos different cultures and sets of people, Franzoni had always supported the right of the Palestinian people to a state of their own, a state that would exist adjacent to the state of Israel. Interestingly, the readings and research that Franzoni did in relation to this issue led him to (in his own words) “re-discover” Judaism, especially through the readings of the Talmud. This reading provided him with new interpretations and insights of the Holy Texts. Of particular interest was the manner in which Rabbis read and interpreted the myths of the First Testament, especially the myths of the book of Genesis. In light of these Rabbinic texts and exegesis, Franzoni began to ask deep and important questions regarding the Catholic notion of ‘original sin’, calling for a discussion of this notion this within the Church.

The (chronologically) final worry of Giovanni, a worry that bothered him particularly in the past few months, concerned reconciliation with clerics who opposed him. He held that while we should trustfully and determinedly move on along our path, we should also seek ways in which to dialogue with those who throughout the years have condemned our views and dismissed the validity of our experience. We should, every now and then, at least shake their hands in friendship, even though we will never come to terms with each other regarding how we understand and live our faith. It was a suggestion that some members of the community dismissed as utopian. Giovanni however, was very keen on it and was planning to organise a visit to Molise, to meet those parish priests who had rung a death toll when in April Parliament had approved a liberal law concerning the termination of life.

Besides his books, each month Franzoni contributed an article to Confronti where he normally discussed some controversial and delicate topic. He wanted his article to be a voice from the side-lines. His death left a huge loss at Confronti – a loss which will be really hard to fill. We will however try to keep alive his spirit alive and to foster his legacy.

We will not be the only ones that will miss him though. Dozens of mourners expressed their grief and thoughts during his funeral. It was evident that his deeds, example and words had helped many young people of yesteryear, who today are parents, wives and husbands, to live honestly, be open to the wretched of the earth and to resist injustices anywhere. A number of these no longer consider themselves to be Christians or religious. Incidentally, this was a topic Giovanni and myself had discussed a few months before he died. Smiling, and in a serene tone of voice, at one point Franzoni claimed that: “They might think that they are no longer are Christians, but they probably have more faith than I do. They will be amongst the first whom Christ, when He comes in glory to reward those who abide by the commandment: ‘I was hungry, and you fed Me’, will call ‘blessed’ and ‘Children of God’”.

The final farewell

I met Giovanni for lunch at the end of the Eucharistic celebration on Sunday 2nd of July. Given that he had lost sight completely, I had to slowly guide him along the road from the premises of the Community to the “Al Biondo Tevere” restaurant, a few yards down the road. This was a historical dining and meeting place for members of the San Paolo Christian Base Community. It was swelling hot, yet along our path there was a nice shade. As usual, once we sat down we discussed many issues. I was impressed, for the umpteenth time, by the affectionate way in which he spoke about his past, that he was never bitter with those members of the Vatican hierarchy who were responsible for his dismissal and who caused him much suffering. While we were chatting however, I could notice how transparent his skin had become. One could almost see the bones. He also found it really hard to swallow the food. He seemed exhausted. I realised that his death was near. Yet, I did not think that it was so immanent.

On Tuesday 11th July we were talking to each other on telephone, when Giovanni asked whether I had received his article for September’s issue of Confronti. The articles in this issue will focus on one theme, ironically issues related to death and the termination of life! I would generally proof read the articles Giovanni would send which, given his blindness, he would have dictated to a friend. He was so fluent in this that he would be like reciting something he knew by heart, when in fact he was composing the piece! He approved my cut of his article, and in general, sounded happy and serene. Following some further chatting on issues that concerned Italy, the rest of the World, the wars raging in the Middle East and the shortcomings of our community, Giovanni uttered the following words: “Dear Luigi, we come and pass, but God’s love remains”. The words sounded like a kind of farewell. We joyfully said “goodbye” to each other. We met again on the following Sunday for the Eucharistic celebration. Franzoni was his usual self: his voice was clear and loud. The voice of a person who, despite everything, was happy to be alive. Sister death, however, seemed to have other thoughts.

Giovanni woke up regularly on the morning of the 13th of July. He was at Canneto (Rieti), where he was now living. He met and entertained guests at his place, though at noon he informed his wife that he was not feeling well. His breath was heavy, so he sat down in a small room next to the kitchen for a few minutes. He then went to the bedroom. At 1pm. his wife told him to come down for lunch. He answered in a cheerful voice, telling her that he would be coming for meal in a few minutes. Yet time passed and he did not turn up. Yukiko went to their bed room and found him with one leg down the bed, as though he was going to climb out of this. He had died peacefully and without uttering any expression of pain following a heart attack. His wife called us immediately to give us the sad news. A good number of members of the San Paolo Christian Base Community drove to Canneto to give Giovanni the final hug.

His body was taken to Rome on the evening of the 14th. A night vigil was organised at the premises of the Community in via Ostiense. Each of us took turns at mounting the vigil. One of those who came to pray at his coffin was the recently appointed Abbott of the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, Don Roberto Dotta. He came with Fr Isidoro, an old friend and colleague of Giovanni, and another young monk. In the past few months, Abbott Dotta and Giovanni had built a solid friendship, which the latter found particularly pleasing. Franozni was also hoping to meet Pope Francis, to whom Don Roberto had forwarded a copy of Giovanni’s autobiography – a copy which carried an intense personal dedication. Unfortunately, death intervened before such meeting could take place. The Abbot and the other two monks later attended Giovanni’s funeral, a presence of which, one may presume, the Pope Francis was aware. Their attendance was very much appreciated by us members of the San Paolo Community. It was as though the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura was coming to terms with its former Abbott. This healing process was underlined further when, during the cortege, while members of our community where carrying Giovanni’s coffin through Schuster Park next to the San Paolo Fuori Le Mura Basilica, the bells of this Benedictine church rung a death knoll. The funerary ceremony was held in a nearby Retirement Home.

Apart from the representatives of the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura, there were other important clerics who attended the funeral like monsignor Enrico Feroci, the director of the Rome branch of Caritas. There were also a number of presbyters and many nuns, together with other friends who came from near and afar. Various members of different religious communities (on a personal basis or as representatives of these), including members of various evangelical communities, Protestant Churches as well as members of the Muslim community, also took part in the funeral. The 94 year-old former bishop of Ivrea, Monsignor Luigi Bettazzi (born in 1923), sent a message of condolence; a letter which contained some warm and affectionate words about the fellow Conciliar Farther who had just died

The only disappointment, given that Franzoni was one of the last Conciliar Fathers, was that there was no official representative of either the Vatican or CEI at his funeral. Giovanni would not have wanted any bitterness or regrets though. This can be safely attested given how he reacted to other incidents when he was snubbed in his lifetime. One recent case occurred on the 12th of October 2012 Pope Benedict XVI had invited all the bishops who took part in the Second Vatican Council and who were still alive to an audience and later to a dinner. Franzoni was not amongst those who were invited though. In Vatican circles his presence was still embarrassing. Giovanni, though initially baffled, neither held any grudge nor vented any sort of anger. It was evident that to the Church authorities he was – he was to be till his very end – a “sign of contradiction”.


Now that Giovanni is dead we, his friends, the members of the San Paolo Christian Base Community and the editorial team at Confronti have to turn a new leaf. We will seek to do our utmost to honour his legacy. We even have a small hope that the hierarchies that run the Italian and Universal Catholic Church to which he belonged to his very end, that is the Holy See and the Italian Bishop’s Conference (CEI), will finally readmit him to the ecclesiastical roll. We hope that they will also recognise that he was a prophet in our times. We trust that these institutions will one day critically and courageously reflect on the events that led Giovanni to be side-lined in the years 1974-76. He belonged to the fringe of the Catholic Church, as one part of the title of his autobiography claims. Yet, as the other part of the title indicates, he was a Catholic, despite being first side-lined and then ignored by Church institutions and even by many Catholic Theologians. These people preferred to pay no heed to the deep theological, anthropological and ethical issues he prompted.

Franzoni was a Christian who faced the hard, fascinating, and at times painful challenges the Gospel sets in our complex and liquid society. He confronted other challenges within the Church, both at an institutional and at a non-institutional level – a Church that found and perhaps still finds it hard to live the blessings Jesus promises, and to accept that His Kingdom does not belong to this world.

Rome, July 21st, 2017

  • Translated from Italian by Michael Grech and Lara Zammit

[1] The Basilica of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura [outside the walls of ancient Rome] is one of the four major Baslicas of Rome, the others being St John in the Lateran, St Peter’s and St Mary Major. It is traditionally believed to be no far of the place where St Paul had been beheaded. The Basilica includes a monastery, and hosts a community of Benedictine monks. [These footnotes – made by traslaters – are meant to explain features of Franzoni’s historical, social and ecclesiastical contexts to readers who are not familiar with these]

[2] The Italian Episcopal Conference is the assembly of Italian bishops. The Conference carries a lot of influence on the Italian Church, and its pronouncements concern not merely ecclesiastical life, but even issues related to politics and society. The president of CEI is appointed by the Pope.

[3] ANSA or Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata (National Associated Press Agency, in Italy).

[4] San Paolo Fuori le Mura, apart from being a Monastery and a Basilica, is also a parish. The Abbott, even though he is not the parish priest himself, is ultimately responsible for this parish.

[5] The Christian Democratic Party was formed in a clandestine way in the final years of the Second World War, although a party inspired by the same ideals, the Popular Party, existed before the establishment of the Fascist dictatorship. The party claimed to have no official ties with the Church, though it sought to implement the social teachings of the Catholic Church within the political sphere. This party was the mainstay of government coalitions for more than forty years after the Second World War.

[6] This party had been formed by hard-line followers of Mussolini, most of whom had supported the puppet-regime Republica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic) which Mussolini and others established and run in the final years of the Second World War.

[7] A very old Italian Party, which played a major role in political life following the unification of the country up to the early years of the twentieth century. With the growth of the Popular and the Socialist parties at the beginning of the twentieth century (which coincided with an increase in the number of people who had the right to vote), its role in political life started to dwindle. Though being liberal, it tended to be supportive of the Monarchy. In Franzoni’s days, most of its support was drawn from secular bourgeois.

[8] Another old party, which existed before Italy became a republic, and had the latter as one of its goals. As with the Liberal Party (PLI), in Franzoni’s days, most of its support was drawn from secular middle-class quarters.

[9] The Partito Socialista Italiano was founded in Genoa in 1892. It contained both a reformists and a radical Marxist wing.

[10] The Partito Comunista Italiano was founded by radical members of the PSI in 1921. Following World War II it became the major opposition party in Italy, and the largest Marxist Party in Western Europe.

[11] IOR or Istituto per le Opere di Religione (Institute for Religious Activities) is a private bank located within the Vatican State, whose official raison d’être is the custody and management of property and capital bestowed by private individuals or others for religious or charitable purposes. During the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century, the bank was involved in a number of shady activities that involved people related to the Mafia, Masonic Lodges, and various international political organisations. These activities included money laundering, fraudulent bankruptcy and illegal transfers of money.

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