During their lifetimes and for many years after they died in the second half of the last century, the two prophetic priests were subjected to marginalisation and condemnation by the ecclesiastical authorities
A private visit to two tombs in obscure parts of Italy by Pope Francis on June 20 could be passed over as an act of private respect for two priests of the 20th century, but I believe that more than showing a personal appreciation, his visit was actually raising an encyclical from the graves of two men he wants to promote as a new model for priesthood and ministry.
In the late afternoon, Pope Francis visited the burial places of Father Primo Mazzolari in Bozzolo (Mantua) and Father Lorenzo Milani in Barbiana (Florence), two small villages in northern Italy.
It was an extraordinary visit, loaded with meaning and suggestive of further ecclesial implication.
During their lifetimes and for many years after they died in the second half of the last century, the two prophetic priests were subjected to marginalisation and condemnation by the ecclesiastical authorities.
But this visit by Pope Francis, rather than simply expressing a kinder judgement of history is actually proposing a new model for priesthood.
Father Milani (1921 to 1967) and Father Mazzolari (1890 to 1959) showed much courage in facing the social and religious challenges of their time, challenges that still face the Church today.
They were both priests of the people with the smell of the sheep on their clothes that Pope Francis likes.
Their lives remained anchored in evangelical witness and the daily grind of the simple and of the poor.
Until the recent past, the official model for parish priests has been the Curé d'Ars, the 19th century French pastor of Ars, St. John Vianney. But maybe it is time to refresh the model.
Father Milani and Father Mazzolari were inspirations to many young people searching for an authentic evangelical witness in the Italy and Europe of their time.
Both Father Franco Mella, who is well known in Hong Kong for his ministry among and support of the marginalised and despised, and myself have been inspired by these two priests in our lives and choices.
We relate strongly to the image of Church that they represented. Since we were young, we have been reading their texts and following the example of the fundamental inspiration of their lives; the gospel of Jesus lived and practiced in all its radicalism.
If many ecclesiastics of their time represented a Church old and compromised by power; the two prophetic priests were for us like a glass of clear water; a breath of fresh air.
We wanted to become priests and missionaries like them—close to the struggle of the people, to those in distress, victims of injustice, poverty and violence.
Father Mella lived the years of the 1980s with the boat people of Hong Kong.
In the footsteps of Father Milani, he founded a popular school for children of irregular immigrants that could not enter the public school system.
Something similar occurred in the early years of this century with Right of Abode seekers—children born in China to parents who had found a job and residency in Hong Kong.
The local Church has supported our struggle too, as family reunification is a fundamental value and a right.
For the children who could not study in a public school, we have created the Right of Abode University, again inspired by Father Milani and Father Mazzolari.
We wrote about them in the school bulletin. We taught languages, as Father Milani taught us to do, as he said we must learn languages, perhaps not perfectly, but to be able to travel around the world and to encounter people.
The idea of translating the texts of Father Milani and Father Mazzolari from their original Italian was born in that context.
A month before Pope Francis paid his visit to the tombs of the two priests, we put the lives and the writings of these two Italian priests, who anticipated Vatican II many years before it happened, on show at two separate events in Hong Kong.
We took pride in presenting a Chinese translation of Thou Shall Not Kill (1955), a prophetic text of Father Mazzolari, now known as the parish priest of Italy. It is a text with a strongly evangelical flavour, treating the themes of peace, nonviolence, dialogue and the primacy of conscience.
Thou Shall Not Kill is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most controversial book by Father Mazzolari.
It was initially published anonymously, due to ecclesiastical censure.
The book has become a classic, a reference text for the promotion of peace, dialogue, nonviolence and the rejection of war.
Sixty years have passed, but Father Mazzolari's rejection of war and violence and his support for conscientious objection against criminal orders by military or political authorities is still highly significant in today's world.
It seems that we never learn from the tragedies of history, so the theology of peace proposed by Father Mazzolari is as relevant today in Hong Kong and China as anywhere else.
To us, his words are contemporary, "Peace is the most fragile gift. There is very little that we can do to secure it, but let's do the little we can do with our whole heart, so we will follow the path that is closest to the gospel, but also the less irrational."
When in February 1958, the Vatican authorities made a decision to have his book suppressed, Father Mazzolari obeyed without recrimination. Father Milani also did the same when Vatican authorities suppressed his book, Pastoral Experiences, in 1959.
A few years later, 500 copies of Thou Shall Not Kill were distributed to the council Fathers at Vatican II, contributing to the debate on peace and war for the writing of The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).
An event on May 21 at the Holy Cross Centre in Sai Wan Ho was co-chaired by Jackie Hung Ling-yu, from the Justice and Peace Commission, and myself, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
The bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, introduced the event, speaking at length on the lessons Father Mazzolari's work holds for the special administrative region.
He, along with Father Milani has inspired the lives of many missionaries from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), as well as Christians and other people in Hong Kong.
Two other texts written by Father Milani, his famous Letter to a Professor and Obedience is no longer a virtue, were translated into Chinese a few years ago by Hung, Father Mella and myself.
The two were also presented in Sai Wan Ho and the following day at a function for the Italian community in Hong Kong at the PIME House in Clear Water Bay.
It was presided over by the consul general from Italy to Hong Kong, Antonello De Riu, and the representative from the Holy See, Monsignor Ante Jozic.
Both events were attended by a delegation from the diocese of Cremona, which had ordained Father Mazzolari to the priesthood.
The delegation was led by the president of the Father Primo Mazzolari Foundation, Father Bruno Bignami, who is the postulator of the cause for his beatification that was initiated by the diocese this year.
I took on the responsibility for the editing of Thou Shall Not Kill and the translation was done by Bibiana Wong Yee-ying, finally being revised by Hung and Father Mella.
The book is published by the Father Primo Mazzolari Foundation in Cremona, the Justice and Peace Commission and the PIME Missionaries of Hong Kong.
Pope Francis' encyclical may have been inspired by two controversial men of the past, but its message is alive and a strong guide to where he wants to take the Church in the modern world.
- Gianni Criveller