Where Modern Popular Missions Started

The Future Paul VI Reached Out to All of Milan

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MILAN, Italy, MAR. 7, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The big-city popular mission, an idea the Catholic Church is increasingly rediscovering, was first implemented in 1957 by the archbishop of Milan, the future Paul VI.

A book analyzing the brainchild of Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini has just been published in Italy.

The archbishop did not hesitate to take the mission into the stock exchange and discussed with brokers and agents of Italy´s financial capital. He also asked his priests to go even further. One priest organized retreats and one-week courses for 70 fashion models; another filled a labor union hall when he addressed the Communist railroad workers.

The result: For perhaps the first and last time, three intense weeks of mission brought together the city of Milan.

The French magazine Paris Match described the event as a “monstrous mission,” but then called it “the greatest mission preached in the Catholic Church.”

So successful was the evangelical undertaking that Canada´s Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger asked for the mission´s documents and reproduced it exactly in Montreal.

Montini had given much thought to the idea of the mission by the time he became archbishop of Milan in 1955, according to Antonio Airo, in his new book “Venite e ascoltate! Montini e la Missione di Milano” (Come and Hear! Montini and the Milan Mission), published by Milan´s Ambrosian Center.

Airo, a journalist who covered the historic event, said the archbishop intuited Milan´s future as the economic engine of the country, but also as a place of contradictions, given the huge number of migrant laborers from the south.

“Knock on every door, but don´t knock any one down,” was a theme of the mission. The objective was not to convert, or to defend a political or moral system. It was strictly to present basic questions, with the hope of awakening “religion in consciences.”

It was a modern mission, directed especially to those who were “far away,” because, as Archbishop Montini himself said, “those who are far away are now more numerous than those who are near.”

His “Letter to Those Who Are Far Away,” dated Nov. 7, 1957, asked for forgiveness “if we have not understood you, if we have too easily dismissed you … if we have treated you with irony, ridicule or controversy.”

The mission linked the city´s 127 parishes with a powerful and efficient organization. Over three weeks of meditations, 1,228 preachers from outside Milan were contacted, among them two cardinals, 24 bishops and numerous famous priests.

In addition to the parishes, 35 courses were organized, divided into labor and professional categories, which ran the gamut from reporters to catwalk fashion models. There also were meetings for night watchmen, held in the mornings.

A total of 600,000 Milanese took part in the meetings, half the city´s adult population. Private donations covered the expenses, which ran to 70 million lire.

The results went well beyond the city limits, and encouraged Milan to become a pilot-diocese for a new pastoral model.

Antonio Airo´s book reflects a Church that was yet to see the Second Vatican Council — hence, the lack of lay involvement in the undertaking.

Nevertheless, on the whole reactions were positive, even among anti-clerics. One exception was the Socialist newspaper Avanti (a onetime supporter of Mussolini) which called for the suspension of the mission because of the flu epidemic at the time.

Author Airo concludes that the dialogue between the Church and the modern world took a new direction after that mission, and in that sense Milan anticipated, to a degree, the future Vatican II.

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ZENIT Staff

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