In these days we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Don (Father) Lorenzo Milani, a priest that for many years was considered a thorny figure, and therefore often marginalized and left alone by the Church; recently, though, a reconciliation has been attempted, as shown by the visit of Pope Francis to his tomb.
My words here below are meant to be an introduction to the life, character and activity of Don Lorenzo Milani, that I invite you to explore further through writings by and about him, to discover the unique and special man he was.
Lorenzo Milani was born in Florence on May 27, 1923, the son of Albano Milani and Alice Weiss. His father was a chemist, son of Luigi Adriano Milani, an archaeologist and numismatic (he was the one who discovered the Greek statue named “Apollo Milani” in his honor, now preserved in the Archeological Museum of Florence), married to Laura Comparetti, another illustrious family. Alice Weiss, his mother, belonged to a Jewish family, also a wealthy and well-educated one. Lorenzo received an early school education at home, and this included the study of foreign languages, that he was able to learn thanks to tutors of different nationalities; in 1930 his family moved to Milan, where Lorenzo graduated from the Liceo Classico (Senior High School specializing in classical studies), and later he enrolled in the Accademia di Brera (“Brera Academy”, an academy of fine arts). In 1942, due to the war, they moved back to Florence, and the following year Lorenzo entered the seminary. In 1947 he was ordained priest, and sent to Montespertoli, and from there to San Donato in Calenzano. In 1954 he was appointed prior of Barbiana, where he stayed until his death due to leukemia, on June 26, 1967.
Lorenzo’s conversion took everybody by surprise, both because his parents were agnostic and anticlerical, giving him a quite secular education, and because as a boy he had never shown any interest in religion.
Until the age of twenty, Lorenzo lived and belonged to the Florentine bourgeoisie, growing up in an agnostic and well-educated family, but once the seminary was chosen, he totally denied his previous life, especially the society to which he belonged, and devoted himself exclusively to the education of the poor. He therefore created in Gigliola, then in Calenzano, and finally in Barbiana, a sort of school to teach to the children of peasants and workers. The priestly mission for Don Milani was the social commitment, that consisted in cultural redemption, the only one that could later allow a social redemption to man.
Don Milani showed how classist the school system was: only rich students could afford to study up to thirty years, because they had wealthy families supporting them, even without giving up a high-quality standard of living, while the poor were lucky if they could attend the elementary schools, and, even then, dedicating the rest of the day to work.
Don Milani, with his school, wanted to provide kids with the instruments that could allow them to move around the world, and stop being exploited. He did not mean to instill in the minds of these boys ideologies, values or stances imposed by others, in most cases by the ruling classes; he rather wanted them to be able to formulate their own reasoning, and to take their own motivated position. Only in this way can every human being be elevated in society, and no longer be oppressed and exploited by others.