The Mayor, the Pope, and the Angelic Doctor
August 30, 2018
Fr. Francis Belanger, O.P., is the Pastor of SS. Philip and James University Parish in Baltimore, MD and the Promoter of Catholic Social Teaching for the Province of St. Joseph. The essay below is the latest in his series of essays on Catholic Social Teaching.
On July 5th, the remarkable mayor of Florence, Giorgio La Pira, was declared Venerable by Pope Francis. La Pira (1904-1977) was a Dominican tertiary who lived at the Priory of San Marco for some of his time as mayor. An apostle of peace and integral human development, his life is a testimony to the vigor of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. La Pira’s public engagement was guided by two great Thomistic principles: the dignity of the human person, as made in the image of God; and the power of the Resurrection to act within the history of the world, drawing all things to their final end in heaven. (Cf. Agnes Brot, Giorgio La Pira: Un Mystique en Politique. Desclée de Brouwer, 2017.)
His sense of the dignity of the human person guided both his personal and political life. His interactions with the needy are indeed the stuff of hagiography: he often returned from a walk missing shoes or a coat which he had given to the poor; miracles were attributed to his presence and prayerful aid. His political philosophy was entirely consistent with his personal charity. He desired and competently achieved development for Florence – jobs and basic city services in the wake of World War II, more than willing to afflict the rich for the sake of the homeless.
It was La Pira’s faith in the Resurrection that undoubtedly led him to dive into the immense tensions of global politics. He led an organization for peace in the Middle East. He gave an address at the U.N. in Geneva in 1954 poignantly titled, “Do nations have the right to destroy cities?” In 1959, after visiting Fatima, he went to the Soviet Union offering friendship, while chiding the Kremlin for forcing atheism on a baptized people: “From the weeping on the banks of the rivers of Babylon they will remember Jerusalem, far off and destroyed, and they will weep and they will take the road of return with joy in their hearts!” By faith, Venerable Giorgio knew that the power of the Paschal mystery could overcome the darkest and most terrible forces.
La Pira was the living embodiment of Catholic Social Teaching. He is a great tonic for our age, when partisan politics often split the message of the Gospel in half – one side favoring social justice, the other human life and family. Giorgio lived this tension but maintained integrity – called a “sacristy communist” by detractors for his preferential option for the poor, he became a tireless crusader for the family and the unborn as laws contravening these values were proposed in the 1960’s and 70’s. His political philosophy was deeply consonant with the integral humanism of his Thomist friend and fellow lay Dominican, Jacques Maritain. La Pira was likewise associated with the tragic figure of the assassinated politician Aldo Moro, who also had a reputation for holiness.
Like Maritain and Moro, La Pira was a friend and collaborator of Blessed Paul VI, soon to be canonized. While a Vatican official during World War II, then Msgr. Montini allowed La Pira to hide out in the Holy Office when the Fascists were seeking to arrest him. The legacies of these two men are intertwined and La Pira’s advance in the sainthood process is perhaps a fruit of the grace of Pope Paul’s upcoming canonization in October. One of the great documents of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, is subtitled “The Church in the Modern World. May Venerable Giorgio La Pira, along with this saintly and enlightened Pope, be guides for living the faith in our modern world and to live our faith fully in the realm of politics.