Training for Nonviolent Action

by Don Lorenzo Milani

Don Milani with his students; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: Don Lorenzo Milani (1923-1967) was born in Florence and became renowned as an educator of children from poor families, and an outspoken and controversial conscientious objector. His mother, Alice Weiss, was Jewish and a cousin of Edouardo Weiss, one of Freud’s earliest disciples. He was raised as an agnostic, but at the age of twenty he converted to Catholicism and was later ordained a priest. Besides his pacifist writing he also published in 1965, Letter to a Teacher (Lettera a una professoressa), which denounced the inequalities of class-based education systems “favouring the rich over the poor”. The book was in fact written cooperatively by Milani and eight student dropouts, and took a year to complete. It is considered one of the great Italian pedagogical works. In this book and in his classes he insisted on teaching conscientious objection, or what he termed “going against the grain” history. A useful article about Milani may be found at this link. JG

Introduction by Devi Prasad [1965]

Don Milani is an outspoken and intellectual person with deep political understanding. He is a parish priest and lives in Barbiana nearly 50 kilometres north of Florence, a place in the hills not easily accessible. When I went to meet him last August I felt it could not have been just chance that a priest like Don Milani is placed in such an isolated village. I later learnt that Church authorities sent him there after the publication of his book Pastoral Experience. He is perhaps too dangerous to be allowed to live in a central place where many more people can come in contact with him.

Don Milani lives for his pupils who belong to the nearby villages and come from peasant families. When a visitor comes to his centre he joins the school and in his discussions with the priest all the pupils participate fully. If the conversation with the visitor has to be in a language other than Italian the teacher insists on explaining every bit of it to his pupils. It is indeed a community existence not only for Don Milani but for his pupils and others who go to meet him, even if it is only for a few minutes.

It was in one of these daily conferences that the priest discussed a statement put out by some army chaplains in which they called conscientious objectors “cowards”. Don Milani then wrote a reply and sent it to the military chaplains who had given the statement to several papers in Italy. The first one to publish it was incidentally a Communist paper. Others followed. As a result Don Milani is being brought before the court for trial. He is charged for incitement to crime.

Father Milani does not enjoy very good health and on the day of the trial in October he was ill and so could not go to the Court. He sent a long statement which he himself called his “Self-Defence”. The trial was postponed from 28th October to 14th December.

Meanwhile some political parties are urging Parliament to debate and adopt a bill for the recognition of conscientious objection. The campaign for conscientious objection in general and for supporting Don Milani in particular is spreading throughout the country.

Father Milani’s “Self-Defence” is scholarly, most human, and morally and politically profound. It will remain of lasting value to men and women who voluntarily, or due to force of circumstances, have to think of individual conscience and militarism in relation to society.

We are grateful to Father Milani for allowing us to make this document widely available.

Don Lorenzo Milani’s Defence: Nonviolence in Action

Honourable Judges: I submit here in writing what I should have liked to say orally in court. But it is unlikely that I shall be able to come to Rome as I have been ill for some time.

My illness is the only reason for my absence. I should like to stress this point. Ever since the days of the “Porta Pia breach” or the famous gate, and the unification of Italy, Italian priests have been suspected of showing little respect for the State. And this is the accusation that has been made against me at this trial. But the suspicion is ill founded in the case of very many of my confreres. Most certainly it does not apply to my case. On the contrary, I want to explain to you how indefatigably I strive to impress on my boys a feeling for the law and a respect for the tribunals of Man.

Read the complete pdf of the article by clicking here: Don Milani’s Defence

Reference: IISG/WRI Archive Box 109: Folder 2, Subfolder 2.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi