Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 17




FR. GIOVANNI M. SEMERIA Barnabite (1867-1931)
FR. GIOVANNI M. SEMERIA Barnabite (1867-1931)


In the 5th centenary of St. Anthony M. Zaccaria’s birth, we are grateful to our confrere Fr. Antonio Gentili, well known for its volumes on spirituality and an expert on Fr. Giovanni Semeria, for coming to explain the figure of this worthy disciple of our Founder, accepting the invitation by the Friends of the Cultural Center San Francesco of the Carlo Alberto and the Barnabite Community for this evening dedicated to the famous Carloalbertino from Coldirodi. Many high-profile figures with their presence have enriched the era of the school, and their memory is always alive, even though now the College has closed its doors as a school, but not his destiny as a place of education and culture. One of these outstanding figures was a boy named Giovanni Boccardo. Every morning coming down the hill to attend the Barnabite school, where he excelled in all disciplines as evidenced by the class records, along the road he used to stop, with a more excelling result, to visit a blind man in misery and abandoned. But someone was watching him from on high, and on May 24, 1998 Pope John Paul II proclaimed him Blessed Giovanni Boccardo, a former pupil of the Carlo Alberto! But this is not the only figure with an extraordinary spiritual profile highlighted in recent times. Cardinal Siri in 1985 in fact, having affixed to the doors of the churches of Genoa a notification, an invitation for more information about the life and the autograph writings of a Barnabite from Coldirodi (a town in Liguria), was introducing the cause of his beatification and was attracting the attention over another former student and boarder of the Carlo Alberto, whose name was also Giovanni, Father Giovanni Semeria. The Cardinal of Genoa meant by this act to do justice to a giant of culture and holiness, accused of modernism, exiled in Belgium, who sacrificed on the altar of charity his extraordinary genius becoming the “Servant of the orphans.” So much so that to the philosopher Francesco Acri who was saying to him, “Father, God has given you a sovereign talent and you give it as alms, trite by trite, even to the illiterate,” and especially to those who kindly reprimanded him by asking: “Why don’t you stand up to the height of your fame?” he replied: “To keep the height of my fame I would need to prepare for each talk, meditating and studying, and I could not give more than two or three talks a week, but I need to give at least sixty per month, because my orphans are seven thousand and eat at least three times a day!” He gave more importance to the heights of the Charity. This man too, another former pupil of the Carlo Alberto, the famous, ill-treated Giovanni Semeria, had laid here solid foundations to his love for science and his great humanity. In “I miei ricordi oratori” he draws a grateful profile of the great Fr. Denza as one “of those clerics who represented in a living form the harmony between science and faith,” and of Fr. Canobbio (his bust is still in the corridor by the entry), whose human side had enriched him so much that he wrote: “All his pupils remember him as an outstanding educator, I, as a Father!” With the memory of these men with an apostolic presence that still continues today, I willingly yield the floor to Fr. Gentili who will help us not only to know better and to love more not only a former pupil who was awarded all medals and a man of science, but also a Confrere who has had an itinerant life full of a immense sufferings, still the valid witness of a rare faith and a great charity.

Fr. Anthony M. Bianchi, CRSP


“SERVANT OF THE ORPHANS” And a worthy disciple of St. Anthony M. Zaccaria

1. A poliedric personality

Taking an overall look at the historical period that goes from the breach of Porta Pia 1 (1870) to the Lateran Treaty 2 (1929), dates into which the life of Giovanni Semeria (September 16, 1867, Coldirodi, Imperia - March 15, 1931 Sparanise, Caserta) seems to be ideally set, we can say there was no area that he did not reached with his teaching and his testimony:

- the application of historical-critical method to the Bible, attributed to the first source of

Christian homiletics (Semeria brought the Bible to the pulpit and also in the lectures held at the School of Religion, which is discussed below), a preaching inspired by Blondel’s apologetics able

to bring to the pulpit the most diverse topics, to present them in the light of the Gospel, that is, to base Christianity not so much on philosophical argumentations, but rather on irrefutable facts in accordance with the historical-critical survey of the period;

- the return to a solidly liturgical piety, to capture the language of the ritual, and to enjoy the sacred texts and melodies: Semeria brought the Mass to the pulpit, speaking about its symbols and brought there also the Christian hymns, explaining them to the people;

- the reform of the clergy to a more pronounced cultural and pastoral presence;

- the formation of the Catholic laity, where laicism would not concede a single point to religion;

- the principles of ecumenism, drawn from the school of Father Cesareo Tondini (a great

Barnabite and also a missionary in Russia), and from his relationship with Friedrich von Hügel, 3

who inspired the definition of “separated brethren” for the Orthodox and the Protestants; 4

- the problem of the relationship between authority and freedom, tradition and progress in

the Church: Semeria used to say, “What little freedom they leave us, we must take it all”;

- the legitimacy, for the Christian conscience, of the unitary State and a growing social and political participation of Catholics in public life, (just think that one of the earliest pronouncements by Semeria, only twenty-three years old, concerned the abolition of the non

expedit, the famous ban enacted by the Popes against the participation of Catholics in political life);

- the full validity of the Christian democratic ideals in their theoretical and pragmatical

aspects: Semeria declares himself to stand for Christian democracy, that is, the movement from

which will sprout in Italy at first the People’s Party, and then the Christian Democrats; - the need to promote the marginalized classes “that is, toward a greater economic wellbeing, a wider culture, a sincere and profound morality”: it is true that Semeria worked a lot among the bourgeois and upper classes but, as I will show, his voice reached also the sea port workers: the Father Rector of the college in Genoa where Semeria lived, writing to Father General, called his confrere an employment agent, because he could see that his room was frequented by people looking for a job and so they turned to him, knowing how much influence he enjoyed and also how much charity was coming from his pastoral activity;

- the opposition to any conservative practice, liberal or clerical, not less to the utopia of a maximalist socialism;

- the problem of the Souht of Italy as a problem of education and solidarity and not a mere

welfare: Fr. Semeria took great interest in the cause of the South, and besides he founded with

Don Minozzi 5 the Opera Nazionale per il Mezzogiorno d’Italia, because the majority of the

soldiers during World War I were being recruited in the South and, consequently, a greatest number of orphans resided in those regions;

- the vocational social training of the women: Semeria intervened often in regard to the role

that Women are called to deploy in modern society, in need of that touch of femininity that is also humanity;

- the right to a free and global education of the young people: Semeria stood in favor of the so called free school, against the so-called neutral school which eliminated any religious teaching in the elementary education;

- the interpretation of sport as a modern form of discipline and asceticism: Semeria said

that sport is the new form of asceticism; of course, they did not let him get away with this expression. Semeria advocated the so-called English sports, our soccer, which were initially

seen as evil, for playing football it meant that the players would break out and were dressed in a pretty free way to be able to kick the ball: therefore, initially the British sports were not seen favorably in the ecclesial world;

- the intuition of history as a process of humanization, where the values of religion and of

civilization are ment to integrate, an insight that led him to recognize the positive value of the medieval civilization and the basically Christian soul of the Rinascimento: Semeria had a vivid

sense of history, drawing from the evolution which from the purely scientific had to pass to the moral field;

- the “generous conception” of the relationship “between the Church and civilization, the

eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human”;

- and finally, the deep-rooted conviction that the Gospel must be based on the affirmation

of the goodness of the ethic-social contents which are inspired by it, rather than on ecclesiastical impositions or secular mediations, hence the Gospel has its own power to the extent that it becomes a lived witness more than carried on by an authority or by the secular arm…

2. The formation years

Semeria, born orphan of his father who had died of sickness following the war in the Brescia area, left his homeland toward Piedmont, where he attended the elementary school. Next he moved to Cremona, at the college Vida, run by the Jesuits. He writes in his memoirs that since

his first years as a student “the idea of one day being a priest, a preacher had been flashing in his mind,” and this idea took shape once he came here to the Carlo Alberto. As the time came for his younger brother, Eugene, to go to school, his mother thought it would be good to put both of them at the Carlo Alberto of Moncalieri boarding school of the Barnabites (1881), near Turin, where she resided. “The idea of belonging to the sanctuary had been gradually rooted in

my mind during the four years at the Vida

Now it seemed that Providence was complying

with my desire opening for me an unexpected way with the new family of the Barnabite

Fathers.” The following year, 1882, after the first lyceum, attended here at the Real Collegio, he decided for religious life: “I felt strong and firm, a strength and solidity which will never be inconsistent,” he affirmed. He entered the novitiate in Monza, and he professed the vows in October 1883, when only 16 years old: “I have never regretted to have them made, or to have made them then.” In Rome he attended the other two years of lyceum at the Apollinare school, directed by Salvatore Talamo, a leading exponent of the Thomistic revival. He completed his theological studies at the Barnabite seminary (1885-89) characterized by the predominance of the positive investigation over the speculative one, by the direct approach to the sources, mainly the Bible, by a particular propensity for contemporary authors and currents of thought, by the respect for all opinions, carefully distinct from dogma; our clerics, Semeria included, were educated to understand that what is defined as a dogma is not discussed: the Church has spoken; what instead has not registered a similar definition and until it is not registered, it is the subject of free and respected debate. Then he was ordained a priest. At this point I stop to outline a fundamental aspect of Fr. Semeria’s physiognomy: namely, his high cultural stature; you know that Semeria was taught to go to the sources, not to run out in pure philosophical abstractions. Not only that, but also in the Barnabite seminary there was a noticeable inclination for contemporary authors and currents, then, a fairly indicative vision was given of the ancient thought, and a profound one of the sources, but they would dwell a lot over the contemporary ones, because these priests had to face and measure themselves with the present time, not with the old days.

3. The challenge of modernity

In this climate and in the following academic years, Semeria was forming himself according to the scientific spirit of historical-critical inspiration, as well as apostolic, which will characterize his future life. Strong was his interest in the act of faith, that is, to what extent it must be considered as a gift of pure grace, and to what extent it is a free conquest by man. An act, which by its nature will always be accompanied by doubt and the resulting rational inquiry, “but, do not forget - he notes down in his most impressive work: Dogma, hierarchy and cult in the early Church - the criticism born from doubt ends when it is sincere and profound, killing it,” then criticism is needed and doubt cannot be eliminated in a journey of faith and faith by its definition is no evidence. Semeria also argues that the believer is in debt more to the heart than to the reason. And here we understand the qualifying aspect of the modern sensibility:

“The ways of the intellect are long and difficult, those of the heart are more secure and understandable,” he wrote to Monsignor Joseph Alessi. Religion, he strongly asserts in his other great work: Science and faith and their alleged conflict, “what remains predominantly volitional

is its nature and its glory.” It is that “moral dogmatism,” namely: the great truths

and moral

make their way in us more under the moral profile, that is, they imply in us a goodness of heart or honesty of life, than simply under the acumen of the intelligence, greatly theorized by the Catholic French culture. We are not surprised then if, in a letter to his friend Philip Crispelti, the Barnabite has questioned whether in his I there is the “heretical spirit (?!). Am I a little a revolutionary and a heretic? Is it not true? But the superficial heresies often are very intimate truths - the dogmas have started to appear as heresies - the nascent Christianity was not a heresy for the Jews?”

This makes you realize what an expert Semeria was and how he did not disdained the risk of research, the risk of doubt, the risk of criticism. To open Semeria’s mind on the vast horizons of the modern world for sure were his university years. He recalls their sometime dramatic developments: “We were left stunned by

some of those lectures, the most sophisticated, the newest ones,” he recolls in his I miei tempi (My times): “We felt as if inside us our old (old only because eternal) conception of the world

One of those temptations which when they dot not cause you an

irreparable harm, overcame and won they do you good

in which God’s help is not missing, when you face them for the

greater good of souls.” Hence he is a man who has personally paid his search for the truth. Skiming over Semeria’s published and unpublished writings, we can document how he captured

by intuition the central characters of the modern world. First of all, the primacy of conscience:

“Humanity’s process is the progress of conscience

out from it all that we can,” he notes down in Quaderno inedito di riflessioni personali (Unpublished notebook of personal reflections), which are kept in the archive in Rome. The primacy of conscience was then particularly opposed, starting from the Synod, because it seemed to deny the role of Authority, the role of the Magisterium. Another aspect grasped by Semeria is “the modern move of the philosophical reflection from the object to the subject,” as we read in Scienza e Fede (Sceince and Faith, which is his most discussed work, the one that caused him to run the risk to be put on the Index), a move that overturns the objective vision so dear to the old philosophy. In this line is the setting of the the primacy of the feel/experiment over a pure rationality. The transposition from object to

subject means emphasis on the subjectity and not on subjectivism. Semeria felt that modern man is not so much tied to the stark objective data, but is much more sensitive to probe his inner self, to the point of foreseeing that the future rather than being of persons camped in an arid rationality, will be of the mystics. And this was an expression which today is totally undisputable, but we love to hear it expressed by Fr. Semeria. Transposed to religious terminology, this attitude sees the mystics move to the rank of players, “The mystics - as we read in Venticinque anni di storia del Cristianesimo nascente (25 years of the rising Christianity) which were the earliest lectures given by Semeria at the Superior School of Religion in Genoa - who today are destined to return to be honored, those mystics whose genius will be able, perhaps even better than the philosophical stiffness, to affect our generation.” “The modern souls - he will specify in Le vie della fede (The ways of Faith), one of his minor works of singular fragrance - really are more willing to receive the Christian thought transformed into a mystic sense, than the feeling stiffened in a scholastic formula: the modern souls are more accessible to ways of the heart than to those of the head.” Third, Semeria harbors a planetary vision, very “Catholic,” that is, universal, of the divine designs upon the world. “After Christ” – he notes in Venticinque anni di storia del Cristianesimo nascente, - the real kingdom of God in the world continues to be much larger than the visible.” And he asks: “Is today’s world Christian? No: but it must become one, but it is always becoming. Oh the pettiness of those who believe the Christian Gospel is implemented either in themselves or in their small group! They are the real deniers of the divinity of Christ.” In the sense that they deny that Christ, who is God-Man, is the yeast working in history: it was the year when he was suspended from preaching. This is what he noted down in March 1906, setting in Pensiero

We must excite this conscience and draw

Prayer and religious life have saved

me from this crisis, undeniable

and of life was crumbling

quotidiano (Daily thought), a question which was revealing his spirit, at that time subjected to the initial anti-modernist measures. If these are the undeniably positive aspects of modernity, though not free from possible one- sided accentuations, as it will happen, unfortunately, even in the ecclesiastical sphere, Semeria does not hide the negative ones, that is, the shadows of this picture which seems to us who read it in a hindsight, very bright; which can be summarized in the gap between culture and faith, between thought faith and living faith, between the theorical refusal of divinity and the irreproachable conduct of life (indeed he will talk about the “atheists by mistake” and, conversely, believers by mistake: there are those who think to believe, but then in life they

deny their faith, and there are those who claims not to believe but in reality they are perfectly aligned with the moral values preached by the Faith). Not for nothing Semeria established the Superior Institute of Religion, also because, as you know, the teaching of religion had been removed from the Universities in 1872. He is stunned by the crisis of interiority. Close to lower the sails, he pin points: “The hygiene of the body in the modern world has made undeniably


great progress, but the hygiene of the spirit has experienced that much setbacks discipline is experiencing an enormous let down.”


4. The first steps

Let us go back to the biographical data starting from his priestly ordination that he received on April 15, 1890. Twenty days later, an article in the “Voce della verità” (The voice of Truth, entitled ‘The clean hands’) offers to the twenty-three old Barnabite the opportunity for a meaningful stand. In the Lettera sulla partecipazione dei cattolici alla politica (Letter about the participation of Catholics in Politics), sent to the Roman newspaper, Semeria believes that this is the only way for “the best starting point to the practical solution of the Roman Question.” 6 “To abstain, to the contrary, has encouraged the rise of Ghibelline Italy.” It is therefore necessary, “to have the courage of an honest mea culpa and to change attitude.” The solution of the Roman Question, which appeared for the Catholics as primum in intentione, would have been ultimum in executione, the landing of a process of progressive becoming conscious of their civic and moral responsibility on the part of the Catholics, and a positive influence in a Christian sense in the life and institutions of the country. Semeria worked for the abrogation of the non expedite (his is the writing of the Memeriale submitted by the bishop of Cremona Jeremiah Bonomelli 7 to Pius X, on October 2, 1904). By now he regarded it as an anachronism:

“This business of the non expedit gave me the idea of a barrel that is loosing water everywhere, but the tap is not opened yet,” he noted in his Memorie inedite. He judges its end, which has taken in fits and starts and in the midst of contradictory positions taken by the church authorities, as “ridiculous and miserable.” He points out, after it, “to the Catholics of


, finally wants the separation of the religious sphere from the elettoral: the bishops must not become “great political voters,” penalty the return to diarchy clericalism-anticlericalism.

In October 1892 Semeria is sent by Pope Leo XIII to the First Congress of the Italian social scientists, which took place in Genoa. Spokesman of the Commission for the promotion of social studies in Italy, the Barnabite advocated “the cause of science”: so that “the Christian

idea could be again the first power of the people

it must be equipped with all the apparatus

new battles for the freedom of the Church, for the greatness of the fatherland,” and

of science,” we have many Catholic devotees, few Catholic intellectuals who with their thought

would affect the fate of the country. To this end, two were his proposals: the founding of a magazine (the “International Review of social science,” which began publication in 1893 with Semeria was one of its editors, along with Talamo) 8 and the establishment of schools and scientific-religious clubs. Back to Rome, where he will remain for three years, in addition to attending the La Sapienza University (Master of Letters in 1893, and later the Master in Philosophy obtained in Turin in 1897), Semeria joined the Club of San Sebastian by Giulio Salvadori, 9 collaborated to the “Vita

nuova” by Romolo Murri, 10 and was a member of the Unione for the well-being, born in the Melegari’s home following two conferences by Paul Desjardins 11 in Rome in 1894. The field of action of the Unione was the district of San Lorenzo al Verano, where Semeria deployed his first apostolate, just as a theology student every Friday he had attended “The gym of pain” visiting the sick in the Ospedale della Consolazione, dedicated to the memory of Luigi Gonzaga, who right there had fallen victim of the plague. Plunged “in the heart of the Roman misery,” the district of San Lorenzo outside the walls, making his first apostolic and, we can say, charitable experiences, Semeria matured in the modern vision of the social issues. In 1895, speaking in Rome about the new forms of Christian charity, he upholds the idea that there is a “Science of Charity,” which means to replace the charity of money with the offering of a job. The social issue, he will add two years later, in a planning conference held in Rome during his first Lenten preaching, which widespread quickly

(Catholic Young and Young Catholic), presents itself as a “largely virgin field where we are called

to work; it is the field where the Church will be able to deploy to the advantage of humanity its

greater energy.” In that year, 1897, Semeria brought the social issue on the pulpit, as the preaching theme of the second of his “Advents” in the church of Nostro Signore alle Vigne: the Mass was followed by a one hour conference, which received a national resonance. This, which he believed to be the “inheritance of the century,” appeared as the programmatic commitment

of the Christian Democracy, which Semeria had joined “because he felt that with it his faith as

a Christian and his aspirations as a modern man were harmonized.” invited by Giuseppe

Callegari, president of the Scientific society for the Italian Catholics, to the Eucharistic Congress

of Venice (1897) to talk about the Eucharist and the Catholic movement, he affirmed, at the presence of the future Pius X, “The the hour of democracy is striking at the clock of history.” initially with a polite debate and then open disavowal of Murri, after “his membership to the most confusing, sectarian and bourgeois of all Italian parties, the Radical Party,” Semeria will never tire of repeating that, before being a “party of reform and progress,” the DC (Christian Democracy) has to become a big cultural event and that this had to be its priority. In other words, the DC had to propose the realization of “a great program of Christian restoration.” Meaning, Semeria will specify presenting in 1905 Antonio Fogazzaro’s Il Santo 11 as a literary

manifesto of a renewed Catholicism, that “Christianity works in the social only indirectly, but really.” Indeed, there were two dangers that the Catholics had avoid: on one side the danger of clericalism, that is, “to ask from the Gospel a full treaty of political economy and a code of social legislation,” and on the other side, the danger of the “socialist osmosis,” that is, “to hope only

in a social and collectivist reform,” which “atrophies the spiritual energies and makes men like

robots.” What is needed, on the contrary, is “to inculcate the conviction - Semeria specifies -

that material are neither the only nor the highest goods, and the resulting moderation in desiring them, their subordination to a large desire for better goods.” Ten years before this development, and which “La Civiltà Cattolica” covered with satisfaction in its chronicles, “made people touch the new spirit that hovers everywhere: What were the Catholics? Nothing. What are they? Something. What do they aspire to be? Everything, or better, that Christ may be all in all and forever.” The launching of this “Christian restoration” was due, as Semeria repeatedly noted, to the impulse by Leo XIII. The Barnabite advocated a “Christianity alive, active and progressive” - he was familiar with the expression “new believers”- then bitterly noting how the modernist crisis had “paralyzed and was paralyzing it.” Convinced of the need to “preserve this Church from the influences that reduce it to a poor instrument of reaction, when it should be a very strong ideal of progress,” Semeria wanted the yeast of the reform to be brought from the interior of the ecclesial organism. But what reform? The Barnabite seems to have clearly understood that at the root of all the problems discussed at the time, there was a question of theological culture. What was required was a theology open to the methods of the modern sciences, capable of reaching the highest and more influential levels of society and at the same time, expressed in simple, dynamic language able to convey the proclamation of the Gospel to the world.

5. Vast horizons

In the intellectual and spiritual formation of the Barnabite a decisive influence was the knowledge and relationship with Von Hügel,12 of him more than fifteen years older than him, whom he met in Rome at the end of 1894, we could say at the eve of his transfer to Genoa.

Precious is the testimony delivered to Semeria’s Memorie inedite (Unpublished Memoirs) where he speaks of “the father of my soul.” “Among the men who have helped to make me who I am, in the part of my soul and of my life that seems to be good, I must give first place to

I owe to him my intellectual life, I owe to him in the scientific

freedom of the intellect the persistence of faith.” Who was this Austrian baron, son of the Italian consul in Florence, before the notification of Italy, married in England? It was, so to speak, a Newman’s heir, that is, an educated Catholic, very attentive to the dialogue between Rome and London, who came to spend the winter in Rome where he met Semeria. The friendship with the Baron was quite suspicious and, although von Hügel was above the fray, he appeared prone toward new ideas, so much so that when the daughter of this Baron, Gertrud, married a noble papal guard, Semeria was forbidden to celebrate the wedding. Not only that, but when the anti-Modernist campaign became even more violent, the son of von Hügel was politely dismissed by the Vatican because he had

Baron Friedrich von Hügel

married the daughter of a supporter of modernism. It can be said that the friendship between the two, which is document by the Baron’s

letters, extended itself throughout the “modernist” period until the outbreak of the Great War, and it experienced moments of singular height when the anti-modernist reaction could have overwhelmed Semeria in a gesture of rebellion, had he not been rescued by a deep sense of

belonging to the Church and to its religious family: “I think I had

the instinct of the dog - he

will declare in the Ricordi oratori -: loyalty for me is a need. I have given some evidence of it in my life and I am pleased. I am reminded of the honorable Filippo Meda,’s words, 13 when he

said, commemorating Semeria one month after his death, that “he never understood nor could he ever understand himself, if not as a Catholic priest and as a Barnabite.” Von Hügel was the secret inspiration and the constant referent of the study activity and publication that Semeria, transferred to Genoa by his superiors (his figure was beginning to create some contrasts in the Roman environment), was preparing to do especially with the Superior School of Religion, which he founded with his confrere Fr. Alessandro Ghignoni in 1897, and had become, in its ten years of life, a true cultural crossroads between Italy and Europe. Take notice that the opponents defined it as the School of Superior Religion, since they were accusing Semeria of having a religion a bit “above” the others. Here was introduced for the first time in Italy, the philosophy of Blondel 14 and had favorable echo the teachings of Laberthormière, Loisy, Tyrrell, Fogazzaro, Bremond, Duchesne, Petrone, Sabatier, etc. The impact that the school had on the people and, through the books he produced, on the Italian Catholicism, can be documented by what we read in a report, appeared in “L’Avvenire” in Genoa on December 3, of the introductory lecture for the years 1905-1906, whose theme was Il Santo by Fogazzaro: “Father Semeria really could not have started any better and with better pace the new year of his Superior School of Religion. Last Thursday the hall of the Vittorino da Feltre presented an appearance, I would say, almost impressive. A crowd of students, more numerous than in the past years, had turned out to render tribute to the illustrious master. There were University professors and students, businessmen, professionals, officers and soldiers, very numerous, and a bevy of young priests. Looking with a sense of pleasure on the diverse crowd that surrounded the speaker at his appearance, I thought of many things – writes eg, the one who signed the article -, the ever more increasing need to penetrate the mysteries of the Christian faith, the rebirth we are witnessing today of a more spiritual form of thought and life. And I seemed to see in that crowd the future leaders of the future battlefields. So, I thought, that the Christian idea will be a spark generating a fire that will fertilize with its warmth the whole of society.” “The theologians – Semeria loved to say - more courageously must come down among the laity and the laity must come up in the regions of theology for too long neglected.” But it did not mean to transform the laity in a sort of parallel clergy, rather to complete, with the religious, the scientific knowledge, since from it had to get its going. Affirming his opinion against “the sentence a sensation by Brunetére, 15 which proclaimed the bankruptcy of science, Semeria in 1895 wrote: “To have faith in faith, we must have faith in something else. I hate skepticism. I have faith in science. I have faith in the harmony between dogma and science. And my wish is that we young Catholics would love science, each his own: that in this study we would create that phalanx of specialists that we lack, we would prepare that Christian encyclopedia that would be the greatest monument of the century.” In a letter sent to Murri on the eve of the founding of the Catholic University, Semeria proposes to set up a committee to collect “true and young scientists, who would promote among Catholics the formation of specialists especially in the historical and biological sciences, through scholarships in foreign universities, and he also labored hard so that theology, as he expressed himself, “would come down to the level of the laity, and not remain the prerogative of the pontifical Universities.” His open thinking and the many friendships, both Italian and foreign, in the modernist camp, deserved him the title of “hypercritical” by a Toniolo, 16 who was one of the great lay pontiffs of the Catholic intelligentsia, and who also wanted him as a member of the Italian

Catholic Society for scientific studies (Pisa, 1900), in the religious-philosophical-apologetic section. Convinced that the freedom of scientific research, even in religious matters, was the condition for reconciling man to the faith, Semeria repeatedly implores Toniolo (letters of 1896 and 1899) not to report as suspected “trends of freedom which seem to me - he writes - the only chance of a serious scientific development among us” and not to advocate “some rigid trends that were already fatal to the faith and the tomb of science.” And he asks: “Why to arouse the suspicion of heterodoxy… for a whole generation of men who work with abnegation

the more wonderful the more they know that their work will earn them only suspicions?” Semeria did not hide that the stakes were very high and he would have met the most tenacious opposition and the most bitter misunderstandings: “What uncomfortable paths we had to face - writes in I miei tempi - when Providence called us to begin that work of Christian restoration which was the real program of our generation.” It is true that he stands strongly on the side of those who know the law of the Gospel seed:

“Are closer to God, more united to Him the men who care less about the immediate success, eager and solicitous only for the long-term success,” we read in the already mentioned thought of 1906. “It is not God the Being patiens quia aeternus? These eternalists of the action come closer to Him. In this respect Jesus is par excellence the man of God. No immediate success, rather total sacrifice of himself: but eternal success! His ideal is always actualized and is never actualized: humanity never sides with him in everything, but is forced to side with him more and more.” But the spreading of the Gospel and setting its roots in the consciousness but has its price. Semeria was convinced, as he writes in 1907 to Monsignor Lacroix (who himself had some trouble with the ecclesiastical authority and had to leave the exercise of his Episcopal power), that for a “better future” some apostles are not enough, but martyrs are needed. And he will not find it hard to recognize, in commemorating Monsignor Scalabrini (who had become meritorious for his attention to all the Italian immigrants to foreign lands), that “martyrs of the present are the prophets of the future.” This vision of Christianity embodied in history allows Semeria to develop a realistic assessment of the life of the Church in time and not to disdain generous mea culpa where they were needed. “Aware that serious Latin faults resulted in the division of the XVI century - he wrote in ecumenical key -, we hope in a reconstruction of the great Christian unity: but we do not expect it from, I do not know, what Catholic pride (Catholic in name, because pride is pagan by nature), no, rather from a humble confession and from a constant reparation of our public and private wrongs. Therefore we dream that one day we will be the ones to raise a monument

to all the victims of the Inquisition: expiatory monument

without that the confession of the

, wrong done by those who killed souls, would resound as a glorification of what was less right in the victims.”

6. The modernist crisis

Semeria was in opposition to a narrow-minded mentality and controversy. He loved to capture the “harmonies,” as he will repeat often in sermons and lectures. He considered the diversity a fruitful gift. It is very meaningful what he noted in making a parallel between two eminent English cardinals, as he presented them to the superior School of Religion: Manning

and Newman. “The two great cardinals admirably represent in the XIX century those two currents of thought and action, which are eternal in the history of Church, and that the two Saints of the XIII century - Francis and Dominic - personified with an effectiveness never exceeded, nor achieved. This certainly shows how I pay to the two eminent men a tribute of sympathetic admiration, without the need to delude myself about the profound differences that always distinguished them, and which sometimes seemed to separate them in the course of this mortal life, when not even the Saints manage to fully overcome the defects of their good qualities, and avoid the frictions of conflicting views. And I dislike the art of the malicious who exaggerate these differences, like the device of the timid, who studiously conceal or, I do not know for what scruples of conscience, refuse them. The ones and the others are victims of an identical prejudice, that is, there is no possibility of different views without discord of adverse minds; the ones and the others instead of taking the world of history in the way Providence has

made it, they want to redo it a little or a lot according to their whims

than it!” To document the active participation in the modernist movement and to throw light on the

dissociation from his skeptical results, initially soft, but later clear and precise, are enough those enigmatic Lettres romaines of January-March 1904. In truth the solution of the riddle had already been sensed as we examine the correspondence between the Barnabite and von Hügel,

where Semeria states that the author of the paper was “known to God and to you

me.” More careful studies have definitely awarded the essay to the Barnabite, without doubt more enlightening and more balanced on the large postulates of the historical-critical thought and of the “evolutionary” conception of the dogma, from its seed to the ripe fruit, just as they had been formulated by Alfred Loisy in L’Évangile e l’Église. In spite of the I distinguish and a firm attachment to his credo, the Semeria’s teaching was more and more fiercely attacked. When only forty and in the fullness of his physical and spiritual energy, in 1907 the Barnabite was forbidden any form of oratorical activity, and this although he had taken the anti-modernistic oath with objection of conscience expressly agreed by the autograph of the pope himself. Joseph Prezzolini, raising the question in a famous pamphlet on What is the modernism?, wrote: “Father Giovanni Semeria, a Barnabite from Genoa, can share with Fogazzaro the honor to have been the travelling salesman of the new ideas. If not all of them reached in their purity the audience through the needed oratorical style of the famous preacher, certainly they have revived the souls of many young people and promoted the interest for religious issues in many who were apathetic. He would insert the new ideas everywhere, talking about history and art, politics and literature, because has left no stone unturned, from Dante’s readings to alpinism, but always, too bad, in a general oratory style. But he could not be blamed too much for the defect of the activity to which he has dedicated himself - and rather we should be surprised that he has been able to introduce in it some germs of new intellectual capacities. Now he is silent.” Just think that his voice was carefully listen to by an audience that did not know any class distinction, although higher and learned by nature. Its teaching was avidly sought, if “someone remembers that candles were consumed, at night as well as during the day, in the basements of the seminaries to read the new pages” of the Barnabite, whose books were given as gifts to the newly ordained priests.

and to

as if we could do better

Actually Semeria took the anti-modernist oath and, writing his objections to Pius X, he said that in so far as they were definitions he did not have any difficulty, he would adhere in full; but if they were theological thesis still under discussion and not defined “leave me the freedom of the conscience to think according to my historical-critical criteria.” And Pius X answered in his own hand writing: “Yes, judge according to the objections of your conscience.” Semeria thought that this would allow him to stay in Italy; but in reality it was not so, because the opposition against him was very tough. The growing weave of the anti-modernist campaign forced Father Semeria, victim a “reduced condemnation,” to leave Italy in the autumn of 1912, to be exiled in Brussels, a destination considered as the “antechamber of the Index,” as he wrote to the Jesuit Hippolyte Delehaye. Here he strengthened his friendship with Cardinal Désiré Mercier, appreciating his strong social awareness no less than his philosophical thought. Meanwhile, deprived of any initiative in the ecclesiastical environment, he increased his interest for the public school and its problems. “To enter in the public teaching,” seemed to him “the true program,” which he did in many occasions and for various reasons. He had already had the opportunity to examine one of the most controversial issues of his time, to speak out against the abolition of religious education in the elementary schools. However, he had done it with the caution to overcome the lack of true religious formation in the teachers. He could see in this lack the ultimate reason for the aired provision. This is why he had started in Genoa, and will push Adelaide Coari 17 to follow suit, a “Society of Christian teachers… very religious in substance, but very much lay in the form.” The project was in line with the precise assessment Semeria had made for the “promotion of the woman,” as a commitment “to renew for the better the feminine conscience” for a better social order. Subsequent interventions for the school are registered about the freedom in teaching and about the debate over the neutral school. Semeria considered the neutrality against the real cultural progress, which is not possible if it does not include the religious element. Without it our very civilization, especially in its history, literature and art, results inexplicable. But there is more: religion is intended to awaken in the child a strong moral stance. But his teaching - Semeria concludes – must be taught in a positive effective way, and by competent people. Semeria’s name will be back again, always in the school sector, together with those of Armida Barelli, 18 of the honorable Camillo Corsanego 19 and others, when Brother Alessandrini will found, in 1925, the Association of Italian educators, for the preparation of elementary and nursery teachers.

6. The modernist crisis

The onset of the war will open a new chapter in Semeria’s existence. Pacifist by temperament and religious convictions, he had left Belgium in July 1914 and, prevented to return in Italy by the closing of the borders, after a stay with friends in Switzerland, he settled temporarily in Geneva, at the Bonomelli Opera, when Italy came out of its neutrality (May 24, 1915). Together with the bonomellian missionaries, he made the request, because he was the spiritual director of Carla Cadorna, daughter of General Cadorna, to be engaged, despite its 46 years, as a military chaplain, and he was assigned by the same Cadorna to the Supreme Command. While criticizing the “rhetoric phraseology” of the Corradini’s nationalism, 20 he kept

high the “ideal of the nationality.” And it was precisely the principle of nationality to make him embrace the cause of war as a necessity to be served realistically: “We must be ideally against the war, though willing to strongly suffer its reality when it is imposed.” After a final pacifist attempt, Semeria enters in the idea of the political need of war “for national and international reasons.” National, because of the need to dispel the “prejudice” of the incompatibility between patriotism and Catholicism, and international, because the violation of the human rights by the central Empires demanded an adequate response. Semeria was convinced that Italy with the war was passing from a “Geographical expression” to a “living reality,” for which one was “proud to fight.” From this emerged his war rhetoric, which led him to even present the Mass on the field as “a worthy divine prelude to the human drama of strength and sacrifice.” This was certainly much more in line with the tactics of confrontation upeld by Cadorna, than with the state of mind of the soldiers and the same state of mind of Semeria, who, weeping, was confiding to his friend Emanuele Musso: “I send a lot of youth to die.” In fact, this is what we read in Gemelli’s Il maresciallo di Dio (the marshal of God), Cadorna was using Semeria “as the preacher of the assault to be put on the front line, on the eve of the attacks, to galvanize the troops. His arrival in the trenches was regarded by soldiers as a clear inkling of an impending attack.” Added to the previous “moral injury” by the anti-modernist persecution and the exile, the “psychic trauma” of interventism (as it was described by Gallarati Scotti21) led Semeria to such a prostration that made him leave, after only six months, the Supreme Command for a long and painful acute neurasthenia, with marked phases of depression that engulfed him in “a horrible temptation,” prompting him to try the suicide in April 1916. Semeria could not avoid recording

this in his autographical notes which are, in their kind, mind-blowing. In a first note we read: “If

my suicide appears completely random, then you say

gesture done for good reason than, please, write to my mother

At that very time, the

Vatican had sent to him 88 propositions aimed at the condemnation of his philosophical and

If, however, you suppose it was a ”

theological thought, so that he would retract them. Although the succession on the papal throne had raised in Semeria the hope to return to the homeland, Benedict XV, although well-disposed toward the Barnabite known to him a long

time before, had to admit that “unfortunately, if it were not for the war, he would had seen his main book, that is, Scienza e fede, put to the Index.” In fact, the Pope found out that the Father’s position was more serious than he that previously believed. It can be enlightening

For Father Semeria the ban to

preach, even to stay in Italy, stays on: this prohibition was tacitly waived because of his office as chaplain of the General Command, so that the prohibition could not be attribute to a personal hostility toward General Cadorna: and then an eye was closed for the ‘war zone,’ but since

lately we have seen that this ‘War zone’ for Father Semeria is widening a bit too much, in the

past days his General has been told to recall him to duty. Moreover, I cannot say to be satisfied with that religious, as I myself have asked him to find a way to explain the many sentences indicted in his books as of doubtful orthodoxy, because I let him know that it seemed impossible to avoid the condemnation, and he also recently in Padua in three conferences that

he preached as a true Modernist! I

he should have been preaching to the University students

am sorry, because if I had delayed the sentence not to give rise to journalistic polemics, the

defense of the true doctrine will force me to publish the verdict

what the pope himself wrote to the Archbishop of Genoa: “

already prepared.”

The filing of the “case,” was personally ordered by Pope Benedict XV after the clarifications by the Barnabite and despite the unyielding opposition by Cardinal De Lai, who was always aiming for a true and proper retraction. Semeria had meanwhile returned to the front line (fall 1916). Speaking in Paris on March 3, 1917, he recalls that one of the most significant surprises de notre guerre was the defeat of clericalism, as an attitude that made the Catholic world hostile to the national cause, and of socialism which, having fluctuated “between two extremes, the Government Opium and anarchist alcohol,” he had espoused the cause of a “revolutionary pacifism.” But the most comforting “surprise” was the explosion of charity in Giovanni Semeria’s tried soul. Inter arma Caritas is the title of a conference he held in Padua, April 17, 1917.

8. The labors of charity

A must theme, this Semerian preaching at the front: “Today Sunday - Ugo Ojetti wrote to his wife - I went to listen to Father Semeria’s sermon in the cathedral full of soldiers and officers: a sermon on charity.” The Barnabite was not new to the labors of love. “The study - he said - is dry and painful, when not coordinated with any form of immediate action on the mind of others.” And so the man of science, since the beginning of his priesthood, became the minister of charity. As he arrived in Genoa, where he resided for seventeen years, he gave rise to “several good and charitable works,” which he resumed in various ways during the years of the exile, working at the Opera Bonomelli. While the achieved territorial integrity was the premise to create a real European solidarity, explicitly advocated by Semeria (“To remain at the head of civilization, our Western Europe must shake itself more compact and solid “), the wounds of war inspired the Barnabite and Don

Giovanni Minozzi, whom he met in autumn 1916, the foundation of the National Opera del Mezzogiorno of Italy (1919), 22 which was designed to accommodate and educate orphans, especially of the Southern people. In this way the old Calabrese project was re-emerging, caressed by Semeria following a speaking tour, he was saying: "I will be your chatterbox to raise money for your orphans," wanted by Don Luigi Orione, among the victims of the earthquake in Calabria and Sicily (1908), a project considered as a solution of its modernistic event. He had written to Pope Pius X in 1909 to allow him "return to practice an apostolate of pure charity, and in Calabria itself; where there could not be any suspicion of intellectual modernity. I ended - continues Semeria - saying that it was nice to bury under the rubble of the earthquake my alleged or claimed modernism."

As he made himself a pilgrim and beggar, beginning a long tour in the U.S. (November 1919 - July 1920), Semeria buried, no longer under the rubble of an earthquake, but in those of war, the weapons of glorious battles and, while not betraying his intimate and sweated beliefs, he became more conciliatory and conservative. Besides, the return to Italy (after Caporetto, September 29, 1917, Semeria left the Supreme Command toward Bologna) was conditioned by at least an implied retraction of the alleged errors, which took shape in the Epilogo di una constroversia (Epilogue of a controversy): an open letter about the book "Science and Faith," 1919, after which Cardinal De Lai gave the green light to the Opera for the South; this very painful paper earned him the final absolution from his intellectual sins. He wrote to his Father General: "We forgive many moral sins, why not forgive my alleged intellectual sins?"

Subsequently, even under the Fascism the bread for the orphans would be so precious to push the Barnabite to go along with the new regime. While "not bending his back and not silencing his reservations," Semeria ran the risk of being considered "an advocate of Fascism and an unconditional glorifier of it." What truth there is in this? In early 1921, before the march over Rome, Semeria regarded fascism as "a patriotism violent in its feelings, violent in its form." He recognized in it an anti-Bolshevik function, but he noted that "after being a defense, Fascism, if it did not end in time, would eventually become a disorder." Even if it had revealed itself as "a momentary necessity," Fascism absolutely could not be justified for its violence, but rather for its patriotism." And since "fascism wants to take all the values of the country, material and spiritual," "our Catholic duty is to Christianize Fascism." "Even in Fascism we need to have the Christian idea to penetrate more and more frank, full, and generous." Otherwise, "without religion it will be a devastating storm." Although he appreciated and supported the attempt by the PPI and the intentions of its founder, Don Luigi Sturzo, whom he met in Sicily, Semeria underestimated, in his childish optimism, as De Gasperi will say, the deeply illiberal matrix of Fascism. Moving between a legitimate and justified fear for men and methods (interesting, in this regard, the letter to Don Brizio Casciola of February 6, 1923), he will not fail to observe that "the stirring revolts either have a real religious content or take some religious attitudes and colors. Today, Fascism, yesterday, Socialism." And precisely because religion, paradoxically Fascism understood what an "excellent Patriotic speculation" the Conciliation was. To the Conciliation, and not to its political counterpart, the Concordato (agreement between Mussolini and the Holy See), Semeria devotes the last pages of his writings. He had not failed to notice, from the beginning of the pontificate of Pius XI, that the "conciliation [was] on the way." As he reached the celebration of the historic event, developed and expected all along the arc of his existence, Semeria considered "February 11, l929 as a big date in the history of the Risorgimento." The Christian conscience was walking towards the unification, and the process that led the country to the dignity of a free and civil nation could not miss its own positive religious expression and bearer of peace. The Italian unity at the political-social level should not be perceived as a conflict over the religious level. On the other hand, Semeria observes, conciliation is not "the last page of a finished volume," but "the first page of a new volume," where you write the story of an Italy genuinely respectful of the gospel principles." It was thus being proposing what the Barnabite had defined "the big question" of the modern era, namely whether it was possible that a truly Christian civilization could rise in it. With a vision of hope that history repeats and constantly denies, Semeria closed, in the height of its charitable activities, his existence among the orphans of Sparanise (Caserta), on March 15, 1931. Referring to the last meeting with his friend, Joseph Toffanin recalled what he had confided to him about the two Christianities. "One is the Christianity of those who cannot say to be Christian. It existed before Christianity itself and it coincides with the ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood espoused by the French Revolution. The other is the Christianity of charity and, based on it, perhaps there is no one who can say to be a Christian." Is this lived Christianity that I reefer to recalling the last words of Semeria pronounced on his deathbed: "I commend charity to all. Live out of charity."

In a Triduum in honor of St. Anthony M. Zaccaria, for a long time unpublished and dating to 1928, three years before his death, Semeria traced the profile of the Holy Founder of his Order, weaving it with very much alive and engaging words, and inviting the audience to follow his example on the path of holiness, defining it thus: "Christian Holiness is nothing else but simply the exercise of charity," and "the ardor of charity, sacrifice, strength, vigor of zeal" are the conditions "indispensable to become saints." A holiness that perhaps could be recognized by the Church, since the processes of canonization of the great Barnabite has started. "To Love God would be relatively easy - we give the floor to Semeria, reading a page from the autobiographical Triduum we have mentioned just now - if we did not have pain here on earth. Until everything smiles at us, it is all right, we do no doubt the goodness of God, his love for us, and we are inclined to reciprocate. But sometimes God is hidden; sometimes he let men slander and persecute us, the mind to go blank, the body to get sick, luck to decrease; and then, oh then, how difficult patience is, but how necessary! It is just then that we see who our true friends are, in the days of misfortune. Then we can see if we love our neighbor."