That parallel route
In remembering Cardinal Giovanni Urbani, a little more than 50 years after his death (17 September 1969), it is appropriate to dwell on certain significant moments that saw him as a 20th century protagonist of the Italian Church.
First, it must be stated that the recent publication received a disproportionate circulation due to the canonization of Paul VI (after years of almost complete oblivion), without treating the close friendly relations, and even the close collaboration, that' the Pontiff had with the Venetian priest born in 1900. This is most clearly shown by the telegram that the Pope sent to the diocese, in which he manifested his affectionate bond with the deceased Cardinal: those words “so dear to us” (sec “L’Osseruatore Romano", 18 September 1969) say more than a long speech.
Their personalities, so different in temperament, culture and social background, seemed nevertheless to complement each other in the particular context of the history of the Italian Church during the last century. In addition, those who look further back into their lives immediately notice their commitment to Catholic Action which was destined, thanks to the prompting of the Servant of God Pius XII, to play a decisive role in Italian history tout court. In this sense, Pope Paul Vi’s epistolary, scrupulously edited with philological care by the Paul VI Institute, will be decisive; in fact, the anniversary will allow the opening of unpublished documents for consultation. I pointed this out to the President emeritus Giuseppe Ca- madini, who in a signed letter acted as guarantor of this ten years ago.
How else could it be explained that at the end of 1946 Urbani was called to Rome from Venice to be Assistant General of Italian Catholic Action while Montini was in the Secretariat of State? It can no longer be ignored that the future Paul VI was particularly trusted by the current Pope. Urbani was then already well known for having converted the criminal lawyer Francesco Carnelutti as a young priest. During his almost 10-year service in Rome, the Venetian prelate maintained continuous contact with the Vatican Secretariat of State on which Catholic Action depended institutionally. And the irremediable and clearly political conflict that arose between the president, Luigi Gedda, and its civic committees could only have had the future Pope as silent guarantor. He would then go on to see the launch of the centre-left governments in the 1960s. Urbani, who was very loyal to the Pontiff, suffered a trauma which it is possible to assume was the beginning of a serious tachycardia which led him prematurely to his grave.
Catholic historiography has always underlined the “exile” of Montini, to Milan and Urbani, to Verona, which occurred a few months later. There are few who know that the latter was the personal representative of Patriarch Roncalli at the consecration of the future Pope in Saint Peter’s, 12 December 1954. The radio broadcast speech of the then sick Pius XII which is a synthesis of the immense esteem for his collaborator, and to whom, in a conversation with the pro-European Schuman, foresaw the papacy (as Leonardo Sapienza also writes, in the volume edited by the Circolo di San Pietro). In addition, contemporaneously, the Roman Pontiff manifested particular fondness for Urbani, conferring on him, in November 1948, the title of titular Archbishop of Sardis, which Pacelli had received from Benedict XV on 13 May, 1917, as Nuncio in Bavaria.
These are aspects that current publications have completely neglected, or underestimated: the ever closer relations between the two bishops, now installed vis-a-vis in two of the most illustrious dioceses in the north of Italy, where they could study modern ecclesiology open to the most up-to-date religiosity. Montini tackled the culture and the environment of the workplace, Urbani put into practice his organizational and entrepreneurial sagacity, and his spirit as a great communicator, a little ahead of the great John Paul II who would adopt this style.
In this regard, if we consider the deep bonds of mutual esteem that united the three undisputed protagonists of the history of the Italian Church — Roncalli, Montini and Urbani — on such different levels of commitment and quality, we can better understand the various moments of close contact and cooperation between them. This to such an extent that Urbani received from Pope John XXIII the prognostication of the papacy in the Conclave, where Paul VI was elected, on several occasions, as Cardinal Ciriaci testified to Benny Lai. This explains the “decisive” role (see Monsignor Agostino Marchetto in the volume 11 Concilio ecumenico Vaticano II, Librer- ia Editrice Vaticana, 2012) that the Venetian cardinal had in the election of the Archbishop of Milan.
Thus, the choice of the Patriarch of Venice as president of the Italian Episcopal Conference was a natural choice at the end of the Council. Also, knowing the fact that as Assistant to Catholic Action — almost a permanent “apostolic visitor” (“national bishop” as Father Riccardo Lombardi called him) — he had visited all the Italian dioceses twice, claiming to have a thorough knowledge of the Italian Catholic world’s reality. Hence the Pope’s affectionate condolences: he who had experienced and also left written testimony of his own loneliness in the face of the post-Council period’s immense problems with a Church torn by division and abandonment.
The optimistic character of Urbani, a man of action, has always been stressed (this was underlined in “Avvenire" by P. Pratesi; and by J. Nobecourt: “Perdita irreparabile della Conferenza Episcopate Italiana" (Irreparable loss of the Italian Episcopal Conference) in “Le Monde” but also by F. De Santis in the “Corriere della Sera" for the presentation to the Milan Press Club of the new statute of the I EC: “La piu grande conferenza stampa mai tenuta da un cardinale" (The largest press conference ever held by a cardinal).
Paul VI had chosen him, also recognizing his qualities of balance and mediation on numerous occasions, and which were emphasized by Cardinal Giovanni Colombo in his homily at his funeral in San Marco. Although, it must be added that at times he was not helped by his impetuous and highly emotional character which precluded the natural sympathy he elicited in people.
In his book, ”A ogni morte di Papa” (Every time a Pope dies), Giulio Andreotti recalled the episode in Cesena, during the Pacellian years, in which the Assistant declared himself “anticlerical” although very faithful to the Pontiff. Here, perhaps he can be considered a forerunner of Pope Francis, who today is fighting against ecclesiastical Pelagianism which has made us forget the true mission of the clergy in the Church. Today, the most appropriate way to remember him is as being inseparably united to the figure of the Pope from Brescia, whose faithful mentor he seems to have been.
7 February 2020, page 2