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Meet Sergio Mattarella, an observant Catholic in his private life but a secular politician

by Carlo Marroni

No one in the Vatican would ever praise in public the possible return of a Catholic as President of the Italian Republic.

Nevertheless, few days ago, few members of the Holy See which attended a meeting hosted at the Italian embassy to the Vatican have expressed their enthusiasm over Sergio Mattarella’s candidacy as next President of the Republic.

Even if Mattarella does not currently hold ties with the Vatican, he is an observant Catholic in his private life.

Mattarella is thus part of the Catholic world, even he if always kept his religious identity separate from his political commitment.

We don’t know of any particular relationships he may hold with the Vatican’s State Secretary or with the Roman Curia. However, over the course of the years –especially when he served as Minister for Public Education –he has been meeting with high-ranking members of the clergy.

During his youth he has been active in “Azione Cattolica” (Catholic Action), considered to be the secular arm of the Vatican bishops.

Mattarella’s activism starts in Rome’s San Leone Magno school, where he becomes a youth leader for Azione Cattolica, at a time when the organization used to be the cradle for many future political figures, including Mattarella’s own brother, Piersanti, who was killed by the Mafia in 1980 and whose legacy was taken on by his brother Sergio.

It was in Palermo that Sergio Mattarella started his political career. His path crossed that of many prominent figures who were crucial for his development, such as Salvatore Pappalardo, a Cardinal who became a symbol of anti-Mafia activism, and several Jesuit priests belonging to the Jesuit organization “Centro Pedro Arrupe” –he was particularly close to Bartolomeo Sorge and Ennio Pintacuda.

Sorge and Pintacuda were the minds behind the “Palermitan turn” –which saw members of the Church and civil society rising up against bad government and the Mafia.
Later on, the Jesuit pair split up, due to divergent opinions regarding a new organization, “Rete di Leoluca Orlando” (Leoluca Orlando’s network) started by Palermo’s major Leoluca Orlando to contrast the diffusion of corruption and mafia ties within the government.
Mattarella remains on the side of Sorge, who directed the Catholic magazine “Civiltà cattolica”—of which Mattarella is still a fervent reader.

Those were thorny years for Italy’s Christian Democracy party (DC), which at the time was led by Ciriaco De Mita, who was able to unify the different left-wing fractions within the DC. De Mita was a key figure for Mattarella, who was himself a follower of DC’s Aldo Moro –who served as Italy’s Prime Minister and was kidnapped and killed by Italy’s terrorist organization Red Brigades in 1978 (translator’s note).

During those years, the DC-led government was in the process of re-evaluating the “Concordato”, a pact signed between the Italian government and the Vatican to regulate their mutual relationships.

Both Giuliano Amato –which represented the Italian side –and Monsignor Achille Silvestrini –which represented the Vatican –played a prominent role in the negotiations.
When internal tensions within the DC eventually sparkled into a crisis, it was the common Catholic and democratic identity that hold together those that eventually went on to create “Carta 93”, an organization who sought to delineate an implementation plan for the political agenda of Mino Martinazzoli, an historic left wing DC leader who served as secretary before the party was eventually dissolved (translator’s note).

Later in his life, Mattarella also liaised with Saint Egidio’s community, a Catholic association based in Rome and operating in more than 70 countries.