Senior church figures in Italy have raised the alarm at Matteo Salvini’s use of Catholic symbols at a rally in Milan, where he criticised Pope Francis and claimed the Virgin Mary was willing him to political victory.
Standing on a stage in the Piazza del Duomo on 18 May, surrounded by far-right and nationalist leaders from 10 countries, Salvini entrusted the gathering to the six patron saints of Europe: St Benedict of Norcia, St Brigid of Sweden, St Catherine of Siena, Saints Cyril and Methodius and St Teresa Benedetta of the Cross.
Then, kissing his rosary, he looked up to the gold statue of the Virgin Mary on top of Milan’s 14th-century cathedral and said: “I entrust, Italy, my life and your lives to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, whom I’m sure will bring us to victory.”
The leader of the right-wing Northern League gained power in 2018 after campaigning on an anti-migrant, anti-Islam, “Italy first” platform, and his party is expected to win this week’s European parliamentary elections in Italy. He is then planning to form an alliance with populist nationalist parties from across the continent.
The Pope’s pastoral priorities run counter to the populist nationalism. He has made dialogue with Islam welcoming migrants a priority of his pontificate and rejects the politics of narrow self-interest.
This has irked Salvini who at the Milan Rally launched a direct attack against the Latin American Pope. It came after Francis told a group of journalists in the Vatican on 18 May not to forget that the Mediterranean had been turned into a cemetery due to migrant drownings.
"To His Holiness, Pope Francis,” the Northern League leader told the crowd, who promptly booed when they heard the Pope’s name. “I say that the policy of this government is eliminating the dead in the Mediterranean with pride and Christian charity”.
But on Sunday 19 May, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, issued a warning to Salvini.
“I believe partisan politics divides, but God belongs to everyone,” he told reporters at the Cathedral of St John Lateran on Sunday 19 May. “Invoking God for oneself is always very dangerous.”
The cardinal had just celebrated a Mass for a “Festival of Peoples” bringing together communities from a diverse group of communities from across the world living in the Eternal City for a day-long celebration at the Pope’s cathedral.
Organised by the migrants office of the Diocese of Rome, the liturgy celebrated by Cardinal Parolin included involvement from 26 nationalities, with the Gloria sung in Congolese, a psalm sung in Tagalog and the offertory procession by the Sri Lankan community.
After the Mass, a food stall was set up in front of the Basilica offering traditional dishes from countries such as Syria, Cape Verde, Romania, and Eritrea.
And as the gathering was taking place, Francis told the crowd in St Peter’s Square during his Regina Coeli reflection that Jesus’ love “enables us to overcome the barriers of our weaknesses and prejudices, it creates bridges, it teaches new ways, it triggers the dynamism of fraternity.”
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the President of the European Bishops’ Conference, also criticised Salvini, telling Italian newspaper “La Stampa” that Christian values cannot be appropriated by any single group. He said that “acceptance and integration are essential values of the Gospel” and have "no colour.”
Elsewhere, an editorial in the Catholic publication Famiglia Cristiana described Salvini’s kissing of the rosary and criticism of the Pope as an example of “fetishist sovereignty,” while Enzo Bianchi, the founder of the Bose monastic community and a prominent voice in the Italian church described himself as “profoundly disturbed” by the interior minister’s actions.
“How is it possible that a politician today, at an electoral rally, can kiss the rosary, invoke the patron saints of Europe and entrust Italy to the immaculate heart of Mary for the victory of his party?” he tweeted. “Catholics, if you love Christianity, do not be silent. Protest!”
Fr Antonio Spadaro, the Director of La Civilta Cattolica magazine and an adviser to Francis, argued that today “it is Caesar who is wielding what is of God.”
Salvini has, however, found at least one supporter in the Church in Rome. United States' Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Patron of the Order of Malta and a prominent critic of Francis, said on Friday 18 May that resisting “large scale Muslim immigration” was an act of patriotism.
“To be opposed to large-scale Muslims immigration is a responsible exercise of one’s patriotism,” the cardinal said. While he stressed that “true refugees” should be helped this does not include mass migration. “To resist large scale Muslim immigration in my judgment is to be responsible,” he said.
Describing some immigrants as “opportunists” and said those coming from Muslim counties presented a problem because Islam “believes it is destined to rule the world”.
During his speech he also cited a book, “No Go Zones”, which the cardinal said “records places in the United States where, in fact, Muslim immigrants have set up their own legal order.” The book, written by Raheem Kassam, includes a foreword from Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK’s Brexit Party.