Remembering Father Giovanni Farris


by Eugenio Battaglia

I was lucky to grow up in Savona when 70-80 years ago there were plenty of Catholic priests with no rotten apples among them. When the wartime conditions allowed, I started attending a Catholic recreation group when I was just 5 in 1941.

Ten years later the priest in charge of this group moved to a newly built church to attend the "Stella Maris" for the care of the sailors. He was replaced by a young priest just 24 years old: Don Giovanni Farris.

Don Farris developed into a charismatic person, inspiring and organizing the boys with plays, tours, camping, theatrical productions, and a choir (the last two not for me).

He was also a teacher in the Seminar, in the public schools, and at the University of Genoa, as well as a highly appreciated pastor in two parishes. He was a great historian of the Church and a scholar, especially on Dante Alighieri and on the transition from Latin to vernacular Italian. He published a great number of books, including a few he was working on at his death, which unfortunately will remain unfinished. He was the leader of the committee for canonization of Pope Pius VII.

Don Farris was a fan of the theater, and the first time that I saw him in 1948 he was among the seminarists presenting "La Sommossa" (The Insurrection) of Giovanni Mosca. Father Farris played the main character, Giuseppe, the sole revolutionary on an island where all peoples were equal, all dressing in a green uniform in an absolute dictatorship where the only religion was to profess loyalty and gratitude to the governor. This work was first produced in Italy in February 1943. I would say that may have inspired Orwell's 1984. Funny, it is said that Italy was a dictatorship in 1943, yet a play against dictatorship was allowed.

Don Farris was not a Bastian Contrario but believed always in fulfilling his duties and always telling the truth, no matter the consequences. He believed in the centrality of the human being within the social world and in the importance of religion to qualify his dignity and value.

In 1945 just after the so-called liberation in 1945, there were two fascists, father and son, in the hospital of Cogoleto, Don Farris's home town. They had been arrested and placed in a truck on the way to their execution. They succeeded in making the truck crash and all on board were taken to the hospital. However, the two fascists were beaten in lieu of medical treatment. Nobody could visit them, not even a priest. Still a very young seminarist, Farris raised a lot of hell with the partisans and went to them and prayed with them. He returned one day later, but during the night the two prisoners were taken away and killed. It is rumored that at least one of them was buried alive.

In the autobiography of Don Farris there are many pages on the resistance. His elder brother was a partisan. He also included pages about me (and also my wife the artist). He wrote very nice things about my help to him and my abilities as a Boy Scout leader.

Once, however, we almost quarreled, not reported in the book.

At 16, I decided to read the "big brick" of Marx's Das Kapital while he believed that it was a waste of time. Anyway, I read it, and Don Farris was right. Poor Marx, in spite of a few good points, did not understand that the human being is not only "oeconomicus" but also "spiritualist" and addressing only the first is absolutely wrong.

Father Farris also remembered when in 1953 in "Red" Savona in my neighborhood, Villetta, anti-communist graffiti would appear. Of course, it was rumored that I was the author. I never said a thing and he was very worried about my safety. Among the various graffiti, the one I liked most was, "Do not be afraid to have courage" written with the anti-communist slogans.

I saw him just a couple of days before his death. He was in very good shape and spirits, working as usual and I believed that he was eternal. He died from sudden heart failure. For the first days afterward I prayed for his soul but then I considered his life and I started to pray to him to intercede with God for me. After all, he helped me for almost 70 years; for sure he will not stop now that he is in the glory of God.