Father Divo Barsotti


He who sets out to write a biographical profile will almost invariably encounter several difficulties from the very beginning of the enterprise. If this is true for every biography, it is especially true for one about Divo Barsotti. Silvano Nistri, who was one of Barsotti's closest friends, clearly pointed out the fundamental problem that one who undertakes to study the existential journey of Divo Barsotti is faced with:

Usually, there are several indispensable tools necessary to understand a person. One begins with the person's environment, family, teachers, and encounters or, put simply, the person's cultural and personal background. These tools might also be useful for studying Divo Barsotti as well. Yet I get the impression that such tools are of very little use in the end. I find Divo Barsotti so unique. I therefore think that the real Fr. Barsotti is to be found elsewhere: he seems to be, as Melchisedek, a man without father, mother, and lineage.

Nistri's words are confirmed in a striking way by a journal entry of 1967 in which Barsotti confesses his estrangement from his own roots:

When I read a well-written biography, I am often amazed at how often man's environment influences his life. And who is my father? What do I owe to my parents, my teachers, my hometown? What do I owe to the Seminary of San Miniato? I feel alone. I feel as though I had no roots. God has led me by the hand and willed that I should be completely His. Am I of this century or of some century of the past? Am I in Florence or elsewhere?

Throughout this chapter, I shall attempt to give a preliminary response to these questions, by considering the most important moments of Barsotti's life, with special attention to his published journals. The principal aim of this book as a whole is to understand Barsotti's life using his published journals as the chief primary source.


Although Barsotti lived in the constant awareness of being a pilgrim without a set home on earth, he nevertheless had roots. He was born in Palaia, near Pisa, on April 25, 1914, the seventh of nine children, of Antonio Barsotti and Adelasia Bruschi, a family he himself defined as "very Christian". At eleven years of age, he entered the Seminary of the Diocese of San Miniato, in which his older brother, Giovanni, had entered a few years earlier in the class of 1908.
While Barsotti was studying at the Lyceum, he experienced a crisis of faith: "The priestly ideal no longer meant anything to me; I was instead intoxicated with poetry. I wanted to become a great writer and poet". Barsotti recounted several times in the course of his life his youth. For instance, in an interview of 1979, he speaks of, in addition to his desire to become a great poet, his strong determination to travel to the Orient as an itinerant monk, as a "hermit who does not shun the crowds". These were aspirations which apparently never materialised during his life; however, such aspirations have always remained in his heart and have somehow influenced his existential journey.

The decisive moment of his conversion took place in his final year at the Lyceum, on December 27, 1933. He recounts that after years of tribulation at the seminary, and plagued by the recurring thought of abandoning his training for the priesthood, God visited him. In one of the last interviews, Barsotti described the days of December 27 and 28, 1933, as ones in which the route of his spiritual journey had radically changed:

I thought of leaving the seminary; yet, just after those days, the desire to follow Jesus and to bear witness to His presence in the world and in man's heart, was born in my breast and became more and more intense. This was not an extraordinary event, but, in those days, I had a vivid and unmistakable experience of the presence and reality of Christ. They were celebrating the Forty Hours in the Cathedral of San Miniato, when, all of a sudden, I felt that He was entering my life. All other thoughts vanished, everything else vanished before me; He alone remained. He invited me. He called me to follow Him. It was He who swept away from my memory and from my will every other aspiration. From that moment on, I never had any aspiration more powerful than the aspiration to respond to the Lord. I have been so unfaithful; yet, from then onwards, no other ideal could enter my heart.

In Barsotti's conversion, the reading of the novels of Dostoyevsky have played an important role; Barsotti several times described his encounter with Dostoyevsky's work as the decisive one of his life. It was Dostoyevsky and other great Russian thinkers such as V. Solov'ev and N. Berdyaev, whose works Barsotti had begun to read avidly in those years that caused him to perceive, for the very first time, the depth and beauty of Christianity. Von Balthasar pointed out in this regard how Barsotti's encounter with Russian Christianity deeply influenced Barsotti's entire existence. "Barsotti's entire legacy is imbued with Russian piety, from its Byzantine and Greek-Patristic origins, to Seraphim of Sarov, Theophanes the Hermit, John of Cronstadt and writers such as Chomyakov, Dostoyevsky, Leontyev, Solov'ev, and Berdyaev.

When Barsotti was training for the priesthood, his special fondness for Japan grew and developed, in addition to his love for Russia. In fact, Japanese culture had fascinated him ever since he was a middle school student. After he had returned from his first trip to Japan in 1977, he wrote:

I have been bound to Japan for many years, even before my conversion, when I did not want to have anything to do with the priesthood and I thought I would become a great writer, a poet. Even in those years, I would amuse myself by writing poems in the Japanese style! This passion of mine goes way back to early childhood!

To discover God's Will for his life, Barsotti went to Naples in 1935, full of high hopes. There he met Fr. G. Russolillo, but after about a month in Naples he returned to the seminary, still uncertain about his path. Shortly before Barsotti was ordained a priest, Marcello Candia, with whom Barsotti had been a close friend ever since his adolescence, sought to get Barsotti involved in a mission to Brazil, but the latter, not feeling called to go there, declined the offer.


Barsotti was ordained a priest on July 18, 1937, in the Cathedral of San Miniato, by the Bishop U. Giubbi. A month later, on August 19, 1937, Barsotti's mother died. In the following three years, after he had been called for a brief service in the parish, he taught in the seminary of his diocese, the following courses: literature at the Gymnasium and dogmatic theology, history of the Church and patristics in the theological faculty. However, the difficulties he had encountered before his ordination resurfaced. He felt strongly attracted once again to a life as a priest and hermit in missionary lands and it was this attraction that perplexed his immediate superiors. The Bishop encouraged him to write three letters to the apostolic delegates in Japan, India and China in order to find out if it would be possible for him to live a life of prayer and silence in those nations.

The nation that Barsotti came closest to visiting was India: with the aid of Mons. A. Signora, Secretary General of the Pontifical Work of St. Peter for the indigenous clergy in Rome. He entered into correspondence with A. Boland, co-founder, together with V. Lebbe, of the Auxiliaries of Missions. The priests who belonged to this association had to place themselves at the service of indigenous priests, while at the same time maintaining a certain degree of autonomy. Boland introduced Barsotti to one of his priests, Abbé Sohier, who spoke to Barsotti about the presence in India of J. Monchanin, assistant of the alumni of the University of Lyon. J. Monchanin was looking for a companion with whom to begin a kind of hermitic life. Barsotti was supposed to go to Belgium with Sohier for a short period of preparation, after which they were to leave for the Orient: Sohier, who soon after had to leave for the warfront and thus had to forego his plans to go to India.

Barsotti, at this point, decided to quit his job as teacher in the seminary, and after he had toyed with the idea of becoming parish priest, he asked to be admitted to the Society of the Divine Word (Verbites). The Superior General, G. Grendel, who had been Barsotti's spiritual director for several months, strongly advised Barsotti not to enter the congregation of the Verbites. In the same year, Barsotti made his last attempt to enter the religious life, by going to see the Jesuits in Rome, but even here his request was declined.

In the period between 1941 and 1945, Barsotti stayed several years with his family. The journals Wrestling with the Angel and The Immobile Flight were written, which are precious records of this complex and troubled period; however, it was a decisive period on account of several ensuing events. In those years, under the initiative of G. la Pira1, whom Barsotti had been in correspondence since 1939, the latter wrote a series of articles for the Osservatore Romano: in 1944, he had to suspend his job as contributor to this newspaper for health reasons.

Bishop Giubbi decided, but only with great difficulty, to allow Barsotti to leave the diocese and in September 1944, the Bishop handed Barsotti a letter of recommendation addressed to the Archbishop of Florence, Elia Dalla Costa.2 


With the friendship and support of La Pira, Barsotti moved to Florence in October of 1945. Shortly after Barsotti had arrived in Florence, his father died, on November 24, 1945. His first responsibility in the diocese was to serve as chaplain in a small community of nuns of the Abbey of Ripoli, in the environs of Florence. He served there as chaplain only for a few months.

In this period, La Pira played an important role in Barsotti's life. A deep relationship developed between the two, in spite of the fact that Barsotti admitted to being somewhat distant from La Pira, finding himself in disagreement with some of the latter's opinions and political decisions. According to Nistri, the chief reason why Barsotti came to Florence was not his meeting with La Pira and even less the difficulties he had in his diocese or in his brief visits to Rome, but rather the influence and charisma of Cardinal Dalla Costa, "a man whose sense of God seemed to overshadow everything else… This man, who was so shy, so far above all worldliness, impressed Barsotti more than any other person".

In addition to his association with La Pira, Barsotti met in Florence Mons. E. Bartoletti and G.P. Meucci, who were noteworthy persons with whom Barsotti would continue to have a close relationship for many years. In 1951, Barsotti met G. Dossetti for the first time, and remained close to G. Dossetti up to the death of the latter in spite of their differences in opinion. 


Barsotti moved to Porta Romana on April 27, 1946: here he was named rector of a small church. On January 1, 1947, the first nucleus of the Community of the Sons and Daughters of God was established. The Community of the Sons and Daughters of God was then a public association of faithful, which was formed and guided for several decades by Barsotti himself. It was a community which would become increasingly more important in Barsotti's life and activity.

This first nucleus of the Community was composed of Fr. Barsotti and four women who, together with others, joined together in a small Dominican movement called "Militia Regni Christi", founded by the Dominican Father, A. Zelli, on July 13, 1944. Since Father Zelli was transferred to Rome, he entrusted this small group, in March 1945, to a Carmelite, Father Thomas of Jesus, who in turn guided the group until April 1946, when he had to be relieved of this responsibility because he had to go to China as a missionary. Under the initiative of the Assistant of the Community, Vittoria Pacchioni, Barsotti, was contacted, and he agreed to take Fr. Thomas of Jesus' position beginning May of that year. Barsotti began to put his own personal stamp on this small group of women. In April 1947, to christen his new approach to the group, Barsotti gave the movement the name, "The Community of the Sons and Daughters of God". 


The period of the 1950's was doubtless the most prolific period of Barsotti's literary career. In 1951, The Christian Mystery in the Liturgical Year came out, a book which was considered Barsotti's most important work. It consisted of a collection of theologically dense articles, which were first published in the Italian journal Il focolare, whose chief editor was Fr. G. Facibeni3. The latter, together with La Pira and Dalla Costa, formed the shining triumvirate which had deeply influenced Barsotti's life after his arrival in Florence.

In 1953, Barsotti published his second fundamental work, The Christian Mystery and the Word of God. Von Balthasar pointed out the value of this work, which was immediately translated into French (1954), and a few years later, into German (1957). Von Balthasar viewed it as a "bridge between the spiritual exegesis of the Fathers of the Church and modern, scientific exegesis". He also pointed out Barsotti's important role in Italy in those years, in which "the liturgical movement was practically unheard of and exegetical studies and theology had a lot to recover". In the milieu of the pre-Vatican II Church in Italy, Barsotti played an "important but delicate role as one who renewed Christian language and spiritual experience", as his works contributed to the discovery, in Italy, of the best theology of Europe outside Italy, especially that of France. In harmony with the works of O. Casel and L. Bouyer, the rediscovery of Christianity as the Mystery allowed Barsotti to fill the "centuries-old gap between theology and liturgy and between theology and spirituality".

In parallel with the publication of his great theological works, Barsotti zealously continued his study of the Russian Christian tradition, which was virtually unknown in Italy in those years. After his pioneering work Russian Christianity, published in 1948, he devoted much time and effort to a series of books in which he introduced some of the most important mystics and monks of Russian Christianity to an Italian audience.


The decade 1950-1960 was for Barsotti not only one of the most creative periods of his life, but also one in which he made several weighty and important decisions in his spiritual path. In October 1955, he moved to the convent of Mount Senario in the environs of Florence, where a small hermitage was established under the assistance of D.M. Turoldo. The latter was another important personage of Florence, with whom Barsotti established a living relationship in those years. Barsotti remained in Mount Senario for a few months together with Antonio Spezzani, a young man whom Barsotti had welcomed as companion in his hermitical life and who would later play an important role in Barsotti's experience of common life at the hermitage named "La Fornace", in the environs of Barsotti's hometown, Palaia.

At the end of January, 1956, Barsotti chanced upon "a small isolated house, nestled among cypress trees and olive groves", near Settignano, in the hills surrounding Florence. In this regard, the Father, in the journal "Word and silence" made mention for the first time of a dream he had had in 1945, a dream in which he believed to have already seen this small house:
I thought I had seen it in a dream of many years ago. A monk was coming out of a gate and was approaching me; in that moment, while I was standing in the street, I heard chanting coming from inside the house.

Barsotti did not comment further on this mysterious dream, but many years later, in the introduction to his journal "In Holy Russia", he described more clearly the relationship between this dream and the house of Settignano. Barely nine years after he had seen the house, Barsotti signed the contract to purchase it. It is noteworthy that from 1945 to 1953, the house belonged to a Romanian Princess, Catherine Joanna Ghika Keskho, the sister of Queen Natalia of Serbia. The former was an important person in Barsotti's life and we shall speak about her in the third chapter.

After Barsotti had obtained permission from Bishop Dalla Costa, he celebrated - on November 28, 1956 - his first Holy Mass in the chapel of the house which he dedicated to the memory of St. Sergius of Radonezh (ca. 1314-1392), patron of Russia. At his flank, there was Spezzani, with whom he continued to have a close relationship: "At this point, it seems impossible to me to conceive of my life without him [Spezzani]. If one day something should separate us, I think that we could live a part from one another only physically".

In Casa San Sergio, Barsotti reached the real turning point of his life; his commitment to continual prayer and silence materialised increasingly more, whilst the Community grew around him slowly, but steadily in different Italian cities. However, in his journals, he did not hide the difficulties he had in realising his vocation, an enterprise that would continue to require more energy than he had at his disposal; and this in a life that seemed to sink every day deeper into oblivion and into nothingness, in spite of his numerous commitments on the outside, from which he was unable to withdraw. He was assailed by the temptation even to abandon his new house. Nevertheless, he came to realise through faith that he had finally found a place chosen for him by God.

Although Barsotti would spend the greater part of the day at Casa San Sergio, he was still fully assimilated in the life of the Florentine Church. At this time, he became part of an exceptional circle of important personages. In addition to those already mentioned (Dalla Costa, La Pira, Bartoletti, Turoldo, Meucci and Facibeni), he met M. Gozzini and E. Balducci. Barsotti must be understood and studied within the context of this milieu, which was more teeming with ferment of innovation compared to the rest of Italy. He actively shared in the life of this circle of persons, even if he does not hide, in his journals, his perplexity and especially alienation from the thought of some of its members. He acknowledged the fact that he was becoming more and more attracted to horizons which lay far from culture and politics and he noticed that his conception of Christianity differed markedly from that of the others. 


Divo Barsotti had several notable difficulties, in addition to his progressive isolation from the Florentine milieu. One of these difficulties was the ecclesiastical authorities' critical stance towards his works of biblical exegesis. This problem arose after he had published The God of Abraham. The experience of God in the Book of Genesis (1952), Loquere Domine (1954), The revelation of love (1955), and The Way of Return (1957). The most difficult moment was in 1958 when he wrote a commentary on the Book of Exodus: this book received an imprimatur in France and was published in the following year. Barsotti communicated the news to the auxiliary bishop of Florence, E. Florit. The latter in turn informed the Holy Office, of which the spokesperson, Mons. Crovini, asked Barsotti to withdraw his book from publication and to heed the advice of the Bishop. Florit, who had been invited by Rome to examine Barsotti's books, communicated to Barsotti the decision of the Holy Office and relieved Barsotti of his duty as spiritual director of the Ursuline Sisters and Catholic University Students. In the Roman Decree, limitations on Barsotti's activity as a writer were imposed, especially in the biblical field, and he was asked to retract his thoughts concerning the spiritual interpretation of the Book of Exodus.

In spite of these difficulties, Barsotti continued his activity as preacher and spiritual director in cloistered monasteries, convents, and seminaries and especially in the groups of his community, whose members esteemed Barsotti and were fond of him. 


Barsotti, after the Second Vatican Council, in which he did not actively participate, was committed to warning Christians of the risk of applying in a superficial way the texts of the Council and he was especially wary of the Church being reduced to a purely social and worldly organisation. While his opinion of the Council, expressed in his writing After the Second Vatican Council, is for the most part positive (even if he did not hesitate to express his perplexity on some aspects of it), his journals revealed a conflicted relationship with the Council and especially with the ensuing period; such a conflict, as G. Mazzanti noted, arose from his difficulties with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and with certain liturgical, theological and ecclesial forms.

With the passage of time, Barsotti felt increasingly more isolated from Italian theological circles. In his journal of 1980, he speaks about an all out "conspiracy of silence" in his regard. According to Mazzanti, this "theological silence" might have been a reaction to Barsotti's writings, which would often appear without any critical apparatus or scholarly pretences. Another reason for this "theological silence" might have been Barsotti's exclusive concern with spirituality and mysticism. His theological method was completely new to 20th century Italian theology, especially because he drew amply from poetry and literature, much in the same vein as the works of German and French theologians. This radical difference of approach with academic circles is evident in his judgment - at times harsh - which he did not spare to theologians and exegetes of his time.

Ignored, misunderstood, and at times labelled as a conservative on account of his position during the years of youthful rebellion (in Italy, 60's and 70's), Barsotti was unexpectedly brought out of isolation by Pope Paul VI, the Pope whom Barsotti felt most conflicted about, even though Paul VI always held Barsotti in high regard. While Italian theology of the years following the Second Vatican Council took roads ever more distant from his, it was nevertheless the Supreme Authority of the Church who called him to preach in the Vatican, the spiritual exercises to His Holiness himself and to the Cardinals of the Roman Curia in the first week of March, 1971.
The real centre of Barsotti's life in these years continued to be his community, which continued to spread in various parts of Italy with the emergence of new groups. In November 1960, A. Spezzani (who would be ordained a priest four years later) and S. Scardigli had, in the meantime, begun to live the hermitic life with Barsotti at the hermitage called "La Fornace". Soon thereafter, other young men joined with them in this experience. Barsotti lived with this group of young men for a short period, but later he left them after a series of painful misunderstandings. After several meetings, letters and attempts to come to an agreement, Barsotti, in August 1967, went to the hermitage to heal the relationship with his disciples; however, this attempt failed. The group became progressively smaller and the experience at the hermitage ended definitively in the autumn of 1970, leaving a deep wound in Barsotti's life.

"O my Lord, give me children again! Everyone calls me 'Father', but I am a father without children". In this cry of his, in the journal of 1968, all the pain Barsotti had experienced in his breakup with the young men of the hermitage is summed up. His ecclesial duties became increasingly more inadequate to alleviate his incurable feeling of emptiness and he himself admitted that his taking on of increasingly more commitments became for him but a pretext to flee the hard reality of daily life.
Especially after the end of the late 70's, Barsotti went on some important trips outside Europe, where he had been invited to preach spiritual exercises to several religious congregations. We may recall his travels in Japan, in the United States, in Brazil, in Argentina, in Australia, in China and in Hong Kong. As he grew older, he limited his range of action abroad, but would continue to follow closely the affairs of the world and the Church and to publish books of various kinds: from his biblical commentaries (with particular attention to the books of the Old Testament) to essays on the history of spirituality, from courses of spiritual exercises to literary studies. 


The "evening" of Barsotti's life lasted many years and we can say that it began in September 1995, when at the age of 81, he officially entrusted the leadership of the community to the young Fr. Serafino Tognetti, who had been a most faithful presence at Barsotti's side for nearly ten years. With the arrival of Tognetti, the houses of common life for men gained new vigour, and Barsotti went back to live with several young monks who would help him in the spiritual assistance of the community: even the houses of common life for women developed appreciably in this period and the community at large witnessed a new springtime. Barsotti's activity would continue to be intense. He continued untiringly to receive hundreds of persons, including Bishops and Cardinals of the different nations in which the community had begun slowly to expand.

In the final years of his life (which seems to be patterned closely on the life of the Blessed J. Ruysbroeck, a figure of which the Father was most fond), Barsotti, already recognised by Carlo Bo as "one of the greatest spirits of our time", was rediscovered and re-evaluated, both in the Church and in literary circles. The interest in him was evidenced especially by two important conventions organised by the theological departments of Palermo (2000) and Trento (2001), as well as by other forms of public recognition.

Barsotti died on February 15, 2006, at the age of 91, in his cell at Casa San Sergio, assisted by the monks of his community. In his last published journal, he expressed his amazement at having received, in the evening of his life, the gift of new children who had come to live with him, fulfilling his long-time wish to have children: "The wonder at this gift of so many children who are much better than I. The Lord gave me these children so that I might learn from them".
The author of this biography is one of his children, one who has, however, nothing to teach his father, but has still much to learn.

Fr Stefano Albertazzi

1Giorgio La Pira (1904-1977) was one of the founding fathers of the Italian Constitution and was a parliament member of the Early Italian Republic in the post-war years. In 1951, he was elected mayor of Florence, and, with the exception of a few minor interruptions, remained in office until 1965. The cause for his beatification is currently underway.

2 Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa (1872-1961), was appointed Archbishop of Florence in 1931. He was an austere, but paternal man who worked untiringly for the good of his diocese. He refused every form of compromise with the Nazi and Italian Fascist regimes as well as with Communism. The cause for his beatification was initiated in 1961 and is still underway.

3Father Giulio Facibeni (1884-1958) was a diocesan priest who was very active in works of charity for the poor. In 1923, he founded the Work of Divine Providence "Madonnina del Grappa". The cause for his beatification is currently underway.
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