Tens of thousands of Romans protested Saturday December 14 in the first national rally of the ‘Sardines’ movement, a group that is shaping up as a powerful political rival to controversial Italian politician Matteo Salvini and his far-right Lega party.

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“We’ve filled the piazza. Mission accomplished”, Matti Santori, one of the founders of the movement, told the crowd gathered December 14 at St. John at the Lateran Square, who held aloft sardine-shaped signs and sang the anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao”.

The sardines are a reference to the movement’s origins in Bologna, where local people, concerned at Salvini’s chances of doing away with decades of leftist rule in January’s Emilia-Romagna elections, began packing the main square like so many tinned fish to protest at that possibility.

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“It’s a spontaneous demonstration that aims to change this society, with all the consequences that this brings”, said demonstrator Daniela Mazzeo of the December 14 protest in the capital.

Among those changes the Sardines seek to bring to Italy are a move away from the ultra-right populism Salvini brought to his tenure as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister from June 2018 to September 2019.

That populism, and the nativist, xenophobic and anti-environmental measures that came with it, infuriated many citizens and led to a deep disenchantment with modern Italian politics.

Salvini’s policies also irritated his European partners, who grew ever more frustrated this northern summer especially with the Interior Minister’s repeated refusals to let Mediterranean refugee rescue ships dock in Italian ports.

Although the Sardines have no ambitions to form a political party of their own – or at least not yet – they’re shaping up as a major force on the Italian political landscape.

So what does the Vatican think of the movement?

Why it matters

Before the Rome rally, the Sardines won cautious support from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who said “it is important to grasp everything that is good also in these movements and try to valorise it always for the good of the country”.

“That is my wish, that the positive energies be highlighted above all… that these positive pushes should be placed at the service of the country’s welfare”, Parolin added.

Another Vatican figure to come out in support of the Sardines was Bishop Nunzio Galantino, head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA).

Galantino said: “I can only have sympathy for these guys who take the initiative to tell us adults that they can’t take it any longer and can’t help but shout out”.

More diplomatic was the Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Cardinal Peter Turkson, who said that “what I can say about this phenomenon is that we reiterate everyone’s right to express their ideas, their thoughts.

“If some are convinced that such a group is useful to promote the sense of democracy in Italy, well, we accompany it always trying to meet the Gospel and the Social Doctrine of the Church”, Turkson added.

The Vatican, the cardinal said, is “doing the same thing with the groups that fight xenophobia: we invite them to a conference and try to direct them towards the Church’s message”.

“Accompaniment is our great means to dialogue with these efforts”, Turkson insisted.

What’s next

As for a potential dialogue with the Sardines or even an invitation to them to the Vatican, Turkson said that might come “eventually”.

“This movement is very popular, that’s fine, but we must first understand: why is it so popular? What’s behind all this? First let’s try to discover the causes and then, as I said, to address the message”, the cardinal explained.

Turkson further said that the Sardines are an explicitly Italian movement, and as such it corresponds to the Italian Bishops’ Conference first to take a position on the group.

“Therefore we expect a move from the Italian Bishops’ Conference first, only then can we support and take the field”, the cardinal recalled.

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