Named "Sardines" because they stand tightly together at rallies "like sardines in a can," the group claims to be a grassroots movement decrying those opposing the political establishment. Italians are expected to believe they're a spontaneous movement fighting to keep the government in power, when it is in fact carefully planned.
The Sardines have received significant support, to the point of actually posing a threat to Salvini's party, the League. Usually absent in the public debate when it comes to non-negotiable moral issues, some in the Catholic hierarchy have been vocal in embracing the Sardines' movement, welcoming the anti-Salvini protestors as a breath of fresh air for Italian democracy.
The idea for the Sardines' first rally came from Mattia Santori, 32, left sleepless one night in November "after reading Salvini's proclamations." Santori was joined by three other friends who then planned a flashmob in Bologna against Salvini's upcoming launch of the League's campaign for the regional elections of Emilia-Romagna.
A League victory in the region that has been the stronghold of the Left in the country since World War II could mean not only the collapse of the current national government, but also a radical shake-up for the Italian Left, which explains the progressives' swift support of the Sardines.
A Sardines rally in Bologna claiming as many as 12,000 participants marked the spread of the anti-League movement all over Italy. A massive crowd turned out in Rome recently, where organizers gathered to discuss the future of the movement and present an official six-point manifesto.
Some of its demands include "equating verbal violence to physical violence" and eliminating any type of "violence" from political speech. But half of it is dedicated to dismantling Salvini's work and silencing the League.
The protesters demand:
Protesters' repeated lingo includes terms like "anti-fascist," "pro-equality," "against intolerance," and "against homophobia."
Catholic writer Giuliano Guzzo questioned why the Church would jump on the Sardines' bandwagon instead of standing up for any aspect of Catholic teaching. He suggested the Italian Church has often failed to acknowledge important Catholic tenets, sometimes even undermining faithful Catholics publicly.
Sister Giuliana Galli, from the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo in Turin, was the first to voice her support for the Sardines, complimenting their methods. She sees "evangelical virtues like mildness and desire for justice" in them, but refuses a similar nod to Salvini, "because every time you speak of someone you give them space."
Another member of the progressive clergy who endorsed the cause was Enzo Bianchi, founder of the interconfessional Bose Monastic Community and advisor to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Father Bartolomeo Sorge, S.J., former director of Vatican-approved Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, also voiced approval, comparing the Sardines to the first Christians: "The fish in the squares today are like the fish of the first Christians."
Support also came from high-ranking prelates. Bishop Nunzio Galantino, currently in charge of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and former secretary general of the Italian Bishops' Conference (CEI), where he was considered "the Pope's man," said the Sardines make "good politics." For Galantino, who has always quarreled publicly with Salvini, simply being anti-League constitutes "good politics."
Even the Vatican's number two, Secretary of State Cdl. Pietro Parolin, showed some sympathy: "I'm not a member of the Sardines, but I believe it's important to value all that is actually good in these movements, always for the good of the country."
Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, gave an interview in mid-December saying that the Vatican is open to dialogue with the Sardines. When asked if the Holy See would be willing to invite them to the Vatican, he replied, "Eventually. ... This is a very popular movement. ... This is a local Italian phenomenon, therefore firstly we wait for a move from the Italian Episcopal Conference, and only then we can offer support and take the field."
While there have been no official statements from the Italian bishops' conference, there are indications the conference will indeed be welcoming. The bishops' newspaper Avvenire published an editorial commending the anti-Salvinians as a "surprising" and "truly useful" tool for democracy.
President Cdl. Gualtiero Bassetti also said he sees the movement positively: "Young people anywhere should be heard, even corrected, but we shouldn't control their dreams. ... We should look at them prudently, and as St. Paul said, we should hold on to what's good."
Italy wants to remain Christian, deeply Christian, to the marrow. We're a bastion of freedom and we mustn't be afraid. We're the last hope for change, the last anchor of salvation for Western Christian people who count on us. When I started this path six years ago, with the League with only 3% in the polls, I wouldn't have ever imagined I'd have the honor and the fortune of representing the most popular party in this country.
Despite Sardines' optics professing a spontaneous "grassroots" movement, at least one of the group's communications came from the official email of the Italian Democratic Party, proving that the Sardines are neither "apolitical" nor a "spontaneous" movement.