During a recent meeting with Cardinal Semeraro, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Pope Francis approved and advanced the canonization of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Scalabrini. The northern Italian bishop’s life work is at the heart of what is undoubtedly one of the pillars of Francis’ pontificate: ministry to migrants.
Scalabrini traveled to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, meeting President Theodore Roosevelt about the plight of Italian migrants after traveling more than 10,000 miles across the country to assess their struggles and experiences in their homeland of ‘adoption. Roosevelt and eventually Pope Pius X praised Scalabrini’s mission. Her collaboration with Mother Cabrini would ultimately impact the lives of countless newcomers to the United States.
Today, the Scalabrinian men and women religious – or, more officially, the Congregation of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo – work in 32 countries on five continents, prioritizing the pastoral care of migrants and refugees of all cultures, ethnicities and origins.
By every objective measure imaginable, contemporary migrants are more religious than native-born populations, in both Christian and Muslim contexts. If in doubt, visit the nearest parish serving Spanish (or Vietnamese, Haitian, Nigerian, or Indian) populations on a particular weekend, and note the vibrancy of faith and the warm welcome you are likely to receive. Accordingly, the idea that migration somehow dilutes the spiritual and moral culture inherited from a particular nation is precisely retrograde. In many ways, it is migration that has slowed, and in places even reversed, the strong secularization trends – and the resulting decline in birth rates – in many Western countries.
A healthy civic structure is one that promotes and integrates migrants and their cultures and customs, still as true in the United States today as it was for the ancient Roman Empire, whose inhabitants did not parenthetically eat staple foods familiar to the Mediterranean diet like tomatoes, hot peppers or chocolate, as they only arrived centuries later via cultural migration from the New World. Thus, most contemporary “Italian” foods are actually Latino foods exported to Italy.
The Catholic tradition is unambiguous on both the ineradicable right of people to migrate and the related right of people not to have to migrate – that is, to promote a just global economy where all can find security, employment and social mobility in the nations of their birth. Pope Pius XII specified in his apostolic constitution “Exsul Familia Nazarethana” that “the emigrant Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing to Egypt, is the archetype of any family of refugees”, and called on the Church to take care of them “with special care and unceasing help. An entire section of the text is dedicated to the Catholic Church’s “motherly solicitude for migrants.”
The future Saint John the Baptist Scalabrini is often called the apostle of migrants. He always rooted this practical activity in prayer, once commenting, “When scholars search the ruins of antiquity and dig into the ground where mighty cities once stood, what do they find? Remains of temples, traces of buildings intended for prayer. “You will find cities without walls”, said Plutarch, the historian of ancient Greece, “without government, without laws, but in no corner of the earth will you find a people without an altar, without prayer, without God”. Here with solemn pomp, there with rough simplicity, humanity has always prayed, always believed that it needed God’s help, always felt that it needed this help in all its actions, from the most small to large, to think, to act, to love, to suffer and to win, and that prayer is the only way to achieve this. Prayer is an innate, instinctive, irresistible need for us rational creatures.
Contemporary Scalabrinian spirituality recognizes that this prayer is actually addressed in the Christian tradition to the “God of the tent,” the abiding deity who travels with us through our shared history and our individual wanderings. “Yahweh is not a static and sedentary God, but a migrating God always present in the journey of the people of Israel.” And this same God is the one of whom Saint John tells us in the original language “pitched his tent” among us in the person of Jesus Christ. (John 1:14) As the writings of the Missionaries of St. Charles make clear, “Faithfulness to God will then mean going wherever the God of the tent goes. The greatest temptation against fidelity to God and to our Scalabrinian mission, especially in the area of parish ministry, is to settle down, get used to stability, become static ministers and be content with sacramental ministry. routine.
Our relationship with God is therefore essentially a secular migration as a people on the move through history.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University Chicago.