Saint John Baptist Scalabrini
Bishop of Piacenza and Father to the migrants
Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini (1839-1905) is one of those figures who take on ever clearer and more striking features as time passes and they move from a newsworthy status to an historical one. Scalabrini has become an increasingly necessary reference point for those who want to know Church history, particularly that of the Italian Church, at the turn of this century.
Born at Fino Mornasco near Como in 1839 and ordained to the priesthood in 1863, he was professor and rector of the Como minor seminary until 1870, and pastor of St. Bartholomew’s parish in Como until 1875. Consecrated bishop in 1876, he headed the diocese of Piacenza until his death in 1905.
He was first and foremost a pastor. On the one hand, he can be seen as one of the descendants of the tridentine reformation, in the likeness of St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales: this is reflected in his restructuring of catechesis, the intensity of his proclamation of the Word, his work on seminary reform, the five pastoral visits, carried out in person, to the 365 parishes in his diocese, the legislation of three synods, the new life he breathed into the pastoral ministry of his clergy, and the reflowering of worship. On the other hand, he can be rightly considered the forerunner of new times and methods, confronting the great problems of his time with courage and far-sightedness - problems such as: legitimate freedom of opinion in the philosophical sphere, participation of Catholics in the political life of post-unification Italy and the debate on "the Roman question," the new relationship between Church and people, especially the rising working classes, and the solution of the "social question."
However, his name is linked above all with emigration at a time when the Church and Italian society were faced with the dramatic tragedy of mass emigration on an unprecedented scale. The State was absent in this sphere, and the Church was caught unprepared, but Scalabrini was the main planner and most practical developer - if not the only one - of integrated action to help migrants, organizing and providing a whole program of religious, social and humanitarian assistance that took account of all the human and Christian needs of the millions of migrants scattered mainly in the two Americas. In this context, he founded the Congregation of Missionaries of St. Charles for Emigrants (Scalabrinians) at Piacenza on 28 November 1887, and the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo (Scalabrinians) on 25 October 1895. In 1889 he also started the St Raphael Association so that lay people could also be involved in work for migrants. If he is commonly known as the "Apostle of Migrants," which is also why Pius XII described him as "an apostolic man to whom both Church and country owe a great debt of gratitude" - the words of appreciation of the other popes who knew him should not be forgotten: Pius IX gave him the title "Apostle of Catechism"; Leo XIII confidently depended on his fidelity and loyalty, entrusting him with delicate missions; St. Pius X saw him as "the learned, meek and strong bishop, who has always loved the truth and made others love it even in harsh circumstances, and has never abandoned it because of threats or enticements"; Benedict XV held him to be an "incomparable prelate," admiring his "very high virtues, most especially his chief one, charity"; Pius XI wanted "to bear witness not only to his pastoral and episcopal spirit but also to his truly apostolic and missionary spirit."
Scalabrini stands out among Italian bishops of the late 19th century: he had to battle against the current, but, as his friend Blessed Guanella rightly said, he belonged neither to the rearguard, nor to the center, but "to the vanguard, though always with the Pope." Along similar lines, Paul VI said that he was "famous for certain positions that we can say anticipated events in the history of Catholics in Italy, because he had his own particular views - then hotly contested, but in fact far-sighted - on the position of the papacy in the Italian State and the participation of Catholics in the public life of the country - from which they were excluded at that time. This meant that he attracted greater controversy, but it also gained him the merit of having predicted the role Catholics were to play in this country."
Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini was proclaimed Blessed by Pope John Paul II in Rome on November 9, 1997, and on October 9, 2022, he was canonized by Pope Francis.