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The Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini
Bishop and Founder





Father Stelio Fongaro
translated by Father Peter P. Polo
in collaboration with Father Gino Dalpiaz



"He who lives from faith not only loves God, but feels impelled to make others love him.... Hence the fever of saints to sacrifice their whole selves for the salvation of souls. And hence those wonders of charity and zeal that we read about in their lives and that call forth the admiration of every age. The zeal of God’s glory consumed them, never letting them rest for a single instant" (Pastoral Letter of 1877).

Fr. Francesconi’s very complete biography of Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini may leave us with two apparently contradictory reactions. On the one hand, we are left with the impression of being almost overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of a figure who left such a strong mark on the history of Italy as well as the Church; who traveled the length and breadth of his far-flung and almost inaccessible diocese in five pastoral visits, like some member of the land commission; who sifted like a gold digger through the boundless regions entrusted to his missionaries in North America and Brazil; who held three synods, founded two missionary congregations, licensed the publication of reviews, held congresses, and had a decisive influence on Italian legislation on migration; and who succeeded in the titanic task of restoring his city’s cathedral. On the other hand, we are somewhat surprised by the style of this great man who would often come out onto a walkway overlooking the cathedral, to be able to gaze from the Bishop’s house at the Most Blessed Sacrament through a small window in the apse; who left a will asking to be buried with the elements for the celebration of Mass; who helped himself in the recitation of the psalms with pieces of paper marked "to be kept in the breviary"; and who died murmuring short prayers like the humblest of Christians.

However, if we reflect a little, we can see that his special quality lies precisely in this mingling of greatness and littleness, and that this is what uplifts our spirit as we contemplate him.

Scalabrini is a lofty figure, but one with a clear gospel character. He draws us to himself because in him we recognize the mark of excellence in the service of charity, permeated with great candor of spirit - what his great friend, Bishop Bonomelli of Cremona, described as his "lovable dignity."



Born at Fino Mornasco near Como on July 8 1839, the third of eight children, he attended the public high school in Como, where he showed a fine intelligence, but above all a constancy in hard work - qualities also seen when, after junior highschool, he entered the minor seminary and, in due course, the major seminary. After being ordained to the priesthood in 1863 at the age of twenty-four, he expressed a desire to become a missionary with PIME, but his bishop decided to send him instead to the minor seminary as teacher and vice-rector, and later as rector. "Your Indies are in Italy," he told him. Here he brought a breath of fresh air in terms of method and content in the teaching of history and Greek, opening it up to a more modern approach. He also showed the compassion and love for those in need when he distinguished himself in the care of the victims of cholera which struck the region. In the political sphere, he showed a certain tendency toward the "transigent" attitude - which sought conciliation between Italy and the Vatican. Since this tendency cooled his relations with the old guard of "intransigent" professors - who wanted the Pope to regain possession of the Papal States - in 1870 the bishop appointed him parish priest of St. Bartholomew’s on the industrial outskirts of Como, in order to spare him more serious problems.

His new post gave him a chance to bear the first fruits of that pastoral activity that would grow into a personal trademark: a zeal for souls, which places intelligence at the service of good. And thus, we come across his Small Catechism for Nursery Schools (1875), various social initiatives, including those for textile workers and the deaf and dumb, a mutual assistance society to help the unemployed and the handicapped, and the first oratory for men in Como.

He also kept in touch with issues and events outside his parish resulting, among others, in the eleven talks on the First Vatican Council (appreciated also by St. John Bosco). These were printed and reached as far as Rome, contributing to his appointment as Bishop of Piacenza in 1876 when he was only thirty-six.




"The spirit, the character, the sole ambition of the bishop lies in sacrificing himself in every way to spread the kingdom of Jesus Christ in people’s souls, risking, if necessary, his own life for the salvation of his beloved flock, placing himself, so to speak, on his knees before all the people in order to beseech the favor of their permission to do them good. He uses everything - his whole authority, skill, health, strength - for this noblest of purposes"(Scalabrini).

In his twenty-nine years of ministry as bishop of the Piacenza Diocese, he showed above all his gifts as a pastor of souls, "thirsting" to communicate the life of the Good Shepherd to them. He always walked before his sheep, leading them to the pastures of an "abundant" Christian life, through effective, timely and incisive action of government to improve the structure of pastoral work, taking St. Charles Borromeo as his model.

i. The Pastor of the Clergy

His first concern was for the clergy, to whom he addressed his third pastoral letter (August 1876), reminding them of the need for the Spiritual Exercises, which he saw (and here we find one of his typical features) not only as a time of spiritual experience, but also, and above all, as a time to reexamine and plan one’s life.

He instilled new discipline and introduced a new curriculum in his three seminaries, anticipating by three years Leo XIII’s Thomistic reform. He also started courses in Gregorian chant and instituted its practice, anticipating in this case Pius X’s reform by many years.

He worked for harmony among the clergy in an age of polarization not only in the political sphere (between the "transigent" and "intransigent" groups), but also in the philosophical sphere (between Rosminians and Thomists).

His relations with his clergy were marked by concern, respect, justice and fatherliness, and he was repaid with zeal, obedience and filial love - to the extent that for a long time after his death he was still "the bishop" for the clergy of Piacenza.

As was said, he actively supported the transigent party, convinced that the temporal power of the Pope (the Papal States), had seen its day, and that the Church must become - with a minimum of territorial sovereignty (i.e. the Vatican) to guarantee its spiritual independence - an evangelical power in the service of the highest good, which is the salvation of souls. In other words, he wanted to reconcile the two contrasting aspirations which were such a "torment to many consciences" in contemporary Italy - those of religion and country.

ii. Pastoral Visits

In line with the Council of Trent and true to his model, St. Charles Borromeo, he firmly believed that governing a diocese requires direct contact between shepherd and flock, and so he went out as many as five times to find, or rather to search for, his sheep in their 365 parishes, 200 of which were in mountain areas, accessible only on mule-back, and in many cases, only on foot.

For him, these pastoral visits carried out in person, were first and foremost spiritual events, secondly a human occurrence, and lastly a canonical duty.

Such visits were preceded by popular missions, and consisted not only of large meetings with the people, but also of "purification and winning of souls," and a grass-roots action that reached every category of believer - children, young people, women, workers, the sick, etc. - as well as the consecration of churches and cemeteries, the blessing of bells, etc. Indeed, there is probably no church in the Piacenza Diocese without its plaque commemorating some event celebrated by Scalabrini.

His love for souls, "for which Christ sacrifices everything, even his own blood," enhanced his natural ability to deal with people, his affability and his attractive manner, which elicited a similar response from the faithful. This in turn provided such gratification and comfort for the pastor, that, hard as such visits must have been, he described them as "the dearest of my duties."

A pastoral visit of this kind spurred the people to greater love of God, partly because they had personally seen the burning heart of their bishop; and the bishop could know his sheep individually, and grasp the condition of their souls at all levels: human, Christian, moral, economic and social, all painstakingly observed and recorded, with a report then sent to Rome.

Nor should we overlook the spiritual value of such visits for the clergy, for whom they were - as the bishop wrote in his first report - "an encouragement to a life of holiness, study, charity, prayer and zeal."

It was on his first rounds that he discovered that 11% of the members of his diocese had emigrated.

This first pastoral visit was so exhausting that his staff thought he could never manage a second one. But in fact he managed a total of five!

iii. The Synods

The first fruit of the pastoral visit was the celebration of a synod to modify the legislation of the fathers in view of the new needs of the children. Actually, the relationship between pastoral visit and synod was so close that the latter was described, in terms reminiscent of St. Charles, as a kind of "total and simultaneous pastoral visit," while the third synod was described as an introduction to the fifth pastoral visit.

The three synods also show a clear progression in their content, moving toward the spiritual: starting with wise and timely legislation (the first), continuing on to the Christian witness of the whole Church (the second), and culminating with the Eucharist, the mystery of unity and extension of the incarnation (the third).

The document of the third synod ran up to 350 pages, written out by Scalabrini himself in its entirety, and can be seen as his spiritual testament on the eve of the new century.

iv. The Catechism

After the pastoral visits and the synods, came the catechism.

His second pastoral initiative, the pastoral letter on Teaching the Catechism, took place barely two months after his installation (a fact that is also very significant!).

With "‘this popular code of the highest philosophy’ (to use Lamartine’s words) each day catechists form disciples who are, without doubt, wiser than the ancient sages of Greece and Rome"; and this was the source of his concern, of his capacity to involve others: a capacity that reminds us of the wind imposing its will on the forest. The stakes here are vitally important, for catechism means not only knowledge of Christ, but also a fully consistent Christian life; it means "following Christ" and also (an insight well ahead of his time) a "catechumenate school" similar to that of the early Church.

In this regard, he took two initiatives, both new for his time. The first was the institutionalization of the teaching of catechism, which he organized in the framework of a solid central and peripheral structure copied from St. Charles, in the form of a real school, with classes, schedules, premises, and male and female teachers. He was also capable of forming these teachers with patient care and attention, because he realized that this formation is what "perfects the holy institution." The use of lay people was dictated not only by practical considerations, as in the case of St. Charles, but also by a clear awareness of the "prophetic" vocation of the lay people.

The second original aspect was that of realizing that in a society by now no longer Christian, the contents of the catechism also had to be reformed, for the catechism has the task of "putting firm and indestructible foundations in the souls of young people, forming an enlightened and deep faith within them" (Pastoral Letter of 1876). In other words, a catechism in which faith seeks its own reasons and not only its own expressions.

Such teaching was intended to cover all age groups, so that Christians were looked after from the cradle to the tomb.

Naturally, he himself taught Catechism not only during his pastoral visits, but also at his episcopal residence, where he held catechism courses for students.

Scalabrini’s merits in this regard are so great that even by themselves they would be the source of pride of a lifetime, apart from their innovative nature. His records would include the 1889 celebration of the First National Catechetical Congress in Piacenza, which was the first of its kind in the history of the Church. It was attended by one cardinal, eleven bishops and four hundred representatives of Italian dioceses. The questions discussed included Scalabrini’s proposal for a unified catechism (also supported by the Bishop of Mantua, the future Pope Pius X, who would in fact issue the "Official Catechism", special catechesis for adults, workers, engaged couples, those about to receive first communion, high school and college students, etc. He also licensed the first Italian catechetical review (the second in the world) in 1876, and instituted a chair of catechetics at his seminary.

The enthusiasm that greeted his initiative is clear from these figures: by 1876 there were already 1275 lay catechists, and the number later increased to almost 5000. And it is worth noting that when there were more teachers than necessary, those not called upon would express disappointment. Students themselves more than doubled in numbers in the parishes.

Apart from the merit of leading the way in this field, The Apostle of Catechism, as Pius IX described him, also showed far-sightedness in the principles applied in teaching catechism: they were forerunners of "modern catechesis" (S. Riva). These principles are found in hisCatholic Catechism (1876), a book that unfortunately, as has been noted, remained the "lost silver coin" of Italian catechetical literature.

"In the early Church Catechesis was not simply seen as a school of religion, but as a family experience where souls were brought up for God, the Church, Heaven .... Here the listeners’ spirits grew accustomed to Christian thoughts, and their minds were trained to understand and judge things no longer according to the light of pagan wisdom, but of gospel faith" (The Catholic Catechism).

2. Social Apostolate

i. "Minor" Activities

A visit to the Piacenza post office reserves the pleasant surprise of a large and beautiful frescoed medallion of Scalabrini on the ceiling, the work of Father Sidoli; until 1929 the building housed the S. Antonino Catholic Bank, one of the many social institutions promoted by the bishop.

It is hard even to list his charitable initiatives and works of mercy toward the poor knocking daily at his door, prisoners in jail, the sick and orphans, for this was a hidden charity known only to God. However, it was doubled and became visible in the presence of public disasters, such as, for example, the 1879-1880 famine, when the bishop organized the distribution of 244,460 bowls of soup, together with numerous flour and firewood coupons, in a two months’ period. Stoves had only recently appeared on the market and were used for the first time in the city on this occasion. When the money ran out, he pawned his valuables, even the chalice received from Pius IX, then sold the horses he had been given for pastoral visits. In fact, Msgr. Torta tells us that "he sold his horses twice." When people told him that he would end up dying on the straw, he replied that it would not be so bad dying where Jesus was born.

The secret of such great charity was his boundless trust in Divine Providence, combined with a natural gift for eliciting contributions.

His social initiatives included the founding of the Deaf and Dumb Institute (1879) and the Rice Workers Institute (1903) to provide religious, social and unionized assistance to the roughly 170,000 workers employed in the rice growing sector in Piedmont and Lombardy, which then provided a typical case of seasonal migration, exploitation of women, and child labor.

We should also recall that although the Institute for Congresses, a type of Church welfare association, tended basically toward the "intransigent" camp (when it stayed within its bounds), still Piacenza was the Italian city with the second largest involvement: 227 parish committees with 6,164 members in 1897. And this was the result of the support from a "transigent" bishop, for whom, however, the Pope’s wishes were enough to obtain his unfeigned support.

Following the tragic events of Workers Day 1898 (which claimed three victims even in Piacenza), he wrote a book entitled Socialism and the Action of the Clergy, which contains a synthesis of his social thinking, and in which he upholds, for example, the participation of workers in company stock, the right to work, the right to strike, accident and liability insurance, disability and old age pension, a reduction of working hours, and an increase in the minimum working age. He speaks out against police style repression on the part of the authorities, and suggests remedies, such as cooperatives, mutual aid societies, Catholic banks and rural funds, which would grant loans at minimum interest rates. Lastly, landlords and employers had to be persuaded of the public’s right to private property, in keeping with the authentic teaching of Rerum novarum.

ii. "Major" Activities


"The emigration of Europeans is certainly one of the major factors of a political, social and hence religious nature in modern history, since human events, in their infinite variety, always reflect the spiritual unity from which they spring (i.e. man)" (Scalabrini, Memorandum, 1905).

The highest note of all his social initiatives, however, is the founding of three institutes of men and women religious and of lay people, to serve migrants: the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles (1887), the The St Raphael Society (1889), and the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo (1895).

Italian migration was perhaps the most dramatic social phenomenon in the century following Italian unification, with the exodus of 25 million Italians in the space of 110 years, especially to the Americas: a number equivalent to the total population of Italy at the time of its unification. The flow grew at an ever-increasing rate, so that Pascoli would exclaim at the beginning of the century: "If things go on at this rate, Italy itself will soon be emigrating, and not just Italians!"

Emigrating was the only choice (as the saying went, "Emigrate or steal; emigrate or starve to death") and a true tragedy, for migration is always traumatic. The suffering was further exacerbated due especially to a migration legislation that allowed emigration agents the freedom to force people to migrate, so much so that Scalabrini would describe these profiteers as "brokers in human flesh." It should be added that the Italian State showed no concern over the matter, disclaiming any responsibility for the welfare of its migrants.

For a bishop like Scalabrini, whose own family was affected by the phenomenon of migration and who was concerned since his first pastoral visit over the 11 percent of his flock affected by it, emigration was not only a serious social problem that required attention and solutions, but also a challenge to his faith. He saw it both as a danger to losing one’s Christian heritage, and also as an opportunity for evangelization. He described the danger clearly to the Pope in the following words: "In the United States the losses to the Catholic faith [by European migrants] amount to millions, and are certainly greater than the number of conversions of unbelievers in our missions during three centuries." The opportunities for evangelization are demonstrated by history, a classic example being the State of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

We should also add that Scalabrini’s concern over the problem of migration is primarily a human one, but belonging to that full humanity endowed with faith in one who is himself a man of faith, and with hope in a man of utopian vision, who in migration saw the hand of Providence unifying the world:

"As the races mix, spread and blend, through the clatter of our machines, above all the feverish toil and gigantic works, and not without them, here below we are seeing a much broader, much nobler, much more sublime work coming to maturity: the union of all men of good will in God through Jesus Christ" (Address to the Catholic Club of New York, 1901).

He saw the opportunity Italian migration offered the Church for the reconciliation of religion and country, taking charge of an Italian phenomenon involving both Church and State. We should remember that the unique insight in Scalabrini’s pastoral care of migrants, later adopted by the whole Church, is that faith is not possible without culture and that Italian priests, therefore, should become migrants with Italian migrants, just as German and Polish Catholic priests had accompanied their own countrymen. This pastoral approach is rooted in culture, language, popular piety, etc.; in other words, it has a social and national perspective.

Scalabrini travelled all over Italy to arouse public awareness on the serious nature of the phenomenon of migration and on the vital need for legislation that would allow the freedom to migrate while preventing the forcing of migration, and to solicit contributions and volunteers in order to provide assistance at ports of departure and arrival. This latter initiative led to the St. Raphael Society of lay men (and women!), which began with two offices at the ports of Genoa and New York, and later one in Boston. In Italy the Society set up nineteen committees, with counseling and assistance offices in the cities most affected by the exodus of migrants. The Society must also be credited with having lobbied the government to pass a new migration law in 1901. The main thrust of this legislation (liberty of migration and no forced migration) contained fifteen articles of major importance reflecting Scalabrini’s insights and concerns and those of his followers. On that same year, Scalabrini visited his missionaries in the United States and was received at the White House by then President Theodore Roosevelt.

It is interesting to notice also the ecumenical spirit of the Society, which required its members to assist also "Italians of other confessions," in keeping with Scalabrini’s express wishes.

One of his missionaries, Father Marchetti, offered him the opportunity of establishing the women’s institute: The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo. During the crossing to Brazil, Father Marchetti had been entrusted with a new-born infant by an emigrant woman who had died, and when he reached São Paulo, he founded the Christopher Columbus Orphanage. He then wrote to the Founder: "We have the fathers, but what about the mothers?" With help from the same Father Marchetti, and from his sister, Mother Assunta Marchetti, Scalabrini responded by founding the women branch in 1895. It is indeed remarkable that one of his own sons inspired the founding of the Scalabrinian Sisters: unlike others who become so holy that they could receive nothing from their own people, Scalabrini’s humility allowed him to accept inspiration from his missionaries.

iii. At the Milan Railroad Station

A passage in his 1887 address, Italian Emigration to America, telling of his meeting at the Milan Railroad Station with five hundred migrants, has become famous. The description of the "knot in the heart" and the question "What can be done to help them?" acted like a true moral imperative:

In those same years (1881), one of Italy’s main writers, Giovanni Verga, a Milanese, wrote I Malavoglia, an anti-migration novel in which emigration is viewed primarily as a "change of state" and as a "lese majesty", an affront to the immobility of Destiny, which punishes the offender with economic and moral ruin. Verga, a socialist and a preeminent figure in Italian verism, was blind to reality, downgrading migration while staying at a hotel across from the same central Railroad Station where a passing anti-socialist bishop was one day so overwhelmed by the suffering that he discovered not only his Christian but also his social vocation. The mysterious ways of Divine Providence!

"The two societies which I founded [religious and lay) share, more or less directly, the same task of the religious, civil and moral care of our expatriate brothers and sisters..., for in everything concerning migration, it is impossible to separate religious, civil and national interests, public and private interests, without damage" (Scalabrini, Address on Emigration).


i. His intelligence, his words, and his writings

Scalabrini was undoubtedly an outstanding figure.

Scalabrini, however, was not an intellectual, although he had a fine mind: clear, quick and flexible. He was not the man of vast culture, although he was a lover of knowledge, and kept in touch with contemporary theological, pastoral and even social developments of particular interest to his apostolate. Nor did he have the gift of cultivating the sheer beauty of words, like his great friend Bonomelli. His pastoral letters and homilies generally reflect the oratory and writing styles of the time. They are addressed to his people’s understanding, seeking to enlighten it with a clear, gentle discourse, and to their will, seeking to arouse it and to challenge it into action.

Witnesses tell us that he was a compelling speaker and that his words "showed how he burned with apostolic zeal" (Don Orione). Unfortunately, however, this magnetism did not carry over to his written word (2000 pages of homilies and 60 pastoral letters, published by SEI, 1994). The charism of his holiness and "apostolic zeal" died with him. The same thing happened to the words of St. Charles: they have not retained that throbbing love of God and souls that conveyed a tremor even to the pulpit, upsetting his stenographer, Passovino, as he was writing them down.

Nonetheless, some of Scalabrini’s pages still give off the secret perfume of his concern as a pastor and his love for souls, as he sought to draw them with his words to the top of the "Ladder" (Scala).

His private correspondence (e.g.: his correspondence with Bonomelli published by Studium, 1983) shows a man of calm judgment, wise counsel, perfect balance.

His social writings, particularly those on migration, are a different matter: he was a ground-breaker and milestone. As he himself writes, "they are the fruit of long study" and they absorb him in an "eloquence that comes from words laden with facts and figures."

ii. Action

Scalabrini was a practical man given to action and administration (as already seen in our examination of the main features of his pastoral activity). These qualities are the main elements of his true image as a tireless pastor, who, as an examiner of his heroic virtues testifies, produced "such an impressive amount of work that it leaves us not only edified, but overwhelmed." His intelligence itself was placed at the service of his good works, and seems by them to be exalted.

And when we call him pastor, we are referring to Scalabrini primarily as Bishop of Piacenza: because even his work as Founder of the Missionary Fathers and Sisters for the migrants must be seen as part of the all-embracing, holistic approach of his pastoral ministry. If anything, this universal "catholic" concern and "centrifugal vocation" (in the words of Church and Human Mobility) highlight another distinctive aspect of his pastoral vision: the ability to visualize problems on a larger scale, viewing them from above and in the mysterious light of Divine Providence. His writings often repeat the saying that expresses the providentialist view of history: "Man clamors, but God leads him"). Pettiness, politicking and personal interests were totally alien to this man, who wrote in his personal book of resolutions: "Lift myself up, become more virtuous, purify myself, become more godlike," and stuck to it; and who had the single aim of "the glory of God and the salvation of souls". It was in fact the loss of souls that provided urgency in finding a "solution to the great [Italian political] problem", and also of course to the problem of migration. Scalabrini refused a cardinal’s hat, because St. Charles’s HUMILITAS had truly entered his heart.

Another feature of his pastoral approach was his striking capacity to infuse all his sons and daughters with Christian leaven, in such a way that religion would have a complete hold on their lives from the cradle to the tomb. Every season, every day and hour, every moment of life, was made sacred through multiple and diverse initiatives, from bells to mark off actions and days, to novenas against drought, plagues of rats or livestock sickness (his was a farming diocese!), from churches (he consecrated over two hundred of them) to the Forty Hours, the practice of daily Mass attendance and communion, perpetual adoration, processions, visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, pilgrimages, liturgical seasons, and the setting up of crucifixes at crossroads and small wayside shrines. Incredibly a man with such lofty and wide-ranging ideas had a gift for practical details fertilizing the life of his people with Christian pollen, with the type of grass-roots action capable of reaching its fullest sentimental and professional implications.

Obviously, this quality called for a direct contact between the shepherd and his sheep, hence the pastoral visits, and with the pastors, hence the synods. Above all, it called for a process of evaluation, ongoing promotion and animation, as is evident in many of his writings. Indeed, the key aspect of his pastoral approach was not so much the legislation, which in the three synods provided structures, institutions, decrees, etc., but more so his understanding and his efforts to prevent in his people, himself included, the lack of that spirit needed to give life to those strategic structures enabling them to operate.

In Scalabrini’s day, (Italian philosopher and writer) De Sanctis gave a famous lecture on Science and Life, in which he stated that the new secular science taught in the schools was incapable of imparting vigor to consciences. He stated: "Science must imitate Catholicism, whose strength ... lies in taking man from his swaddling bands and holding on to him with a firm grip right through to the tomb; it should imitate its granite institutions, against which secular science has been hammering away for centuries, so far to no effect."

The element whose absence in secular methods De Sanctis lamented is the core of Scalabrini’s pastoral approach.

"Every human institution, even the most beautiful and holy, soon weakens, dims and dies, unless it is constantly given new life and energy by the zeal and care of people respected for their dignity and actions, to whom everything turns as to its center, and from whom the breath of life constantly emanates" (Scalabrini, Pastoral Letter on the Catechism, 1876).


"The forward progress of ideas is excruciatingly slow, especially when they clash with personal interests and passions, but is relentless when they are right and truly useful. So we must persevere, because no matter how slowly the goal will be reached, provided weakness does not overcome those who are its champions" (Scalabrini, Address on Emigration).

Scalabrini was at the same time a man of will and of action.

Witnesses at the diocesan proceedings (for his Beatification) have testified that, once he had decided to do something he considered good and necessary, nobody and nothing could sway him or slow him down. In this he imitated his model, St. Charles. Scalabrini’s description of St Charles to his Missionaries, as "a man of action, with no divided loyalties and who never retreated, a man of active will and fearless constancy, provides a remarkable portrait of himself.

Scalabrini may not have been number one, but he was certainly a whole number; a man who always went to the limits, with a firmness of purpose capable of delivering him of any paralyzing form of prejudice, habit, tiredness or fear. And he drew the secret of this absoluteness from his intense relationship with the "One at the top of the ladder (Scala)" found on his coat of arms as bishop.

His will was motivated by a great love of God and of souls, and backed by an intense ascetical life which did not disdain voluntary penances and prayers to which he was unfailingly faithful, to the point of binding himself to a daily half hour of meditation under pain of serious sin.

His "devotion" ascended to God mainly on the wings of will and heart, but was constantly nourished by personal devotions, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the practice of the presence of God, spiritual exercises, etc. Nothing extraordinary here, simply an extraordinary fidelity to the ordinary means of Catholic tradition.

His little book of resolutions says that he carefully monitored his heart, made clear and precise resolutions, evaluated and made use of every means of "arousing devotion."

Among the devotions that nourished his devotion, those to the Most Blessed Sacrament and to the Mother of Jesus stand out the most. With regards to the first we should recall that true monument to his piety which is the third synod fullydedicated to the Eucharist, which he, on the threshold of the new century, wanted as "a sign of hope" for the whole world. We know that he spent the night before his fatal surgery in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

With regard to devotion to Our Lady, we recall that his last religious ceremony was the crowning of Our Lady of the Castle at Rivergaro with a crown studded with his mother’s jewels. He prayed the Rosary every day, and, according to his master of ceremonies, when travelling on foot during his pastoral visits, he would step aside from the group to recite the rosary.

Special mention is due to his devotion to the Patron Saints of the diocese, the city, and individual parishes, promoting such devotion from the very start of his ministry in the Diocese of Piacenza with the recognition of the relics of the Patron Saints. This form of piety anchors the faith to a living, heroic tradition, reminding it of how much "it has cost," reminding it of its roots and the duty to bear witness. For example, he would always tell migrants of the need to preserve the faith of "their ancestors."


"Let me be intoxicated with the cross"


Unlike other saints of the same period, Scalabrini’s life does not bear the halo of miracles, a fact that comes almost as a relief.

However, there is something miraculous in his trust in Divine Providence (see depositions at the diocesan proceedings).

Scalabrinians have a special feeling when they recall that their first four confreres sent to the Americas set out trusting only in Divine Providence; two days before they were to sail the Founder still did not have the 25,000 lire for their fares. The money arrived anonymously from Genoa on the eve of their departure.

His beloved St. Charles at the end of his life had said that the whole of the Christian faith is summed up in love for the cross and that no other books are needed when there is the Crucifix.

Scalabrini’s life was full of crosses: apart from the concern for all the churches (his pastoral visits were certainly not pleasant strolls at that time!), there was the one placed on his shoulders by his enemies, followed by the even heavier one of the intransigent Catholics, and continuing on to Miraglia, who created a schism in the very home of this apostle of unity who was already so saddened to see Catholics divided among themselves for political and philosophical reasons. This schism affected his health with the daily stabs of six years of martyrdom, and eventually it grew into open insult and aggression.

Scalabrini’s holiness lies in his initial acceptance of the cross from the hand of God as a work tool, and toward the end in having actually carried it with joy.

We said "toward the end": Scalabrini’s life also has the edifying quality of not having a ready made form from the start, but displaying the forces that contribute more and more to shaping it: first among them the cross.

This progressive form of holiness is not that of a private ascetic, but the one asked of him by his work as a bishop. Scalabrini in not a holy man and a bishop, but he is holy because he is a bishop.

The Scalabrini Museum at the Mother House in Piacenza contains a group sculpture depicting the bishop praying to the Patron St. Victor for an end to the Miraglia schism, portrayed as a snake. Alongside this sculpture, almost symbolically, are the bishop’s instruments of penance. His ascetical life deepened during those terrible years, like St. Charles’ during the plague. His true mortification, however, was interior.

Scalabrini’s words on the cross are among his most beautiful:

"The cross: the Church has us carry a golden cross on our chest, but it often becomes a rough iron [= sword] which rends the soul."

"The bishop bears a cross without the image of our beloved Jesus. Why? Because we must love the cross even without the consolation of seeing him: Fac me cruce inebriari - Let me be intoxicated with the cross!"

"Clasp the pectoral cross to my heart and repeat again and again: Fac me cruce inebriari ‘Let me be intoxicated with the cross!’"

Fac me cruce inebriari "‘Let me be intoxicated with the cross!’ I will repeat often, pressing the pectoral cross to my heart. Humiliations, grieves, insults and bitter disappointments are part of God’s plan .... I shall never be without them, nor am I without them now .... My God, may you be blessed! Courage in the cross of Jesus Christ!"

This last quotation dates from 1901. And, as Bishop Caliaro his biographer said, if we had to choose a motto to identify Bishop Scalabrini, the "Fac me cruce inebriari" (or [O Mary,] let me be intoxicated with the cross") from the Stabat Mater, could be one of the most "complete".

"If I could only sanctify myself! become holy! hoc est omnis homo (= this is the real problem). Blessed are you who have always been holy; I strive to become so, but I am afraid I shall never reach that state, not even with a freight train" (Scalabrini-Bonomelli correspondence, 1897, 338).


The initial impression of Scalabrini as a superior and yet lovable figure is right on target. I believe that his lovable quality comes also from the humility which we have referred to earlier, and from the "common" nature of his spirituality, accessible to all.

However, his superiority certainly exists, shining forth and standing out even more clearly against the background of this humility.

History shows us Scalabrini is the bishop with a number of "firsts", with insights vindicated as winners by history: true signs of the times.

i. Scalabrini’s "firsts" and insights

His "firsts": five pastoral visits made in person; three synods; the first Catechetical congress in the world; the first Italian (second in the world) Catechetical review; proposals for the first unified catechism for Italians, including migrants; creation of the first chair in catechetics; the first missionary religious congregation for Italian emigrants; the first proposals for a specific pastoral ministry for migrants; establishing the first lay institute for assistance to migrants, etc.

His insights have been well summed up by Pope Paul VI: "Your Founder was well known for some of his positions, which we could say anticipated events in the history of Catholics in Italy, for he had very special views - views that were much contested at the time, but proved very far-sighted - on the relationship between the Papacy and the Italian State, and on the participation of Catholics in the public life of the country (which was not allowed at that time). He never accepted the formula in force at that time, ‘Neither elected nor electors.’ And this drew him considerable animosity, but also the merit of having understood what the role of Catholics should be in this country."

Scalabrini stands out as a milestone in the Church’s pastoral care of migrants, and this is confirmed by the fact that his name appears in the three leading documents of the Magisterium on migration: Exsul familia (1952), De pastorali migratorum cura (1969), and Church and Human Mobility (1978).

ii. The Memorandum

Twenty-five days prior to his death, drawing partly on his recent visit to his missionaries in Brazil (1904), Scalabrini sent a memorandum to Pope Pius X, upon request from the Pope himself, where he details a project to give the Sacred Consistorial Congregation the charge of organizing the pastoral care of migrants throughout the world. This project would be implemented by the same Pope in 1912. According to Scalabrini’s way of thinking, the Church must face a phenomenon as universal as migration with an equally universal and supra-national body - for example, the Congregation responsible for all the bishops of the Catholic world. This body should coordinate all efforts, involving the local Churches of departure and arrival, sending out specially trained priests and missionaries, settling jurisdictional conflicts, etc.

The Bishop of Piacenza thought on such large scale that he would not be satisfied until the Church adopted his insights.

So we can say that Bishop Scalabrini, who did not live for himself, did not die for himself either, because shortly before his death - which came on June 1st, Ascension Day, 1905 - he offered the Church one of his greatest gifts, enabling him to exercise influence even after his death.

The saints are guides showing what each of us can make of ourselves. If they happened to be also "Founders," they also show that their charism must be lived so that each member can develop it with the founder’s originality.

I. Love Dignity
II. Biographical Information
Bishop of Piacenza
Man of Action
Man of Will
Profile of Scalabrini
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