Father to the Migrants
"[...] I left there deeply moved.[...] I thought to myself - the accumulated privations and misfortunes making such a painful decision seem so sweet to them! [...] I picture the poor wretches landing in a strange land, among people who speak a language they do not understand, easy victims of inhuman exploitation. [...] Faced with this lamentable situation, I have often asked myself: how can it be remedied?
St. Scalabrini, L’emigrazione italiana in America, Piacenza 1887, pp. 3-6.
Saint John Baptist Scalabrini
Scalabrini Day is always held on June 1, because it is his Feast Day. He died 117 years ago on June 1, 1905. He was declared Blessed on November 9, 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II, and Canonized by Pope Francis on October 9, 2022.
He was born in northern Italy, near the city of Como and became Bishop of Piacenza in 1876. In those years the Industrial Revolution was ravaging Europe and the whole continent was undergoing a dangerous transformation caused by massive crop failures: farmers and city poor throughout Europe were going hungry and were becoming restless. By the hundreds of thousands, the poor were leaving the countryside and the small towns seeking jobs in the factories around the large cities. At the same time, across the ocean in the Americas, a new world was growing and was in need of manpower. Vast territories and forests were open to individuals and families willing to take the risk in building a new life and a new future. The great American companies and their governments were sending agents throughout Europe to attract laborers to the Americas. Many Europeans were migrating on their own. Bishop Scalabrini’s brothers also had crossed the ocean. One of them migrated to Brazil and then drowned in the ocean off the coast of Peru, another sailed to Argentina and a third became the government representative to Italian schools abroad.
When as a young priest, Saint Scalabrini was ministering in his diocese of Como, he was aware that poverty was rampant and many of his own people were moving away, driven into migration — some to the rest of Europe and some across the ocean. But when he became Bishop of Piacenza and conducted the first of his five pastoral visitations of the 365 parishes of his mountainous diocese, he took notes and realized that most of the young people, 20,000 of them, had already left their towns and their families.
He engaged one of these young men to discourage him from leaving. The young man said to the bishop:
“My children and I can no longer live here and we go hungry. So, either I steal or I migrate. I know I must not steal because God forbids it and it is against the law and I could end up in jail, so I have no choice but to migrate.”
Scalabrini never forgot these words and many similar incidences, where he personally was engaged with the migrants — seeing them waiting for the trains with their bags, seeing them exploited and abused at the ports awaiting to board the ships. As a caring human being, like Jesus, Scalabrini felt deep compassion for these people “who were lost and sad like sheep without a shepherd.” As bishop, he felt a responsibility before God for those sheep that were going on their own into an unknown future to the great detriment of their spiritual well-being. He asked himself quite often:
“What can I do for them? Who will take care of them? Who will provide for their spiritual needs? Who will educate their children?”
After much prayer and discernment, in 1886 he established at first an Institute of laypeople to assist migrants at ports of departure and arrival and later, having consulted with Pope Leo XIII and with his permission, in 1887 he set up a Congregation of priests and brothers, who would follow the migrants and set up churches and schools, where they had settled. And because the women and especially the children needed special care, he even convinced Mother Cabrini to join him in this new mission and send her sisters to the Americas to open schools and hospitals and teach catechism. St. John Paul II proclaimed Mother Cabrini and Blessed Scalabrini patrons of migrants.
Bishop Scalabrini became actively involved with the phenomenon of human migration and had become convinced that migration is part of the history of humankind from the very beginning. Humans have always migrated across our planet… Moving from one continent to another, across oceans, deserts and mountains.
Father to the Migrants
He felt that migration is a human need and a human right. During his time, he forcefully urged governments to intervene with laws to regulate migration and to protect migrants on their long and perilous journey from departure to arrival. He spoke up against migration agents, calling them “dealers of human flesh,” because they were taking advantage of the poor with empty promises and misleading information.
He undertook two visits to the Americas: in 1901 to the United States, he met with many bishops and spoke with President Roosevelt; in 1904 in Brazil, he urged civil and religious authorities to protect migrants within their territories and encouraged his missionaries to truly be and live like migrants with migrants.
In a letter to Pope St. Pius X written from São Paulo, Brazil, he urged the pope to make migration a priority for the Universal Church. He wrote:
“Whether migration is good or bad is not a concern what is important is that migration is happening and it must be dealt with creatively.”
Noting that there was no common policy in dealing with migrants, he asked the pope to set up a central congregation in Rome for the protection and pastoral care of all Catholic migrants throughout the world.
Today, once again history repeats itself and migration is a very hot topic. It is also an ongoing tragedy and an urgent historical priority. The blood of the migrants is not overlooked by Jesus who said: “I was a stranger and you did not reject me, but you welcomed me and took me in your midst.” (Mt 25:43)
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