I remember back in the early times, we used to say that “the world sets the agenda” for us – as in school, in church, in our families, in our religious congregations – but that wasn’t quite right. I believe God sets the agenda for us, and God’s love is focused on the world. Figuratively, he doesn’t write in straight lines. He writes in crooked lines and some of these lines are likely our own lives and witnesses. After all those years of hard work and commitment, some of us claim that we’ve accomplished something. Yet much still remains to be done to continue on our journey, no matter what difficulties we may have. Our experiences will determine who we are and who we are to become.
From the life of our Founder, Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini, emanates the insight of faith and the courage to extend the ideals of justice, religious identity, freedom, and the culture to take a common solidarity with, or in defense of, the oppressed and marginalized immigrants across the globe. Implicit in his looking inward as it says: “ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia” (where there is the bishop, there is the church), gives coherence to what it truly means to be the church of Christ – being in the world with others. It leads one to connect between faith and life, between action and relationship. In this case, however, we emerge on exploring the untold wealth of our mission experiences, our blessings and our responsibilities. Our Founder’s coat-of-arms about Jacob’s dream: Video Dominum Innixum Scalae (I behold God at the top of the ladder) draws us to look into the mirror of the gospel to see what this moment has to say to us as we see him through our congregation climbing the ladder to receive the many blessings from God. This is an inner vision with unending stories that speak volumes about our transformation, re-dedication and realigning to the weight of the past – who we have become as missionaries for the migrants.
A story was told some years ago about a certain mother of a priest who gave a bishop a small porcelain figurine of a bird. At the feet of the bird was a cluster of multi-colored flowers. The priest’s mother said to the bishop, “I am giving you this bird so that you will never forget that the church has a covenant with springtime.” We are all aware of the growing complexity of the problems and challenges involved in our ministry. Many things we read contain dismal forecasts for the future of the church. There are divisions, tensions, animosities, injustices, and seemingly there is no springtime.
As we look at the porcelain bird and the flowers, and remembering the church’s covenant with springtime, we invite our people to look with us at the Gospel the church has placed before us as we celebrate the opening of our Founder’s centennial death anniversary in 2005. We look into the soul of the gospel to see what it has to say to us as we look back one hundred years. With our sense of meaning and deeper moral vision, we are faced with the signs of the times. And some of these are signs are signs of grace, opportunities, a defining experience, so to speak, particularly in our ministry, the gift of our religious life or the priesthood which we have received from Christ, about our lives as servants of God, and about our relationships as brothers in the congregation. These things lead us all to the source of life and grace – our God, the author of all vocations.
Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini: Who was he? For more than a century, the Scalabrinians have shared in the mission of the Church through their specific work to migrants, seamen and refugees. The, like other religious missionaries, are committed to serving God’s people, caring for their human and spiritual well-being.
In a spirit of their Founder’s charism, the Scalabrinian missionaries have been called to get involved in one or the other of the many kinds of migration activities, particularly at the “grass-roots” level. Actually, their dedication to the pastoral care of migrants is even emphasized in the documents of the Church today. It is basically on account of their very nature, which is to care for the migrants.
Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, having been a man of God, carried an important teaching for all people of all cultures. His vision knows no boundaries. He worked very hard to bring back to the Gospel those people who had already heard it and now were in danger of losing what they had heard. He brought to the fore his three components of Evangelization, Catechesis, and Hospitality.
He was born on July 8, 1839, in Fino Mornasco, near the city of Como, Italy. His father, Luigi Scalabrini was a modest wine merchant. And his mother, Colomba Trombetta, taught him the value of prayer and love for the poor. He was the third of eight children. He did his studies at the Liceo Volta (Junior and High School) in the city of Como. He was an excellent student.
When he was eighteen years of age, he told his parents that he wanted to become a priest. Hence, it came about that after some years he completed his philosophy courses at the Minor Seminary of Como and his theological studies at the Major Seminary. He wrote Italian, Latin, and Greek with elegance, both in prose and poetry. He knew Hebrew, and spoke French like a native Frenchman.1 He was ordained a priest in Como, Italy on May 30, 1863.
He taught in the seminary as a professor and Vice-Rector. He trained the seminarians of his time to be strong in their faith and in their love for the church.2
In mid-December of 1875, Pope Pius IX, at the suggestion of Don Bosco, appointed John B. Scalabrini Bishop of Piacenza at the age of thirty-six. His Episcopal consecration took place on January 30, 1876 in the chapel of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. He renewed the face of the church in his diocese through the reformation of the clergy by demanding fidelity to making their Spiritual Retreats, continually updating their studies, residing in their parishes, and their weekly Reconciliation. He made some changes and modifications regarding the discipline and the curriculum of the seminaries. He organized the Lay Catechists, which numbered almost five thousand volunteers. He also started the first Italian journal for catechesis, which even spread across the United States.
Among various problems that deal with migration, Bishop Scalabrini recounted his experience in the Milan train station. He said, “when I hear that the most abandoned and therefore the least respected are our own countrymen and women, that thousands upon thousands of our brothers and sisters live defenseless in a distant country, objects of exploitation that is often unpunished, without the comfort of a friendly word, then I confess that I blush with shame, I feel humiliated as a priest and as an Italian, and I ask myself again ‘what can be done to help them?”
Following this, he founded the Order on November 28, 1887 and the Congregation of Sisters on October 25, 1895 in Piacenza, Italy. The Congregation of the Missionaries of Saint Charles (Scalabrinians) is an “apostolic community of religious that shares in the missionary activity Christ continues in the church, for the plan of God in the world and in His history. This focuses on the world where we have been called to serve the migrants.3 In a variety of settings, they share the same life and their unity is nourished by daily prayer, mediation of God’s Word and interaction with people.
Through the years, the reality of migration continues. The Scalabrinians endeavor to share the conditions of these “migrant peoples” by giving them the necessary support of their faith and walking with them in their search for identity and acceptance in countries often hostile to their migration experience.
Bishop Scalabrini’s dedication to fuller humanity and justice reminds us of what God said in the book of Exodus: “I have seen the humiliation of my people in Egypt and I hear their cry when they are cruelly treated by their taskmasters. I know their suffering”.4 These responses also call to mind the response of our Lord as he saw the hungry in front of him: “I am filled with compassion for these people” (Matt 15:32).
Today, there are, throughout the world, some seven-hundred Scalabrinian missionaries dedicated to following Christ, specifically in the field of migration. They work now in the Americas, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and Asia in twenty-six countries. They are involved in many works throughout the church – in the mission fields, in social centers, in media and chaplaincies of various ethnic groups, in schools and seminaries, in homes for the aged, in parishes, and in centers for migration studies. Personal and multicultural parishes and mission apostolates still comprise the larger area of the Scalabrinian missionaries.
Recognizing that the congregation has continued serving migrants over many years, the spirit and legacy of Bishop Scalabrini resonates and has constantly been seen as an occasion for the church towards her renewal and transformation. With this celebration for his centennial death anniversary, the sense of joy will never be dimmed. It is a triumph of sanctity and growth that raises the church’s involvement when discrimination and injustice is perpetrated against migrant people.
As a Congregation whose members are from different nationalities, with a diversity of apostolic experiences and a variety of backgrounds and specializations, we dedicate this opening year for our Founder’s Centennial Death Anniversary to our continuing conversion and deeper commitment to our charism.
1 Mario Francesconi. 1987. G.B. Scalabrini: Shepherd to Migrants. New York.
3 Rules of Life. 1987. Congregation of the Missionaries of Saint Charles (Scalabrinians).
4 cf. Ex 3:7-8