Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini: A man ahead of his time, a true prophet for all times

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Editor’s Note: The following is a reflection shared by Father Peter P. Polo, C.S., with parishioners and friends of Scalabrini – Dukecevich Center in Providence, on the occasion of the 8th Scalabrini Day, celebrated Saturday, June 1, in St. Bartholomew Church.

Scalabrini Day is always held on June 1, because it is his Feast Day. He died 114 years ago on June 1, 1905. He was declared a Blessed in 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II.
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 of the coast of Peru, another sailed to Argentina and a third became the government representative to Italian schools abroad.
When as a young priest Father 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 a 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, 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. 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 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 he 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 the 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)
Our Superior General, Fr. Leonir Chiarello, in a recent press conference at the Vatican, stated that: “According to UN data, there are in the world today approximately 260 million migrants and this number increases by 50 million every 10 years. No government decree can ban migration, no wall can stop it, no barriers can discourage it.”
This church tonight is filled with migrants and their descendants. St. Bartholomew was founded in 1907 by Italian migrants together with Bishop Scalabrini’s missionaries. A sizable number of churches in Rhode Island were built by and for migrants coming from many European countries and from French Canada.
And that is why we honor Blessed Scalabrini: “A man ahead of his time, a true prophet for all times.”