Mother Cabrini and Me (and You)

03-03-2024Pastor's LetterFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

My first assignment as a priest was at an Italian speaking Parish in West Philadelphia. I told the Cardinal who assigned me there that I was being stereotyped. He didn’t find that amusing. I remember him telling me that his mother was an Italian immigrant and she appreciated being able to go to confession in her native tongue. Va bene, Your Eminence. And so it went.

There was a Grade School at the Parish that was founded by St. Frances Cabrini. Her sisters still taught there and there was a retirement home in the Parish for the elderly sisters. Most of them were well into their 90’s and 100’s. These were some of the most dedicated and strong women I have ever meet. They would teach school and then go home to the Parish Orphanage and take care of the children. Then every Saturday they would go house to house and beg for supplies for the orphans. There were no “Spa Days” for these ladies. Some of the sisters even worked with Cabrini and spoke with great affection about her. For the past 35yrs I have carried in my wallet a relic of St. Frances Cabrini and I can attest she has guided me into new territories.

In God’s Providence, Cabrini, an immigrant herself, who helped the early 20th century immigrants to the US, became the first US citizen to become a canonized Saint. She was given the title: Patroness of Immigrants. Fitting for a country of immigrants. By the time of her death in 1917, she had opened 67 institutions in the US and in South America including schools, orphanages, health care clinics and hospitals, all run by women. Pretty impressive for a woman of small stature, who spoke broken English and suffered from poor health. She was often told, as she was building hospitals and schools “that’s not a woman’s job”. Her response: “Men can never do what we [women] do.” The history of the Church witnesses to the truth that every time God wants to move the Church forward in significant ways it is always the women of the Church who do it. Cabrini also had to wade through the sewage of anti-Italian prejudice. When she insisted that half the workers building one of her hospitals be Italian and the construction foreman scoffed at her, she replied, “we built Rome, we can handle a hospital.”

The issue of immigration in our Country is at a the top of the list these days. How it should be handled, allowed, or disallowed, what policies and enforcement should look like, are the domain of the political sphere. And as citizens our participation in the political process is part of our duty. But the issue is not just political, it has moral implications from many sides. So, the question of how our government listens to the voice of the people and acts accordingly on immigration is one thing. How we as Christians respond is another. And for that we have to take off our political filter and put on our faith filter.

St. Frances Cabrini can guide us on this issue and help us to figure out how we respond, not to the political issue but to the person right in front of us. Remember what she was able to set in motion: that first generation of immigrants in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s turned into a second generation that was integrated into US society, was educated, economically prosperous, and civically engaged. In one generation, her efforts helped take immigrants from being poor, uneducated, and isolated to being fully engaged, productive citizens of US society and followers of Christ.

I realize there are significant differences with the immigration of today and yesterday and those differences complicate the issue and how to address it. These issues include human trafficking, sex trafficking, enriching the Cartels, drug smuggling, unaccompanied minors, and the resources needed to manage and deal with the huge numbers of people coming across our borders. But our response as followers of Jesus, still must be the same. What do we do with the person right in front of us? What are the most loving actions we can take towards them? Many have harshly criticized (including lots of bomb threats and death threats) the Church in the US for the shelters we operate along the US-Mexico Border and throughout the country, that assists in settling immigrants who are sent to us by DHS. Criticism should be directed at DHS and not our charitable agencies who are simply responding to a humanitarian crisis unfolding in our midst.

Mother Cabrini often prayed, “Jesus give me Your Heart to love with.” Let that be our prayer as we respond to immigration and the challenges it poses for our society. With her intercession and inspiration, we can continue to, as she called it, “build an empire of hope.”

Love, Fr. John B.

PS The Movie: Cabrini opens in theaters on March 8. I highly encourage you to see it and support it as bringing films with faith content to the screen is never easy. The life of Mother Cabrini is a timely reminder for us today of the possibilities if we allow God’s love to lead us first.