By land, by air or by sea; the "frontier" mission of the Scalabrinian missionaries

Today, Sunday, October 9, Pope Francis proclaimed John Baptist Scalabrini, the father of migrants, a saint, as John Paul II called him. He is a 19th century Italian bishop, founder of the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, also known as the "Scalabrinians".

Leticia Sánchez de León-October 9, 2022-Reading time: 4 minutes

Photo: Juan Bautista Scalabrini. ©Scalabriniani.org

On August 27, at the end of the Consistory for the creation of new cardinals, Pope Francis announced that on October 9 he would proclaim two saints: an Argentinean, Artemide Zatti, and the Italian bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, founder of the International Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles, commonly known as the "Scalabrinians". The specific mission of these missionaries is to provide spiritual support to people in need. migrants and refugees as well as to assist them in the protection of their civil, political and economic rights, and in their social integration in the countries of destination.

The prophet bishop

John Baptist Scalabrini was a man of vision. In addition to his mission as bishop of the diocese of Piacenza, the Italian bishop looked beyond even the borders of his homeland. Italy was going through difficult times and this caused many Italians to leave for other countries. The Bishop of Piacenza suffered from this phenomenon and, with the desire that these people would keep their faith alive and be welcomed in the most dignified way possible, in 1887 he founded the congregation that bears his name and began to send missionaries where Italian immigrants who had had to leave their homeland in search of a chance for the future were to be found.

In the first of the Scalabrinian missions, seven priests and three lay brothers of the Congregation were sent to New York and Brazil in the summer of 1888. The work spread rapidly among the Italian communities in the United States and Brazil. Churches, schools and missionary homes were established in those communities, where Italian customs and traditions were preserved. In 1969, the Scalabrinians began to carry out missions among immigrants other than Italians.

The Scalabrinian Missionaries are also known as "Missionaries of St. Charles", a name chosen in honor of St. Charles Borromeo, considered one of the bastions of the Catholic reform in Italy in the 16th century. The "Scalabrinian family" is made up of three branches: on the one hand, the Missionary Brothers of St. Charles and the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles, and on the other, the Secular Missionary Sisters, consecrated lay women who, inspired by the teachings of John Baptist Scalabrini, followed the example and the steps of the Scalabrinian missionaries.

The help that is currently provided all over the world is of various kinds: health, family, social, economic; but it is not a distant support, providing a job, money, medicines, etc., but a fraternal help, from brother to brother. The Scalabrinian missionaries "become immigrants with the immigrants". It is, in fact, what is proper to their charism: it is the way they have of bringing God to others and of "seeing" God in others. 

Frontier" church

What is certain is that, seen with the eyes of the present, Bishop Scalabrini was a man ahead of his time, having seen, with a mother's gaze (the gaze of the Church that sees the faith and integrity of her children in danger), a reality that continues to exist today and to which due attention is not always paid.

It is not for nothing that Pope Francis has repeatedly reminded us that migrants and refugees should not be seen as "destroyers or invaders". Quite the contrary: the Pope, in the message for Migrants and Refugees Day of last September 25, reminds us that "the contribution of migrants and refugees has been fundamental to the social and economic growth of our societies. And it continues to be so today. 

In this way, the "Church on the move" so often mentioned by Pope Francis, for the Scalabrinian missionaries could be called, rather, a "frontier" Church because it is there where they carry out most of their work. With a presence in 33 countries around the world, the Scalabrinians seek to "make those who have had to leave their countries of origin and have to start from scratch, often with only the clothes on their backs, feel at home". Thus, the missionaries of this congregation go to ports, ships, airports, etc., to help and accompany so many people who arrive in search of a better future. But they do not limit themselves to an initial reception, but also help them in the countries of destination and provide them with the basics in their houses of welcome, orphanages, small places for elderly immigrants, etc. 

Making the world the homeland of the human being

Giulia Civitelli, Italian and a doctor at the Polyambulatory of the Diocesan Caritas of Rome, helps foreigners without residence permits and people in situations of social exclusion. She is one of the secular missionaries who followed in the footsteps of Bishop Scalabrini and, in addition to her profession, is dedicated to the formation of young migrants and refugees. 

"The key word is 'welcome', a look into each other's eyes, an attempt to talk even if often we don't speak the same language, and that's precisely where this fraternal encounter comes from," he explains to Omnes. 

Giulia is one of the missionaries who often travel to Switzerland to help in the formation of young people. From those times, she especially remembers the story of an Afghan refugee, Samad Quayumi, who had to flee his country because of the war: 

"He was an engineer by training but eventually ended up as minister of education in Afghanistan. He arrived in Switzerland more than 20 years ago with his wife and two of his three children when he had to flee because of the first arrival of the Taliban in the country. In the first 7 years, waiting for the residence permit, his life changed radically: from being education minister, he became almost invisible, so to speak. With the residence permit he was able to start working and he did so as a janitor in the house where he lived. 

Somewhat later he specialized in armor restoration. He taught himself this work because he wanted to work at all costs and, so much was his determination, that he became one of the best known armor restorers in the country. When I met him, he was still very interested in the training of young people, so he started to come to meetings that we organized with young people. By sharing his story with the young people, he made many of them reflect on his life, on what it means to value every moment, even the hard moments, like fleeing from a country at war, or on what faith and hope are, because he also raised questions about their faith in the young people. He was a Muslim, but he had great affection and respect for the Catholic religion.

The canonization of Bishop Scalabrini, together with the Argentinean Artemide Zatti, is good news not only for all Scalabrinians, or for migrants and refugees, but for the whole Church. John Baptist Scalabrini's maternal gaze towards refugees and immigrants marks a path to follow. If the Popes, throughout the history of the Church, have proclaimed many men and women of all times as saints, it has been to present them as references before the People of God, and why not, before the world.

The authorLeticia Sánchez de León

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