Pope Francis wants to make the “father of migrants” a saint

VATICAN CITY (RNS) – Pope Francis will canonize a 19th-century bishop known as “the father of migrants” on Sunday, sending a message to Catholic leaders about the importance the pontiff places on caring for refugees at a time where immigration is politically booming, including in the Italian government at the gates of the Vatican.

Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, bishop of the city of Piacenza in northern Italy from 1876 to 1905, lived at a time of massive migrations in Europe caused by economic, industrial and scientific changes that led millions of people to seek a new life in the Americas. Scalabrini’s advocacy for immigrants laid the foundation for the church’s pastoral approach to migration today.

“The Holy Father presents us with a bishop who was able not only to fully and competently manage his diocese, but who was able to look beyond it,” said Reverend Graziano Battistella, who has guided the cause of the sainthood of Scalabrini, during a press conference on Thursday.

“With this canonization, I think the Holy Father wants to offer the Church a model to emulate,” Battistella said. “A model for bishops, a model for the church.”

Born in Como, Italy, in 1839, Scalabrini was appointed bishop at age 36 as millions of Italians fled their homeland for Brazil, Argentina and the United States, leaving behind their families, their culture and their faith. In 1887, he founded the Missionaries of Saint-Charles Borromée and later the Missionary Sisters of Saint-Charles.

Migration was viewed negatively at the time, but Scalabrini took a different approach, seeing the upheaval as a chance to ease socio-economic tensions at home while promoting cultural encounter and jump-starting progress. But he warned that, without the proper laws and protections in place, migration could strip people of their roots and fall prey to human traffickers.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Scalabrini believed that migration is not just “a sacred human right”, but a fundamental fact of human existence.

According to Sister Neusa of Fatima Mariano, Superior of the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles, “the responses that Scalabrini gave to the phenomenon of migration anticipated modern times”.

The bishop was particularly sensitive to the role that nuns play in helping migrants and the sisters now lead more than 100 missions around the world, reaching out in particular to women and children. The Scalabrinian Lay Women Missionaries, founded in Switzerland in 1961, and other lay groups live the bishop’s teachings in small local communities.

The Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, also known as the Scalabrinian Fathers, run parishes, hospitals and reception centers in 33 countries. The Reverend Leonir Chiarello, superior general of the order, said the missionaries defend the rights of migrants at borders and in other critical places around the world.

“Pope Francis sends a clear and solemn message to the Church and to humanity as a whole: migrants, who first moved him and moved him to action, remain a central theme for the Church and society,” Chiarello said.

Francis’ first trip outside the Vatican after being named pontiff in 2013 was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of migrants are stranded on their journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, the issue of migration has been at the center of his speeches, his advocacy and his travels abroad.

Francis waived the requirement for a second miracle attributed to Scalabrini, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

Speaking Oct. 6 to the Vatican department responsible for making saints, Francis emphasized the role of grassroots Catholics in determining saints. Holiness, the pope said, “does not come primarily from the hierarchy but from the faithful.”

This spirit of Scalabrini’s vision continues today, speakers emphasized at the press conference, in more than 50 migrant reception centers in South America. Similar centers work to integrate immigrants in Italy, a first destination for many seeking to enter Europe.

Giulia Civitelli, a member of the Lay Scalabrinian Women who oversees an outpatient clinic in Rome’s busy train station, told reporters at the press conference, “Together we can discover that we belong to one human family.” — Religious News Service

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