Saturday, November 13, 2010

Immigrants Then and Now

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, I was never unaware of my Italian immigrant background - not because I lived in one of the various versions of "Little Italy" then extant in New York, but because my grandmother, who lived with us, spoke only Italian (specifically Sicilian). Above and beyond that day-to-day immigrant reality, she was a living treasury of stories both about life in the "old country" and the immigrant experience. And at least once a year, she would nudge us to make the short pilgrimage across the Harlem River to Washington Heights to visit the mortal remains of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) - "Mother Cabrini" as we always referred to her - one display for public veneration under the altar of the chapel of a high school named after her.

A great missionary, Mother Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. At the direction of Pope Leo XIII, she came to America and undertook the critical and timely task of serving the spiritual and temporal needs of Italian immigrants - at the very period when Italian immigration to the US was at its height. Over a period of 28 years, she founded some 67 schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the US and in Latin America. A decade or so before her death in Chicago on December 22, 1917, she became an American citizen. Thus, when she was canonized in 1946 she became the first American citizen saint. Proclaimed patroness of Italian immigrants, her patronage is now more generally claimed by all immigrants to the United States.

The story of 19th & 20th century Italian immigration to the land of opportunity is one of America's great success stories. In short order, a poor and pretty desperate population entered the mainstream of American society and prospered, preserving in the process their strong sense of family that had served them so well. Over time, American society as a whole has recognized and appreciated both Italian-Americans' attachment to family and the quality of their food. While unfortunately under-represented historically in the American Catholic hierarchy, as a group Italian-American Catholics have also been a major payer in the story of the flourishing of American Catholicism.

We have never ceased to be a land of immigrants, and many of the same challenges that faced earlier immigrants in assimilating to American life - and faced American society in assimilating to its immigrants - persist today. Now as in the past, so many immigrants come from traditionally Catholic countries. Today's immigrants from Latin America (and elsewhere) augment (an otherwise shrinking) American Catholic population and enrich the American Church with the rich treasures of their spirituality and culture. And, as in Mother Cabrini's day, they come with spiritual and material needs, responding to which, is an ongoing challenge to the Church's perennial mission and identity.

For several decades, the Catholic percentage of the population has remained fairly constant - thans almost entirely to immigration. Catholics continue to constitute about one-quarter of the US population, representing the largest religious "denomination" in the country. We have, however, been losing members the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of earlier immigrants) at an alarming rate - so much so that "lapsed" Catholics are sometimes called the second largest "denomination" in America. That these losses are being compensated for by new immigrants is a great grace. Among other things, however, it means that the contemporary challenge facing the Church in the US is less one of assimilating immigrants to a static model of American Catholicism and more a matter of responding well to the inevitable transformation of American Catholic life into a largely Latino reality.

Meanwhile, the loss of so many of the heirs of the earlier evangelizing efforts of Mother Cabrini and other heroic missionaries constitutes a crisis calling for yet another "new evangelization" of our society.

"If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves" (Isaac Hecker in a letter to Orestes Brownson, September 5, 1851).

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