Thursday, December 22, 2016

Patron of Immigrants - Now More than Ever

In the old liturgical calendar, today used to be celebrated in the U.S. as the feast of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), an Italian-born nun, who crossed the ocean to serve Italian immigrants in both North and South America, became a U.S. citizen, and is now the patron saint of immigrants. She died on this date in Chicago in 1917. (For some reason, in the new calendar her feast is anticipated on November 13.) Although she died in Chicago, her body is on display in her shrine in New York City Washington Heights convent of the Missionary sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order she founded in 1880. When I was growing up across the Harlem River in the Bronx it was a shrine which my Italian grandmother made sure we visited periodically.

Trained in Italy as a teacher, Frances Cabrini originally applied to join the order she had been taught by, but was rejected. So she gathered a group of like-minded women around her and formed her own religious community, founding a school and homes for orphans. But, when she applied to Pope Leo XIII for his approval for a missionary outreach to China, the Pope instead directed her to the United States and the growing Italian immigrant communities there. "Not to the East, but to the West," was his advice. Like so many of the Italian immigrants, she was less than enthusiastically received at first by the Irish Catholic establishment – in her case, New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan. But she persisted in her mission and over time founded some 67 institutions in major cities in the United States and in South America. In their day, those institutions served Italian and other immigrants and made a notable impact in their communities.

Those days are gone and many of those once successful institutions with them, but the need for structured outreach within immigrant communities as an explicit expression of the Church’s commitment to social solidarity remains central to the Church’s life and work in the United States – now as it always has been, and now maybe more than ever. Not unlike our attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth, our response to the immigrants among us is a profoundly spiritual and moral matter - a fundamental affirmation or not of the demands of solidarity.

Recently, I have been reading Tyler Anbinder’s recently published City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. The book tells the tremendous story of New York as a city of immigrants - focusing on the largest immigrant groups in each historical period - from the city's founding by its first Dutch settlers, highlighting the subsequent stories of the English and the Scottish settlers prior to the Revolution, the Irish and the Germans in the 19th century, the Italians and the Jews in the early 20th century, through the most recent arrivals from so many places around the world. Today, 3.2 million of New York's 8.5 million people are immigrants - 37% of the population, the same percentage as when the present city was consolidated in 1900, but well below the 19th-century high of 51% in 1885. Anbinder's account highlights how similar have been the stories of so many so seemingly disparate groups - despite the fact that every generation of Americans has tended to view the newest arrivals as wholly different from those who came before them. Each new population has brought the Old World with it, continuing to speak their own language, eat their own food, and associate primarily with one another - invariably triggering suspicion and anxiety among previous arrivals, until in turn becoming part of mainstream American society. And they continue to come. 

And it continues to be the Church's mission to welcome and accompany them.

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