III. BISHOP OF PIACENZA
"The spirit, the character, the sole ambition of the bishop lies in sacrificing himself in every way to spread the kingdom of Jesus Christ in people’s souls, risking, if necessary, his own life for the salvation of his beloved flock, placing himself, so to speak, on his knees before all the people in order to beseech the favor of their permission to do them good. He uses everything - his whole authority, skill, health, strength - for this noblest of purposes"(Scalabrini).
In his twenty-nine years of ministry as bishop of the Piacenza Diocese, he showed above all his gifts as a pastor of souls, "thirsting" to communicate the life of the Good Shepherd to them. He always walked before his sheep, leading them to the pastures of an "abundant" Christian life, through effective, timely and incisive action of government to improve the structure of pastoral work, taking St. Charles Borromeo as his model.
His first concern was for the clergy, to whom he addressed his third pastoral letter (August 1876), reminding them of the need for the Spiritual Exercises, which he saw (and here we find one of his typical features) not only as a time of spiritual experience, but also, and above all, as a time to reexamine and plan one’s life.
He instilled new discipline and introduced a new curriculum in his three seminaries, anticipating by three years Leo XIII’s Thomistic reform. He also started courses in Gregorian chant and instituted its practice, anticipating in this case Pius X’s reform by many years.
He worked for harmony among the clergy in an age of polarization not only in the political sphere (between the "transigent" and "intransigent" groups), but also in the philosophical sphere (between Rosminians and Thomists).
His relations with his clergy were marked by concern, respect, justice and fatherliness, and he was repaid with zeal, obedience and filial love - to the extent that for a long time after his death he was still "the bishop" for the clergy of Piacenza.
As was said, he actively supported the transigent party, convinced that the temporal power of the Pope (the Papal States), had seen its day, and that the Church must become - with a minimum of territorial sovereignty (i.e. the Vatican) to guarantee its spiritual independence - an evangelical power in the service of the highest good, which is the salvation of souls. In other words, he wanted to reconcile the two contrasting aspirations which were such a "torment to many consciences" in contemporary Italy - those of religion and country.
In line with the Council of Trent and true to his model, St. Charles Borromeo, he firmly believed that governing a diocese requires direct contact between shepherd and flock, and so he went out as many as five times to find, or rather to search for, his sheep in their 365 parishes, 200 of which were in mountain areas, accessible only on mule-back, and in many cases, only on foot.
For him, these pastoral visits carried out in person, were first and foremost spiritual events, secondly a human occurrence, and lastly a canonical duty.
Such visits were preceded by popular missions, and consisted not only of large meetings with the people, but also of "purification and winning of souls," and a grass-roots action that reached every category of believer - children, young people, women, workers, the sick, etc. - as well as the consecration of churches and cemeteries, the blessing of bells, etc. Indeed, there is probably no church in the Piacenza Diocese without its plaque commemorating some event celebrated by Scalabrini.
His love for souls, "for which Christ sacrifices everything, even his own blood," enhanced his natural ability to deal with people, his affability and his attractive manner, which elicited a similar response from the faithful. This in turn provided such gratification and comfort for the pastor, that, hard as such visits must have been, he described them as "the dearest of my duties."
A pastoral visit of this kind spurred the people to greater love of God, partly because they had personally seen the burning heart of their bishop; and the bishop could know his sheep individually, and grasp the condition of their souls at all levels: human, Christian, moral, economic and social, all painstakingly observed and recorded, with a report then sent to Rome.
Nor should we overlook the spiritual value of such visits for the clergy, for whom they were - as the bishop wrote in his first report - "an encouragement to a life of holiness, study, charity, prayer and zeal."
It was on his first rounds that he discovered that 11% of the members of his diocese had emigrated.
This first pastoral visit was so exhausting that his staff thought he could never manage a second one. But in fact he managed a total of five!
The first fruit of the pastoral visit was the celebration of a synod to modify the legislation of the fathers in view of the new needs of the children. Actually, the relationship between pastoral visit and synod was so close that the latter was described, in terms reminiscent of St. Charles, as a kind of "total and simultaneous pastoral visit," while the third synod was described as an introduction to the fifth pastoral visit.
The three synods also show a clear progression in their content, moving toward the spiritual: starting with wise and timely legislation (the first), continuing on to the Christian witness of the whole Church (the second), and culminating with the Eucharist, the mystery of unity and extension of the incarnation (the third).
The document of the third synod ran up to 350 pages, written out by Scalabrini himself in its entirety, and can be seen as his spiritual testament on the eve of the new century.
After the pastoral visits and the synods, came the catechism.
His second pastoral initiative, the pastoral letter on Teaching the Catechism, took place barely two months after his installation (a fact that is also very significant!).
With "‘this popular code of the highest philosophy’ (to use Lamartine’s words) each day catechists form disciples who are, without doubt, wiser than the ancient sages of Greece and Rome"; and this was the source of his concern, of his capacity to involve others: a capacity that reminds us of the wind imposing its will on the forest. The stakes here are vitally important, for catechism means not only knowledge of Christ, but also a fully consistent Christian life; it means "following Christ" and also (an insight well ahead of his time) a "catechumenate school" similar to that of the early Church.
In this regard, he took two initiatives, both new for his time. The first was the institutionalization of the teaching of catechism, which he organized in the framework of a solid central and peripheral structure copied from St. Charles, in the form of a real school, with classes, schedules, premises, and male and female teachers. He was also capable of forming these teachers with patient care and attention, because he realized that this formation is what "perfects the holy institution." The use of lay people was dictated not only by practical considerations, as in the case of St. Charles, but also by a clear awareness of the "prophetic" vocation of the lay people.
The second original aspect was that of realizing that in a society by now no longer Christian, the contents of the catechism also had to be reformed, for the catechism has the task of "putting firm and indestructible foundations in the souls of young people, forming an enlightened and deep faith within them" (Pastoral Letter of 1876). In other words, a catechism in which faith seeks its own reasons and not only its own expressions.
Such teaching was intended to cover all age groups, so that Christians were looked after from the cradle to the tomb.
Naturally, he himself taught Catechism not only during his pastoral visits, but also at his episcopal residence, where he held catechism courses for students.
Scalabrini’s merits in this regard are so great that even by themselves they would be the source of pride of a lifetime, apart from their innovative nature. His records would include the 1889 celebration of the First National Catechetical Congress in Piacenza, which was the first of its kind in the history of the Church. It was attended by one cardinal, eleven bishops and four hundred representatives of Italian dioceses. The questions discussed included Scalabrini’s proposal for a unified catechism (also supported by the Bishop of Mantua, the future Pope Pius X, who would in fact issue the "Official Catechism", special catechesis for adults, workers, engaged couples, those about to receive first communion, high school and college students, etc. He also licensed the first Italian catechetical review (the second in the world) in 1876, and instituted a chair of catechetics at his seminary.
The enthusiasm that greeted his initiative is clear from these figures: by 1876 there were already 1275 lay catechists, and the number later increased to almost 5000. And it is worth noting that when there were more teachers than necessary, those not called upon would express disappointment. Students themselves more than doubled in numbers in the parishes.
Apart from the merit of leading the way in this field, The Apostle of Catechism, as Pius IX described him, also showed far-sightedness in the principles applied in teaching catechism: they were forerunners of "modern catechesis" (S. Riva). These principles are found in hisCatholic Catechism (1876), a book that unfortunately, as has been noted, remained the "lost silver coin" of Italian catechetical literature.
"In the early Church Catechesis was not simply seen as a school of religion, but as a family experience where souls were brought up for God, the Church, Heaven .... Here the listeners’ spirits grew accustomed to Christian thoughts, and their minds were trained to understand and judge things no longer according to the light of pagan wisdom, but of gospel faith" (The Catholic Catechism).
A visit to the Piacenza post office reserves the pleasant surprise of a large and beautiful frescoed medallion of Scalabrini on the ceiling, the work of Father Sidoli; until 1929 the building housed the S. Antonino Catholic Bank, one of the many social institutions promoted by the bishop.
It is hard even to list his charitable initiatives and works of mercy toward the poor knocking daily at his door, prisoners in jail, the sick and orphans, for this was a hidden charity known only to God. However, it was doubled and became visible in the presence of public disasters, such as, for example, the 1879-1880 famine, when the bishop organized the distribution of 244,460 bowls of soup, together with numerous flour and firewood coupons, in a two months’ period. Stoves had only recently appeared on the market and were used for the first time in the city on this occasion. When the money ran out, he pawned his valuables, even the chalice received from Pius IX, then sold the horses he had been given for pastoral visits. In fact, Msgr. Torta tells us that "he sold his horses twice." When people told him that he would end up dying on the straw, he replied that it would not be so bad dying where Jesus was born.
The secret of such great charity was his boundless trust in Divine Providence, combined with a natural gift for eliciting contributions.
His social initiatives included the founding of the Deaf and Dumb Institute (1879) and the Rice Workers Institute (1903) to provide religious, social and unionized assistance to the roughly 170,000 workers employed in the rice growing sector in Piedmont and Lombardy, which then provided a typical case of seasonal migration, exploitation of women, and child labor.
We should also recall that although the Institute for Congresses, a type of Church welfare association, tended basically toward the "intransigent" camp (when it stayed within its bounds), still Piacenza was the Italian city with the second largest involvement: 227 parish committees with 6,164 members in 1897. And this was the result of the support from a "transigent" bishop, for whom, however, the Pope’s wishes were enough to obtain his unfeigned support.
Following the tragic events of Workers Day 1898 (which claimed three victims even in Piacenza), he wrote a book entitled Socialism and the Action of the Clergy, which contains a synthesis of his social thinking, and in which he upholds, for example, the participation of workers in company stock, the right to work, the right to strike, accident and liability insurance, disability and old age pension, a reduction of working hours, and an increase in the minimum working age. He speaks out against police style repression on the part of the authorities, and suggests remedies, such as cooperatives, mutual aid societies, Catholic banks and rural funds, which would grant loans at minimum interest rates. Lastly, landlords and employers had to be persuaded of the public’s right to private property, in keeping with the authentic teaching of Rerum novarum.
THE CONGREGATIONS OF THE MISSIONARIES FOR THE MIGRANTS
"The emigration of Europeans is certainly one of the major factors of a political, social and hence religious nature in modern history, since human events, in their infinite variety, always reflect the spiritual unity from which they spring (i.e. man)" (Scalabrini, Memorandum, 1905).
The highest note of all his social initiatives, however, is the founding of three institutes of men and women religious and of lay people, to serve migrants: the Congregation of the Missionaries of St. Charles (1887), the The St Raphael Society (1889), and the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo (1895).
Italian migration was perhaps the most dramatic social phenomenon in the century following Italian unification, with the exodus of 25 million Italians in the space of 110 years, especially to the Americas: a number equivalent to the total population of Italy at the time of its unification. The flow grew at an ever-increasing rate, so that Pascoli would exclaim at the beginning of the century: "If things go on at this rate, Italy itself will soon be emigrating, and not just Italians!"
Emigrating was the only choice (as the saying went, "Emigrate or steal; emigrate or starve to death") and a true tragedy, for migration is always traumatic. The suffering was further exacerbated due especially to a migration legislation that allowed emigration agents the freedom to force people to migrate, so much so that Scalabrini would describe these profiteers as "brokers in human flesh." It should be added that the Italian State showed no concern over the matter, disclaiming any responsibility for the welfare of its migrants.
For a bishop like Scalabrini, whose own family was affected by the phenomenon of migration and who was concerned since his first pastoral visit over the 11 percent of his flock affected by it, emigration was not only a serious social problem that required attention and solutions, but also a challenge to his faith. He saw it both as a danger to losing one’s Christian heritage, and also as an opportunity for evangelization. He described the danger clearly to the Pope in the following words: "In the United States the losses to the Catholic faith [by European migrants] amount to millions, and are certainly greater than the number of conversions of unbelievers in our missions during three centuries." The opportunities for evangelization are demonstrated by history, a classic example being the State of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.
We should also add that Scalabrini’s concern over the problem of migration is primarily a human one, but belonging to that full humanity endowed with faith in one who is himself a man of faith, and with hope in a man of utopian vision, who in migration saw the hand of Providence unifying the world:
"As the races mix, spread and blend, through the clatter of our machines, above all the feverish toil and gigantic works, and not without them, here below we are seeing a much broader, much nobler, much more sublime work coming to maturity: the union of all men of good will in God through Jesus Christ" (Address to the Catholic Club of New York, 1901).
He saw the opportunity Italian migration offered the Church for the reconciliation of religion and country, taking charge of an Italian phenomenon involving both Church and State. We should remember that the unique insight in Scalabrini’s pastoral care of migrants, later adopted by the whole Church, is that faith is not possible without culture and that Italian priests, therefore, should become migrants with Italian migrants, just as German and Polish Catholic priests had accompanied their own countrymen. This pastoral approach is rooted in culture, language, popular piety, etc.; in other words, it has a social and national perspective.
Scalabrini travelled all over Italy to arouse public awareness on the serious nature of the phenomenon of migration and on the vital need for legislation that would allow the freedom to migrate while preventing the forcing of migration, and to solicit contributions and volunteers in order to provide assistance at ports of departure and arrival. This latter initiative led to the St. Raphael Society of lay men (and women!), which began with two offices at the ports of Genoa and New York, and later one in Boston. In Italy the Society set up nineteen committees, with counseling and assistance offices in the cities most affected by the exodus of migrants. The Society must also be credited with having lobbied the government to pass a new migration law in 1901. The main thrust of this legislation (liberty of migration and no forced migration) contained fifteen articles of major importance reflecting Scalabrini’s insights and concerns and those of his followers. On that same year, Scalabrini visited his missionaries in the United States and was received at the White House by then President Theodore Roosevelt.
It is interesting to notice also the ecumenical spirit of the Society, which required its members to assist also "Italians of other confessions," in keeping with Scalabrini’s express wishes.
One of his missionaries, Father Marchetti, offered him the opportunity of establishing the women’s institute: The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo. During the crossing to Brazil, Father Marchetti had been entrusted with a new-born infant by an emigrant woman who had died, and when he reached São Paulo, he founded the Christopher Columbus Orphanage. He then wrote to the Founder: "We have the fathers, but what about the mothers?" With help from the same Father Marchetti, and from his sister, Mother Assunta Marchetti, Scalabrini responded by founding the women branch in 1895. It is indeed remarkable that one of his own sons inspired the founding of the Scalabrinian Sisters: unlike others who become so holy that they could receive nothing from their own people, Scalabrini’s humility allowed him to accept inspiration from his missionaries.
A passage in his 1887 address, Italian Emigration to America, telling of his meeting at the Milan Railroad Station with five hundred migrants, has become famous. The description of the "knot in the heart" and the question "What can be done to help them?" acted like a true moral imperative:
In those same years (1881), one of Italy’s main writers, Giovanni Verga, a Milanese, wrote I Malavoglia, an anti-migration novel in which emigration is viewed primarily as a "change of state" and as a "lese majesty", an affront to the immobility of Destiny, which punishes the offender with economic and moral ruin. Verga, a socialist and a preeminent figure in Italian verism, was blind to reality, downgrading migration while staying at a hotel across from the same central Railroad Station where a passing anti-socialist bishop was one day so overwhelmed by the suffering that he discovered not only his Christian but also his social vocation. The mysterious ways of Divine Providence!
"The two societies which I founded [religious and lay) share, more or less directly, the same task of the religious, civil and moral care of our expatriate brothers and sisters..., for in everything concerning migration, it is impossible to separate religious, civil and national interests, public and private interests, without damage" (Scalabrini, Address on Emigration).