IV. THE MAN OF ACTION
Scalabrini was undoubtedly an outstanding figure.
Scalabrini, however, was not an intellectual, although he had a fine mind: clear, quick and flexible. He was not the man of vast culture, although he was a lover of knowledge, and kept in touch with contemporary theological, pastoral and even social developments of particular interest to his apostolate. Nor did he have the gift of cultivating the sheer beauty of words, like his great friend Bonomelli. His pastoral letters and homilies generally reflect the oratory and writing styles of the time. They are addressed to his people’s understanding, seeking to enlighten it with a clear, gentle discourse, and to their will, seeking to arouse it and to challenge it into action.
Witnesses tell us that he was a compelling speaker and that his words "showed how he burned with apostolic zeal" (Don Orione). Unfortunately, however, this magnetism did not carry over to his written word (2000 pages of homilies and 60 pastoral letters, published by SEI, 1994). The charism of his holiness and "apostolic zeal" died with him. The same thing happened to the words of St. Charles: they have not retained that throbbing love of God and souls that conveyed a tremor even to the pulpit, upsetting his stenographer, Passovino, as he was writing them down.
Nonetheless, some of Scalabrini’s pages still give off the secret perfume of his concern as a pastor and his love for souls, as he sought to draw them with his words to the top of the "Ladder" (Scala).
His private correspondence (e.g.: his correspondence with Bonomelli published by Studium, 1983) shows a man of calm judgment, wise counsel, perfect balance.
His social writings, particularly those on migration, are a different matter: he was a ground-breaker and milestone. As he himself writes, "they are the fruit of long study" and they absorb him in an "eloquence that comes from words laden with facts and figures."
Scalabrini was a practical man given to action and administration (as already seen in our examination of the main features of his pastoral activity). These qualities are the main elements of his true image as a tireless pastor, who, as an examiner of his heroic virtues testifies, produced "such an impressive amount of work that it leaves us not only edified, but overwhelmed." His intelligence itself was placed at the service of his good works, and seems by them to be exalted.
And when we call him pastor, we are referring to Scalabrini primarily as Bishop of Piacenza: because even his work as Founder of the Missionary Fathers and Sisters for the migrants must be seen as part of the all-embracing, holistic approach of his pastoral ministry. If anything, this universal "catholic" concern and "centrifugal vocation" (in the words of Church and Human Mobility) highlight another distinctive aspect of his pastoral vision: the ability to visualize problems on a larger scale, viewing them from above and in the mysterious light of Divine Providence. His writings often repeat the saying that expresses the providentialist view of history: "Man clamors, but God leads him"). Pettiness, politicking and personal interests were totally alien to this man, who wrote in his personal book of resolutions: "Lift myself up, become more virtuous, purify myself, become more godlike," and stuck to it; and who had the single aim of "the glory of God and the salvation of souls". It was in fact the loss of souls that provided urgency in finding a "solution to the great [Italian political] problem", and also of course to the problem of migration. Scalabrini refused a cardinal’s hat, because St. Charles’s HUMILITAS had truly entered his heart.
Another feature of his pastoral approach was his striking capacity to infuse all his sons and daughters with Christian leaven, in such a way that religion would have a complete hold on their lives from the cradle to the tomb. Every season, every day and hour, every moment of life, was made sacred through multiple and diverse initiatives, from bells to mark off actions and days, to novenas against drought, plagues of rats or livestock sickness (his was a farming diocese!), from churches (he consecrated over two hundred of them) to the Forty Hours, the practice of daily Mass attendance and communion, perpetual adoration, processions, visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, pilgrimages, liturgical seasons, and the setting up of crucifixes at crossroads and small wayside shrines. Incredibly a man with such lofty and wide-ranging ideas had a gift for practical details fertilizing the life of his people with Christian pollen, with the type of grass-roots action capable of reaching its fullest sentimental and professional implications.
Obviously, this quality called for a direct contact between the shepherd and his sheep, hence the pastoral visits, and with the pastors, hence the synods. Above all, it called for a process of evaluation, ongoing promotion and animation, as is evident in many of his writings. Indeed, the key aspect of his pastoral approach was not so much the legislation, which in the three synods provided structures, institutions, decrees, etc., but more so his understanding and his efforts to prevent in his people, himself included, the lack of that spirit needed to give life to those strategic structures enabling them to operate.
In Scalabrini’s day, (Italian philosopher and writer) De Sanctis gave a famous lecture on Science and Life, in which he stated that the new secular science taught in the schools was incapable of imparting vigor to consciences. He stated: "Science must imitate Catholicism, whose strength ... lies in taking man from his swaddling bands and holding on to him with a firm grip right through to the tomb; it should imitate its granite institutions, against which secular science has been hammering away for centuries, so far to no effect."
The element whose absence in secular methods De Sanctis lamented is the core of Scalabrini’s pastoral approach.
"Every human institution, even the most beautiful and holy, soon weakens, dims and dies, unless it is constantly given new life and energy by the zeal and care of people respected for their dignity and actions, to whom everything turns as to its center, and from whom the breath of life constantly emanates" (Scalabrini, Pastoral Letter on the Catechism, 1876).