A Christian woman on her missionary path
On 19 March 1889, less than nine years after the founding of the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Codogno, Italy, Mother Francesca Saverio Cabrini left for the United States with seven other sisters to take care of Italian immigrants. To prepare for this mission she had had to rapidly change her missionary course. She had to renounce her dream of going to China that had been in her heart for many years, in order to undertake a mission that initially held no natural attraction for her — one that she had never imagined.
At that time, Mother Cabrini did not have a thorough understanding of the world of immigration because Lodigiano was not an area from which Italians immigrated. What little she knew had been rapidly communicated to her by the Bishop of Piacenza, Giovanni Battista Scalabrini. Making this change of her "missionary path" took Mother Cabrini little more than three months. However, this change raises some questions: what encouraged her towards taking such a rapid decision that undermined all her previous plans? She was not a hot-headed, imprudent or superficial person, prone to undertaking such a difficult and different mission without the necessary deliberation.
Some believe it was Pope Leo XIII who said to Mother Cabrini: "Not to the East, but to the West". To a certain extent this is true, but it is not the whole story. Francesca Cabrini was able to change so rapidly because of her capacity for judgement that she had practised for many years. We must, therefore, search for the reasons behind her decisions — and not only in this case — which we find in her profound relationship with Jesus. She had nourished this relationship since infancy and it had made her capable of always discerning, not just between good and evil, but also between what is the good that God wills here and now — not that which would be good for her and her preferences. She sought, as St Paul said in the letter to the Romans: to know "what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2).
From reliable historical records, we know that Francesca was raised in a deeply religious family. Her mother, who had given birth to 10 children, many of whom died prematurely, got up at five a.m. every morning to pray and go to mass. Her father gathered his children in the evening near the fireplace and read to them from the Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, recounting the stories of missionaries. We know that her father was so upright and honest that they called him the "Christian one". Her older sister, Rosa, taught her obedience and discipline.
We also know that, since childhood, Francesca had a spiritual director, but at age 15, she wanted a change in order to have a deeper direction. When this new director was faced by the rather unusual questions the girl asked, he replied: "Go and ask your Jesus...". Jesus was always, therefore, the privileged companion that accompanied Mother Cabrini throughout her life.
From this relationship with Jesus, developed through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, in works of charity, in knowing how to renounce her personal preferences, Francesca learned to interpret the events of her life and those of her times. Her relationship with Jesus also developed through times of suffering and silence, waiting for God to show her what he wanted from her, even in the darkness of faith. Often Francesca did not see or understand why there were so many deaths in her family, so much illness. She herself was rejected more than once by other religious orders because her health was too fragile. Why was there so much difficulty in achieving her dream of entering religious life? Finally when she was accepted in the House of Providence at Codogno, she spent six long years, having her dreams frustrated and encountering obstacles to what was the greatest hope of her life — becoming a missionary. How could she survive this? Only because her relationship with Jesus had matured in the faith and hope that God certainly would never abandon her.
This long formation of faith not only prepared her for the great missionary adventure that she would then undertake in founding the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but also proved to be a great gift from God. This is why the words of St Paul, "I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13)", became the motto for Francesca Cabrini's great missionary adventures.
Faith was the distinguishing note of Mother Cabrini's life and mission. Faith infused her heart and mind with a tremendous capacity for decision-making. Every time she was convinced that God's will was steering her towards another path that even she had not foreseen, only then did she seek final confirmation of her judgement in the words of the Pope. Even when leaving for the United States, Mother Cabrini did not question the Pope's mandate to her because he had already understood her. She asked for confirmation because the church, in the person of Leo XIII, had the final word on a judgement that was so important to her Institute's destiny.
Upon arrival in America at New York, Mother Cabrini found nothing of what had been programmed in Italy — only words, vague hopes and above all a suggestion, often repeated through words and actions, that she should return to Italy. The Archbishop, who had even invited her, could not hide his bafflement. He sensed the pressure of the Irish Church, knew the prejudice against the Italians, saw that the young sister had no money and hoped that she would change her mind. But Mother Cabrini did not give up that easily.
She told the Archbishop: "I'm sorry, your Excellency, but the Pope sent me here — and here I will remain!". God illuminated her so that she could add docility to obedience, strength to docility, audacity to strength, and to audacity the determination to struggle on, even if she was alone, with her weapons: prayer and faith in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
At that time, the devotion to and spirituality of the Sacred Heart was the center in which the Church had placed its faith and hope. These were very difficult years, due to the historical and ecclesiastical events happening in Italian society, after many wars and the fall of the political powers that had divided and disoriented many Catholics. At that time devotion to the Sacred Heart generated numerous religious congregations, societies, associations and Christian movements that were renewing the people's faith. The parish of Sant'Angelo Lodigiano, so frequently attended by the young Francesca Cabrini, was consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1871, as were many families and people. Furthermore, Pope Leo XIII later consecrated the world to the Sacred Heart at the beginning of the 1900s.
Mother Cabrini's faith in the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was well founded. From this spirituality she learned the value of God's merciful love that, through the revelations of the Sacred Heart to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque two centuries earlier, asked for reparation for the sins of humanity through prayer, adoration, sacrifice and above all, the love of God and one's neighbour.
Mother Cabrini will answer this request from the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in communion with the Church, with her prayer and missionary work in favor of the weakest and with her motto: "All for the greater honor and glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus". When in difficulty, she always repeated: "I can do all things in him which strengthens me (Phil 4:13)".
And so, when she again met the Archbishop of New York, he asked her: "So, are you here to begin?" she replied: "Yes, your Excellency, but above all to receive your blessing because I know of no other certainty with which to begin than the blessing of the Church". Faith in God strengthened her, but moral integrity made her understand that without the blessing of the local Church, she could not even start. For her, the Church was the guarantee that she was carrying out the will of God.
At times this blessing was late in arriving because difficulties and misunderstandings abounded, but she was sure that her project for the glory of God and the good of her neighbor was working against that evil that was doing everything possible to discourage her, making it seem that she was going against the Church and that her goal was impossible. She fell ill the day before every departure, the sisters she relied upon suddenly disappeared, the people who had to help her make arrangements withdrew their services a few days before the project was to begin.
Her adventure began among a thousand hardships. She was alone. And yet, the Archbishop of New York, at first opposed to the plan, became her dearest friend. Early in the morning, before sunrise, he would set off to find those poor sisters, without means and friends, and teach them strategies to overcome their difficulties in New York. Faith in the Heart of Jesus was her weapon, but it was not a gift to be taken for granted, but a spiritual journey that was always put to the test. It was an experience that always had to rely on the love of God because the difficulties she faced always demanded new discernments.
Mother Cabrini is rightly remembered for her missionary dynamism, her mobility, her journeys and her extraordinary capacity to get things done, despite all the difficulties. God had taught her the path of abiding faith, but did not spare her from fatigue, doubt and suffering; in this way, it would be clear that his was the hand behind everything. She was in the habit of repeating: "I am only a spectator of God's work". But these achievements were also the fruit of her hard work and uncompromising commitment, motivated by the glory of God.
There is a particular aspect that emerges from this extraordinary faith that Mother Cabrini had in the Sacred Heart of Jesus: the capacity she acquired regarding developing methods for the missions. How did she so quickly discover apostolic strategies for the mission among the immigrants? What courses did she attend? Who taught her the method behind her socio-cultural work?
Mother Cabrini did not attend specialized courses, she did not have special teachers, neither did the local church suggest the means to face up to the thousands of children, adolescents and young people that she found on the streets, polishing shoes or selling newspapers. How did she know to enter the hovels of small factories where child labour was used because it cost very little, or how to find Italians in the crowded households of the large city slums? How did she know how to meet her fellow countrymen down in the mines where thousands of Italians passed their lives, or go into the factories where women did the most menial work to earn a few cents? Mother Cabrini realized what was necessary — and the Holy Spirit was her teacher. She herself used to tell the sisters: "Work, work tirelessly, without losing your spirit; the grace of the Holy Spirit works with you, prays with you, shows you his light, grace and treasure... If you are really zealous, the Holy Spirit will truly illuminate you with his divine light and help you in your work and suffering. He will support you in you endeavours, defend you from internal and external enemies and strengthen you with his virtue. Have faith, tremendous faith! Faith and trust, my daughters! Pray constantly and the Holy Spirit, with all his love, will enter our hearts and spirits to strengthen them with his own strength".
And the Holy Spirit suggested a solution for the enormous problems of the immigration of that period. The answer was education. She would develop an entire educational system, geared to the situation of immigrants in a new land. At the same time, she was also studying methods of educating her people from a religious point of view, because often they only knew their faith through processions and the traditions that accompanied them.
Why education above all else? Because talking or being interviewed on the gravity of the situation was not enough. She needed to educate, train and appeal to peoples' conscience, provoking a profound change of mentality. A change had to occur, not only in the Italians, who had to create a new image of themselves, but also in the citizens who were prejudiced and in the people in power. Mother Cabrini will fight her hardest battles in offices in Italy and abroad; in the offices of bishops, at Propaganda Fide and in the Vatican; in visits to politicians, administrators, government leaders, bankers, bishops, parish priests and cardinals. She does not want to elicit only compassion for the immigrants, or just interest in their problem, but also a new mentality based on respect, acceptance, justice, involvement and, above all, concrete action. She understood that the immigration of 25 million Italians was only the first phase of a phenomenon that would know no end.
Francesca Cabrini worked and fought on different fronts. On the one hand, she prepared her sisters for the mission; a mission founded on prayer, sacrifice, patience, tolerance, intercultural aspects and total immersion in the peoples' destiny. Even the sisters needed conversion and a new mentality. We must remember that almost all of the first three hundred sisters that followed Mother Cabrini on her missionary adventure were from northern Italy. In the North, especially in the Lombardy-Veneto region, people had received a better education and therefore, to a certain extent, were more developed, even if they were still poor. Before and after the unification of Italy, Italians themselves considered the people of the South ignorant — and this was the population that immigrated more and that the sisters had to serve. As a result, even the Missionary Sisters had to undergo a cultural conversion.
They did not have such a hard time because the immigrants were generally good people, humble, religious and also intelligent, but even the sisters would have to put aside their prejudices. Furthermore, every day the sisters had to face a way of life that was new to them: become familiar with American customs and with the organizational and selective values that the laws often imposed.
There was a sort of institutionalized prejudice in government concessions, with more benefit given to the English, Irish and people from the north of Europe. If the sisters wanted to survive in that environment, they had to adapt to the culture, language and customs. Mother Cabrini did not judge or criticise; on the contrary, she learned new ways of behaving, appreciating many values and studying how not to appear at a disadvantage in front of the American institutions. She created beautiful, well-organized and attractive institutions but without ostentation and obsequiousness. In reality, Mother Cabrini developed a creativity from which women in Italy, at that time, would have been excluded.
She worked with powerful civil, economic and religious organizations to gain rights for her people, involving the same Italians that were able to take advantage of the situation. She visited the Italian "big-shots": the lawyers, chairmen of major companies and businessmen who could offer advice. We find one example of this in her relationship with the president of New York's famous Metropolitan Museum, Count Luigi Palma di Cesnola. In Italy she was capable of addressing the Chamber of Deputies to claim the immigrants' suspended benefits. Sometimes she was rejected, at times she was admired and even feared for her female quality of facing and overcoming obstacles. But her power of persuasion managed to transform her worst opponents into excellent supporters of her project.
"She fights on the side of the immigrants themselves", Lucetta Scaraffia reports in her book on Mother Cabrini. An 1889 article in the paper, Il Progresso Italo-Americano, states: "The Italian colony found itself in a deplorable state, economically and morally exploited by other Italians and Protestants. The Italians were hated, treated like animals and persecuted worse than the Negroes. The situation was considerably aggravated by the hostility that reigned between the Italians themselves: divisions between Catholics and anti-clericals (among them were the Savoy and Mazzini ranks), and between immigrants of different religions". Entering their world, Mother Cabrini encourages in every way a sense of responsibility, legality, honesty, industry, punctuality and respect for their cultural and religious origins.
Even the immigrants needed a change of mentality. Even they had to learn not only how to gain respect, to earn an honest salary, to have rights, but they also had to win the admiration of others through their honest work, their behaviour, their active participation in the society that hosted them and their own solidarity. Mother Cabrini's work was not, however, just social and cultural; it was also apostolic. She insisted on the tremendous dignity that everyone has as a child of God, supported by his love and his providence. It was not for nothing that she said that the Italian identity was founded on the Catholic faith.
For Mother Cabrini, faith in God was not just a strategy for living peacefully, awaiting help from the heavens, but a further reason to find the courage to face difficult situations, to make faith itself a continual conversion of the heart when encountering different peoples and cultures. The strength that she received from God was the source of her courage when facing adversity and reinforcing her commitment.
We can say the same thing regarding the foundation of her hospitals. Mother Cabrini became as expert in hospital organization and management as the Americans, but she did this not just through the grace she received from God, but also the capacity she developed to read the signs of the times, even through her Christian discernment. From God and the Holy Spirit she asked the light to see what she should do, but also knew that the struggle would be hers, that there would be no lack of difficulties.
Mother Cabrini also had to understand the world of business, the value of money, of work, of saving,the humiliation of being considered incompetent. The work she was doing was God's work — and she had to do everything possible to succeed. For Mother Cabrini, faith in the Sacred Heart of Jesus was an infallible weapon in living the Christian life and for the mission, but it required total abandonment to God's providence, a radical detachment from one's own patterns of thought and plans to embrace the plan of God.
One of her writings gives us the key to the faith and trust that St Frances Cabrini had in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She writes to the sisters: "Therefore, work with commitment and do not get discouraged by the difficulties that you will naturally face. When they tell you "no", you must continue all the stronger, as if they had said "yes". If you keep hitting on the same nail, it will finally go in. The most important thing is that your faith never lessens, but rather becomes stronger through difficulty; that is the way of the saints. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.
"Like good women then, always go forward, despite the difficulties; make light of them and strengthen your wills... In the meantime, work diligently and put your hearts into praying, have great faith in your beloved Jesus and always fully surrender yourselves to his beloved Heart. Trust and confide in him, not in yourselves. No matter how poor and weak you may be, you can certainly do great things. Always remember: 'I can do all things in him who strengthens me' (Phil 4:13).
*Former Mother Superior of the Cabrini Missionary Sisters