November 28, 2022 marks the 135th anniversary of the foundation of the Scalabrinian Congregation.
The Superior General, Fr. Leonir Chiarello, recalls this event, addressing all the missionaries “In an intimate and confident conversation”.
It has been 130 years since Scalabrini felt the need “to approach you in writing and spend some time with you in order to treat with you of our own affairs.” It was the letter to the missionaries in the Americas, which we all know well, partly because it is the only letter Scalabrini wrote to all missionaries.
Talking about our own affairs is something we do routinely. At the same time, it is something we should feel the need for. Not to engage in chatter, as the pope would say, not to gossip and give vent to grumbling, but to listen, to share, to encourage, to dream together.
After 130 years, our institute is still that humble congregation Scalabrini spoke of. The pope also told us in the audience after the XV General Chapter: you are just a few. Looking at the numbers, we are a hundred fewer religious than in 1970. The number of migrants keeps growing and we are not growing as we would like. Scalabrini does not lose heart when looking at the humble congregation. On the contrary, he finds reasons to congratulate the missionaries for the good they have done despite immense difficulties.
Fine, let’s talk about that, about the immense difficulties we face even today. Apart from some territories, we have a sporadic presence in many places. And then there are areas where we are not present at all, such as the great and troubled Middle East, a prime destination for migrants where the poverty of the places of origin forces migrants to close their eyes to the lack of respect for dignity and rights they must suffer. We are not there in some of the borders that everyone talks about, such as those populated by the boats of the smugglers and the ships of NGOs, or the borders on the Balkan route. We are not there in the paths that cross deserts, where we do not find the tent of Yahweh but exploitation and death. And we could go on and on.
But let us listen to Scalabrini. He did not list all the situations where his humble congregation was not present; he preferred to mention that the zeal of the missionaries had done wonders. Let us talk then about the good that is being done today, first of all, in the many places of ordinary but no less valuable missionary work. And of the interventions in critical areas. We are now working toward a return to the Middle East, toward a limited and humble presence, but still a presence. And we should talk of the activities in some frontiers, where migrants cross without being able to stop or where they don’t pass at all. Or the frontiers in communities, where you are able to encourage welcome and dialogue, where, unlike in other contexts, you are able to establish encounter and promotion. “God will know how to reward you.”
“However few you may be, you can still do very much.” What is the reason why Scalabrini is so confident? The fact that missionaries have responded to a personal call. He clearly emphasizes this when he says, “Note, He does not say: ‘You have been called,’ but, ‘I myself have called you,’.” The perception of personal relationship with Christ makes a whole difference. To be called, in a generic way, is an anonymous experience. Soldiers are called to the draft, reservists are called to war; and indeed, those who can, try to find a loophole. The master of the harvest is not interested in a generic call. He calls personally to his vineyard by going to the marketplaces. Speaking of our own affairs, we cannot avoid the conversation fall on those who leave us. But we should spend more time on us who remain, to remind ourselves of the “predilection” we have been the object of and find ways to “persevere, and persevere to the end.”
“It is not sufficient.” Scalabrini compliments the missionaries. But he is realistic enough to know that “there is much more that still remains to be done.” He is realistic enough to know that “this good must be lasting.” We all have done something well: a project, an initiative, a community, a mission. It is easy to run the risk of feeling good about it and conclude that we have done enough. The good we did, the things we did well, must give us confidence to go further. It is important that in talking about our own affairs we know how to affirm the brethren, not with mannerly compliments but with concrete expressions of trust, that trust that creates union in looking forward. Union was one of the topics most emphasized by Scalabrini in his letter: “union with Jesus Christ, first of all … union among yourselves.” And he indicates the means to arrive at union: “by nourishing faith within yourselves together with the exercise of piety, and by maintaining grace alive in your hearts.”
We have begun a year in preparation for the symposium on spirituality. We will have occasion to return to this topic several times to deepen that “actualized and intercultural rereading of the Scalabrinian charism and vocation” (XV GC, 21.3). First of all, however, we must deepen what spirituality is, avoiding reducing it only to devotional practices. Scalabrini calls for nurturing faith and grace. Spirituality is first and foremost the life and action of the Spirit in us. So let us deepen the theology of the Holy Spirit, let us listen to the Holy Spirit, let us discover the Holy Spirit who is acting in our community and among migrants. The emphasis on synodality that we are living with the Church is recognition how the Holy Spirit is working in everyone.
And Scalabrinian spirituality does not primarily mean remembering and making Scalabrini’s devotions our own. It means making our own his spirit, his compassion for migrants, his passion for the plan of salvation geared toward the union of all in Christ. This is the meaning of the motto chosen for the conference: I will come to gather all the nations. Scalabrinian spirituality is knowing how to act in union with the bishop and the pope, an aspect that recurs often in Scalabrini’s writings, and to direct in this sense “the souls of migrants.” We are not sent on a mission to create little islands where we feel good, revered and respected, territories where no one should intrude and for which we are accountable to no one. Quoting St. Bernard, Scalabrini admonishes, “Honor your ministry. Notice that I say ‘ministry’ and not ‘dominion’.”
Among the many other insights Scalabrini’s letter offers us, we cannot overlook the sentence in which he says, “Remember, that you are setting the example for those who follow you.” It is essential to look to the future. But not with concern about what will become of us, of our old age. On that already Scalabrini reassured the missionaries when he said, “Do not be concerned about your future.” To look to the future is to put ourselves in the hands of the Spirit, for it is He who guides the Church. But it is also to be instruments of the Spirit by taking the initiatives we can implement. This is why we invite you to pray for the mission in Uganda that has just begun and for the first steps in India, so that the Church in those nations will welcome Scalabrini’s charism as a gift of the Spirit for their migrants. But to look to the future is also to feel the responsibility to leave behind sure tracks on which those who will come after us can walk. They will look to us as we have looked to those who have gone before us. Beginning with those first two missionaries who made their promise 135 years ago today and who were stolen at a young age from their ministry after consuming themselves in the apostolate.
With them we also remember the many others who have inspired us as we speak of our own affairs, in an intimate and confident conversation.
Fr Leonir Chiarello, cs