Many years have passed since that April 12, 1889, the day on which the Central Committee of the Association of Patronage for Emigrants was established in Piacenza, an association that, following the example of the one in Germany, would later take the name of St. Raphael Society. The Institute of priests available to go among the emigrants in America had been in operation for almost two years, an institute or association that Scalabrini had already defined in the first Rules as a Congregation of Missionaries, but which after his death would become a Pious Society only to return to receive the name of Congregation in 1969. It is important to note, however, that Scalabrini’s initial idea was to set up committees of priests and laity to take care of migrants. The mention of the laity was already expressed in Scalabrini’s first writing on emigration, where he said that migrants have “moral and material needs and I would like a Patronage Association to arise in Italy, which would be both religious and lay, so that it would fully respond to that twofold need.” The lay component was later removed from the initial project because it had not met with the approval of the Holy See, but the need for the laity to participate in the mission with migrants did not lapse in Scalabrini’s mind, and indeed he provided for it precisely with the establishment of the St. Raphael Society.
Why go back to remember an institution that would only remain active for a little more than 30 years? It is not only a matter of historical memory. In fact, it marks one hundred years since the closure of the San Raphael’s New York office, the most important and the most active, as well as the last of the offices, since the one in Genoa had already been closed and the one in Boston will continue a little longer, but in a different form and with a different name. It is above all a matter of keeping alive the essential aspects of the Founder’s thought, naturally adapting them to new times and needs.
After the brief but well-deserving experience of the St. Raphael’s, the collaboration between missionaries and lay people on the side of migrants is certainly not over. It is an indispensable and congenital collaboration in all pastoral initiatives with migrants. Indeed, theology, especially since Vatican II, has come to recognize the specific and active role of migrants in mission and thus to speak of “missio migrantium.” There were, however, moments in history when the role of the laity received a formalization. One fruitful period, with specific initiatives in California and Australia, was the transposition among migrants of the Catholic Action model. Those initiatives are still alive and operating. In the 1950s and 1960s, attempts were made to establish the Auxiliaries of the Scalabrinian Missions for Migrants (AMSE). On the impetus of the 1992 General Chapter new attention was given to the laity, with the establishment in all provinces of different forms of aggregation of Scalabrinian laity, sometimes with specific formation and commitment, which could also result in volunteer work in the Scalabrinian missions. In 2005, one hundred years after the Founder’s death, an international conference of Scalabrinian laity was also organized. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the various initiatives have struggled to take off and are generally small groups those of the laity who have continued to live with us the passion for the world of migration. At the same time, attention to the importance and specificity of the role of the laity cannot be overlooked, not in an instrumental sense – because they can be of help to us – but by recognizing the dignity and autonomy of their vocation and removing the obstacles that do not facilitate them in living it.
Sometimes we find it difficult to identify the specific areas in which lay people can invest their energies and skills. In reality, there is a vast field of work, and we can take up some aspects of the Founder’s thought, leaving out those approaches that were typical of his time and which it would be anachronistic on our part to expect to be different. In particular, one hundred years later we can take up some points from the statutes of the St. Raphael’s, to which the great sociologist, Blessed Giuseppe Toniolo, also made a relevant contribution.
– Presence at crucial moments of the migration process. The Saint Raphael’s association performed its most effective function by being present at the moments when migrants were most vulnerable: at ports of embarkation and disembarkation. At times, as on both sides of the Mediterranean, this need still lingers, perhaps in even more dramatic forms given the preponderant use of migrants and asylum seekers of the service of traffickers and smugglers. Vessels have become dinghies, and even if they are not crossing an ocean, shipwrecks are even more frequent. Other times the ports are the borders and the crossings take place in the jungle or desert. We will certainly not be the ones to solve a problem that is not being solved by international organizations and governments, but with lay people we can think about a presence that will make a difference to someone.
– The involvement in the political dimension. The St. Raphael’s association proved effective in helping migrants untangle bureaucratic procedures and secure legal protection. In particular, it made a decisive contribution to improving the Italian emigration law. Scalabrini teaches us that social assistance to migrants has a political dimension. The laity have a specific role in dialogue with the political and associative world and are already playing it, but there is room for a more articulated and organic presence, maintaining their own identity but willing to collaborate. It was the style of Scalabrini, who in times of hostility between state and church wrote to Senator Bodio, “we will work together for the good of the emigrants.”
– Accompanying them to integrate into society. This too is an aspect in which many migrants have benefited from St. Raphael’s services, and much has been done in this area in the congregation over the past forty years, thanks especially to the migrants’ houses and shelters, where not only a welcome is given, but migrants are helped to find insertion into the labor market and society. Here is a space where lay people can act with competence and autonomy.
– Cultural accompaniment. Scalabrini, who saw it difficult to maintain the faith without also cultivating its cultural background, envisioned St. Raphael’s direct involvement in schools for migrants abroad. This is an area in which the St. Raphael’s was not effective, but one in which many initiatives have been implemented in the congregation’s history. Today this translates into involvement in the world of communication and study and research centers. Toniolo, in establishing the Catholic Union for Social Studies, enrolled Scalabrini as an honorary member. It is our duty to continue to promote this field by expanding the network of lay people who can contribute to it.
– The ethical-religious field. This is an area in which lay people have always been involved, although perhaps we have not always been able to recognize the specificity of their contribution. In a time of transformation such as the one we are living, it is up to us to recognize and encourage the role of the laity in mission, especially the migrants themselves and those who have been migrants. It is also our duty to have Scalabrini’s open-mindedness; in the statutes of the St. Raphael’s he expressly added that the association remained open to non-Catholics as well.
Scalabrini was a practical man, interested more in solving problems, offering people specific help rather than dwelling on endless debates. Today, migration attracts so many words and so many debates without providing solutions for those who still set out driven by desperation. To the laity who have seen that desperation and are willing to share Scalabrini’s vision, we must offer the opportunity to make a contribution, their own contribution, in the autonomy of their vocation and with respect for their expertise.