“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35)
John Baptist Scalabrini was born in Fino Mornasco, Como, Italy on July 8, 1839, the third of eight children and was baptized on the same day. His vocation to priestly life matured under the guidance of the parish priest and in October 1857 he entered the seminary of S. Abbondio. Gifted with a fine intelligence, he distinguished himself during his studies and was ordained as priest on May 30, 1863 at the age of twenty-four.
During the following months he expressed a desire to become a missionary with the PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) but the bishop decided to send him instead to the minor seminary as teacher and vice-rector of the seminary. “Your Indies are in Italy”, he told him. He brought with him a breath of fresh air in terms of method and content in the teaching of History and Greek, opening it up to a more modern approach.
In 1867 he became involved in caring for people with cholera in Portichetto, a village near Fino Mornasco, earning a medal from the government for his work. In the same year he was assigned as rector of the seminary. In 1870 the bishop appointed him as parish priest of San Bartolomeo, a parish on the industrial outskirts of Como. As parish priest, he developed his sensitivity to various social initiatives, including one for textile workers and deaf-mute women and he opened Como’s first men’s oratory. He increased the passion for teaching religion by writing, in 1875, the Small Catechism for Kindergartens. He devoted 11 lectures to the First Vatican Council, delivered in the cathedral in 1872 which activity contributed to his appointment as bishop of Piacenza in 1876, at the age of only 36.
He was consecrated bishop on January 30, 1876. Blessed Scalabrini’s first initiatives as bishop revealed what would be his ministry for 29 years: direct contact with the people, reform of diocesan life, attention to the clergy, concern for the teaching of Christian doctrine and charity to the neediest. In short, a man all of God and all for God. He sought to imitate St Charles Borromeo, whom he chose as his model. He worked tirelessly, precisely in helping the poor, even giving away his possessions to help them during the famine of 1889 – 1890. Benedict XV called charity the pre-eminent of his virtues.
He sought contact with the people and in the first year of his episcopate, announced the first pastoral visitation where he visited the diocese, which had 364 parishes, many of them in mountainous areas, as many as five times. To give new impetus to catechises, he worked on two converging directions : the formation of the clergy and the instruction of the people. He organized the teaching of catechism in the form of a school, adults included. In 1876 he founded the “Catholic Catechist” the first Italian catechetical journal, which later became national and continued until 1940.
In 1889 he carried out the first National Catechetical Congress in Piacenza. Through catechesis he aimed, even before religious instruction, at the education of the whole person. For his great commitment to catechetical ministry, Pius IX called him “Apostle of the Catechism”.
He paid great attention to the ministry of the Word, cared for not only through homilies but also through his writings. He sent sixty pastoral letters and convened three diocesan synods. He renewed discipline and studies in the three seminaries, anticipating Leo XIII’s Thomistic reform and Pius X’s reform of Gregorian chant. He facilitated the rise of the magazine Divus Thomas, which began publication in 1880. He restored the Cathedral to its former Lombard-Romanesque splendour, inaugurating it in 1901.
In religious-social action, he was very sensitive to the problems of peasants and workers, giving impetus to welfare and mutual aid initiatives on their behalf. In 1879, he founded an institute in Piacenza for the assistance and schooling of deaf-mutes. He also did his best to assist the many seasonal migrants, mostly women, who travelled each year from his diocese to the provinces of Piedmont and Lombardy to harvest and husk rice. He was passionately concerned with the animation of the laity. Considered a “transigent” bishop, his differing views on the Roman question made him a target of the intransigent current, but he always retained a spirit of understanding and forgiveness.
Seeing his people at the station of Milan he was struck by the seriousness of the migratory phenomenon of those years, when Italians were leaving in masse to go to the Americas. Emigrating was the only choice, as the saying went, “Emigrate or steal; emigrate or starve to death” and a true tragedy, as migration is always traumatic.
Blessed Scalabrini set about studying and publishing on it, stimulating the sensitivity of Italian society through a series of conferences in various cities, and considering an institutional way of accompanying migrants. He involved the Congregation of Propaganda Fide and told Leo XIII about it, who, with the brief Libenter agnovimus of November 15, 1887, approved the institute before it came to life on November 28, 1887 – Congregation of the Missionaries of Saint Charles. On April 12, 1889, a lay institution – St Raphael Society – with the task of providing assistance to migrants and to arouse public awareness on the phenomenon of migration, especially in ports of embarkation and disembarkation, was created.
One of St John Baptist Scalabrini missionaries, Father Joseph Marchetti, during the crossing to Brazil, was entrusted with a new-born infant by an emigrant woman who had died and on reaching São Paulo, he founded the Christopher Columbus Orphanage. He then wrote to Scalabrini “we have the fathers, but what about the mothers”. The Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of Saint Charles Borromeo, Scalabrinians, was founded by Bishop Saint John Baptist Scalabrini, in Piacenza, on October 25, 1895, and has as co-founders the siblings: venerable Father Joseph Marchetti and Blessed Assunta Marchetti.
Encouraged by Leo XIII, Scalabrini visited missionaries and migrants in the United States in 1901, and three years later visited missionaries and migrants in South America. The following year, on May 5, he sent Pius X a memorial in which he advocated the idea that a commission be established in the Holy See for the care of all migrants in the world. Worn out by the fatigues of the missionary journey, he rendered his soul to God on June 1, 1905, the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. Scalabrini’s pastoral action on behalf of migrants continued even after his death and developed, albeit amidst not a few difficulties, through the two religious Families he founded. In 1961 the Institute of the Secular Scalabrinian Missionaries, inspired by him, came into being.
On March 16, 1987, St John Paul II declared the heroic virtues of the Servant of God, Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini. That same year, Scalabrinian Sister Paolina De Angeli, suffering from a tumour declared by doctors to be malignant and incurable, was healed, and the miraculous healing was attributed to Scalabrini’s intercession. On July 7, 1997, Pope John Paul II signed the Decree by which he recognized the miracle and attributed it to the intercession of John Baptist Scalabrini and on November 9, 1997, he proclaimed him Blessed (Decree of Canonization).
The joy of being able to invoke him as Blessed lasted for 25 years. During the “Scalabrinian Year” (09/11/2021-09/11/2022), the Scalabrinian Family intensified the prayer of intercession to the Blessed founder and, finally, the grace of canonization became a reality and Scalabrini was canonized by Pope Francis, in Rome on October 9, 2022.
The Missionaries of Saint Charles Borromeo and the Missionary Sisters of Saint Charles Borromeo. The Scalabrinian Secular Missionaries and the Scalabrinian Lay Missionary Movement which also have in Saint Scalabrini the inspiration to its foundation and follows the same charisma are called to “Always let yourselves be inspired by your Founder Saint, Father of Migrants, of all Migrants. May his charism renew in you the joy of being with Migrants, of being at their service, and of doing so with faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit, in the conviction that in each one of them we encounter the Lord Jesus” (Pope Francis).
Pope Francis, who shares Saint Scalabrini’s passion for Migrants and Refugees, encourages everyone “to Welcome, to Protect, to Promote, to Integrate” each Brother and Sister, and then he proclaimed Scalabrini a Saint as an example to follow.