As we celebrate the solemn feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe today, we remember the saints, the ones who teach us to recognize Jesus as Our Lord and King.
My father taught American history and had a special interest in the history of immigrants to our nation. I am generally not much interested in museums (would rather be outdoors in a beautiful national park than browsing through them), but I did very much enjoy visiting the museum at Ellis Island in New York/New Jersey. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, nearly 12 million immigrants were processed through this receiving center, shaping the history and character of our nation. The museum did an excellent job of helping visitors understand what it was like for those coming to America through this famous harbor.
Although the history has been sometimes romanticized, it was certainly no bed of roses for most of our immigrant ancestors. Many of them arrived in crushing poverty – a poverty almost unimaginable to our modern generation of very affluent citizens. On top of that, they were often despised by the Americans already present, for their very poverty, illiteracy, and inability to speak the language. Whether it was the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Poles – most faced these same severe obstacles when they arrived. In order to make their way in a sometimes unwelcoming land, the Church and her saints played an important role in providing both material and spiritual assistance. Especially significant in the history of the Church in America is Mother Frances Cabrini. As a naturalized citizen, she is the first American citizen to be canonized. Hers is an astonishing story of overcoming countless obstacles with the grace of God by putting her complete trust in Him.
She was small, frail, and sickly, and so was not able to follow her dream of serving as a missionary to China. But she didn’t give up on that dream. The Pope encouraged her to go “not to the East but to the West.” And so it was that she sailed to America to assist immigrants, especially her beloved fellow Italian immigrants. She had founded a religious community to do just that work. When she arrived, the local bishop was not immediately supportive, but she pursued her work and won many over. Her work took her from New York to Chicago and in the 28 years she persevered before eventually succumbing to malaria at age 67, she founded 67 schools, orphanages, convents, and hospitals in the United States and beyond.
The story behind her founding of Columbus Hospital in Chicago, one of her early efforts, is instructive. She started her apostolate caring for orphans. Thus when asked to open a hospital there, she resisted, protesting that she didn’t know anything about health care. She then had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a dream, tending to the sick, who told her “I am doing the work you refused to do.” Mother Cabrini got the message and surrendered to the Lord’s request. That was her saintliness: obedience to the Lord who made it possible to accomplish whatever mission He chose for her.
I was fascinated to read Mother’s own words about the difficult and even perilous journey across the Atlantic that so many of our immigrant ancestors endured (quoted from the Magnificat magazine entry from November 13th, her feast day, in a letter to her sisters).
The omnipotent hand of God is at work; and, whether we want to or not, we must submit. Of the many passengers … very few remain on deck; … Woe to whoever dares to confront the situation! The best thing to do is to remain undercover on deck and enjoy the fresh air—even in the rain, if it should fall.
Last night, I remained half-dressed to be prepared to save myself and the sisters because a storm was threatening; but the good God who watches over his spouses protected us. The steamer kept on pitching and rolling from one side to the other all through the night. Then, this morning I arose early to go on deck to see this rare sight. How splendid the ocean seems with its magnificent motion! What swelling! What foam! If you could only see the waves! What an enchanting sight to behold! No one can stand at the prow because the waves cross the deck at every moment. At the stern, one feels comfortable; and it is here, lying on a deck chair, that I am writing to you as well as I can. One single, mighty wave could engulf us all in a moment; but he who created the sea and the waves, and who commands them to rise as high as mountains, will protect his beloved creatures, especially his dear spouses.
God loved us before he created the seas, which he ordained for us to use and to enjoy. The good God has loved us from all eternity. Let us love him and serve him with joy for the few brief days we have to live. If all of you were only with me now, crossing the ocean, you would exclaim with me, “How great, how loving, how wonderful is God in his works!” But the ocean of grace, my daughters, that God showers on us every hour of our life, is far superior to anything in nature. Even the splendor of the firmament is eclipsed by the graces with which God enriches his beloved spouses.
Mother Cabrini, pray for us!