A seeming precursor to Pope Francis, Mother Cabrini's missionary spirit speaks to our own age
The other day I was talking to a missionary at West Point. He’s one of four from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students leading Bible studies, and renewing a Catholic community there. “Missionary” sounds a little foreign in the West—we think of missionaries to foreign lands, feeding and clothing and teaching and converting. They do some of the same here—renewing Christians in a real life of faith.
I have the faithful young man on my mind today because November 13 is the feast of Mother Francesca Saverio Cabrini. She was a missionary from Italy to the same state of New York. I like to say she was a Holy Roman New Yorker. She went about the work of making no one feel lost and alone in a new world, and did her best to keep souls from being strangers to God and the Heart of Jesus Christ.
We need missionaries in the United States to help us see hope with fresh eyes.
In September 1891 she wrote what could be a pep talk to certain college campuses, right about now: “Virtue is mocked, and we are silent; truth is trampled upon, and nothing is said.”
We need to renew our faith, to stir up in our own hearts a love of the sublime principles of our holy religion. We need to be informed by the spirit of Jesus Christ. In the true charity of His Divine Heart, we need to animate ourselves to a great enthusiasm in always proclaiming the truth. Let us not be afraid of offending those who approach us nor fear of persistently speaking the truths of the faith. No, if we know who to conform ourselves to the true, sweet, and gentle charity of Jesus Christ, which is also strong and energetic, no one will be offended, but will be won over.
Her fervent cry overflows with the desire for souls to know Jesus Christ and to love with that same love. No one would ever accuse Mother Cabrini, trans-Atlantic traveler that she was, of being low-energy.
In writing to her sisters back home—directing them was also her mission—she frequently encouraged humility, which is not an enemy of urgent action, according to God’s will. “[L]et us always humble ourselves before him at every instant of our lives. We shall be raised high above all our miseries by the same God and admitted to taste peace and tranquility.”
One can imagine, again, her looking at the world today and pointing us toward renewal. At times she almost sounds like Pope Francis, warning about the globalization of indifference, and calling us out on lukewarm Christianity, as she asks, “How can we remain cold, indifferent, and almost heartless? How can we lose ourselves in mere trifles? How can we put limits on our affection and zeal when Jesus’ interests are involved?” She reminds her sisters that they are “Missionaries of the Divine Heart! If we do not burn with love, we do not deserve to bear this title that so dignifies and raises us up and makes us great, a spectacle to the very angels of heaven.”
Elsewhere she writes
[L]et us begin to humble ourselves; let us begin to clothe ourselves with true and solid virtues. Let us begin to become fervent, true lovers of the Heart of Jesus, making reparation to Him for so much ingratitude, imploring Him for ourselves and our brothers living in an era ill-fated because it is without faith. Let us learn to be humble and make sacrifices, but true sacrifices, to the bone; that is, accompanied by true self-denial. Let us sacrifice ourselves, let us immolate ourselves for our dear brethren, who cost no less than the Blood of Jesus Christ, for these brethren, who through great ignorance, have lost the inheritance of the children of God and want to render themselves unhappy for all eternity. Let us do all in our power to snatch them away from the precipice.
About Jesus she says: “He consoles, comforts, strengthens, enlivens and sanctifies us, taking away all our misery with his infinite grace and boundless goodness.”
In and around West Point right now, in the Hudson Valley, the autumnal palette that is the leaves on the trees, is in its last days. The death scene offers the hope of new life. There’s an intimate calling, if you listen—an invitation out of misery into the light of new life in Christ.
Mother Cabrini’s letters home seem to be precursors to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si, seeing the work of the Divine Artist’s hand as an integrated whole, seeing creation as a whole. She explains about humility that “God favors and blessed humility. This extraordinary, unexpected calmness of the ocean is certainly a great grace.” (Note: It was most definitely not always that way during her journeys—she describes some extremely rough rides, with very seasick sisters.) “Oh, if only God were truly reconciled with us, if we never offended him again, never provoked his justice with our continual infidelity to grace! Let us hope in the help of our God, because of ourselves we certainly cannot stand upright, nor even worthily pronounce his most adorable name.”
She describes a “true, strong Missionary” as one with “luminous and generous charity.” She says that “truly faithful and loving souls are not discouraged. She explains at the end of another journey: “Leaning on our beloved Jesus, we were at peace even during the worst days of the terrible storm,” She urges us even today to have “great faith in the Heart of Jesus. … Supported by him, we fear nothing, knowing well that he takes singular care of us and not even a hair will be torn from us without His permission.”
So may it be. Mother Cabrini, holy Roman New Yorker, pray for us!
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is coauthor of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice, available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com . Sign up for her weekly newsletter here.