As I wrap up my visit with our confreres in the United States of America, I cannot help but think of “that venerable pilgrim who disregarded the inconveniences of his old age, and crossed the ocean urged only by the love of Christ and the fire of Charity.” With these words the editor of the magazine La Divina Provvidenza, Maddalena Albini Crosta described the missionary trip that brought Don Guanella to the shores of North America one hundred years ago, fulfilling a dream and desire that had been in his heart for many years.
He writes from Boston on December 31, 1912; “It is because of our weakness and timidity that we have not come over earlier. The desire was in my heart more than ten years ago, but I had to wait for the call from above.”
And the call came through the cardinal of Boston, His Eminence William O’Conner, who invited our saint to visit America and who welcomed him to his Archdiocese on Christmas Eve 1912, “expressing wishes that in America too, our apostolate may be established for the benefit of Italian immigrants as well as of English speaking people.” A few weeks later the Archbishop of Chicago echoed a similar invitation, “try your best to open a house for invalids and mentally handicapped persons, because the State of Illinois is not yet providing for them. It would be providential for you not to wait too long.”
To provide wings to our “venerable pilgrim who, though advanced in age, is still young in his holy zeal,” was certainly the hand carried autographed letter with which the Holy Father, Pope Pius X, introduced him to the American church. The pope writes, “Fr. Guanella undertakes this journey to explore the possibility of beginning a foundation with his sisters whose ministry is to gather mentally and physically challenged girls and ladies of every age and social background in order to care for them and look after their needs. We bear witness that these dear daughters here in Rome and anywhere else are very appreciated because of their praiseworthy ministry and obedience to the holy charism of their institute. They perform miracles of true charity.” (Pius X, Vatican City December 2, 1912)
With such an authoritative and encouraging introduction, Fr. Guanella tirelessly traveled from December 21, 1912 to February 8, 1913 from city to city; New York, Boston, Providence, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, Chicago and Buffalo. He covered a distance of 6,000 km while visiting the shepherds of various dioceses, and saw magnificent cathedrals and humble wooden chapels, parochial schools and state run institutions while encountering poor, illiterate and struggling new immigrant communities. He met with successful business people and potential benefactors, always with eyes and ears open to see the signs and to hear the voice of Providence. What kept the founder going was only one passion: to discern Gods call. Sympathizing particularly with the needy, he observed how the local church responded to their needs while searching for an open door, an opportunity, or a possible field to sow the seeds of his charism in humility; always in obedience to the spirit and answering the needs of his time.
Accompanying and guiding him along his journey was Fr. Gregori, whom Don Guanella described as “God’s instrument, a brother, almost a guardian angel.” All throughout his American pilgrimage our founder also felt the fraternal support of the missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, the religious priests and brothers founded by his friend and classmate in the Como seminary, Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini.
Let us try to capture from Fr. Guanella himself some of the most significant insights and memories of his missionary visit to America, as they are reported by La Divina Provvidenza:
This journey, planned by Providence, is going to open for our two Guanellian Congregations a new season of hope and vast horizons of ministry. It is new proof that God is blessing and assisting us by entrusting us with another immense field of apostolate. It is the lifting of another mysterious veil behind which we may see the design of Divine Providence, who has given birth to our institutions and who continues to nurture its life and growth.
We should not become too proud nor exalt ourselves. It is in these solemn moments of hope and responsibility that we consider ourselves to be small instruments, confused by our poverty and insufficiency. And yet God makes great things by using unworthy tools; in that we see the sign of His goodness and power.
We try our best to respond to God’s call; to devote ourselves to the holy cause of caring for the poor and needy with greater fervor; to grow in number, in the virtue of charity and in zeal for the benefit and salvation of our brethren.
For this reason we dare to go out and beg, telling people that their charitable donations and money are destined to support our mission projects and houses, where money is used to alleviate the misery of the many poor. They will gain high interest from above in return, because our houses of charity are God’s banks that give back huge dividends.
The charity, compassion, benevolence and fervent prayer to God of many people help us to form in ourselves an extraordinary spirit of holiness and zeal that compels us to be the channels of God’s greatness and goodness. Our best way to praise the Lord and give thanks to all those who are sustaining and helping us is to strengthen our institute with a renewed energy and tenacity overcoming all trials, expanding its presence through more homes of charity and a greater number of religious.
Energized by the warm ray of God’s blessing and surrounded by the loving support of many people, may our institute live, flourish and grow for the glory of God and the benefit of humankind.
A hundred years ago our founder, on his way back to Rome from his missionary trip to the USA, embraced the challenge of opening up his mission of charity without delay, to the vast horizon of a totally new world; a world marked by incredible opportunities, by huge tracts of land with riches hidden in the bowels of the earth, endless forests, jobs, material and technological progress, and a welcoming atmosphere of freedom with a door open to all.
As he took note of these “bright lights,” Fr. Guanella could neither ignore nor close his eyes to the dark-side of the picture of that society. Among the shadows that brought pain to his sensitive heart were the following situations:
“The dollar is on the lips and in the heart of everybody;” money tends to be the new idol that seems to push the true God out of the picture.
Public institutions, even the ones for persons with disabilities that I have visited are well organized, housing a large number of patients; “they display great equipment but lack a supernatural spark.”
A huge number of immigrants were struggling to assimilate into the new world. Poor, uneducated, unskilled people faced suffering, isolation and at times even despair.
Divorces were easy, frequent and legal. Broken families were a common phenomenon.
Other visible signs of deterioration included searching for comfort and pleasure at any cost, along with individualism, materialism, and egotism.
The clear separation of church and state kept God out of public institutions.
Migrants, when pastorally unattended, tended to lose touch with their religious and moral values.
Society was moving quickly toward a-religiosity, indifference and irrelevance to God’s presence in everyday life.
Does this scenario have anything in common with our present world and the call of the church for a New Evangelization? Fr. Guanella did not hide himself but faced the challenge of his time squarely. Indeed he did not waste time; he sent his first sisters in mission in May 1913. He also considered sending some of his Servants of Charity.
His strong Christian faith was the engine propelling him into action. To him a true believer is a fiery, zealous apostle. “How can we believe that the image of our Savior is imprinted on the forehead of the poor and not run to His aid?”
The quickly approaching 19th General Chapter is offering us Servants of Charity the opportunity not only to recall the founder’s missionary zeal, but to rekindle that flame in ourselves, our communities and our mission projects around the world. Let us intensify our prayers, begging the Lord to increase first of all our faith.
Faith in action inspired St. Guanella to cross the ocean one hundred years ago at the sunset of his life. He opened a wider missionary horizon to his religious sons and daughters and to their lay cooperators.
May this intrepid prophet and apostle of charity continue to inspire and sustain our commitment to reach out to and care for our marginalized and suffering brethren in whom we recognize the face of Jesus.
Faith blossoming in charity: that is the essential content and objective and end goal of evangelization, yesterday, today and tomorrow anywhere; in a variety of creative ways.