The “Acts” of the ordinary informational trial for Bishop Scalabrini’s Cause of Beatification (Piacenza, 1936-1940) also contain a series of little stories or anecdotes having to do with this great man. We want to present some of them now because from them emerges a lively, true-to-life, and forceful portrait of the Bishop of Piacenza.
These collected stories are important because they come from the live, firsthand testimonies of people who knew him. Such stories tell us more about a person than the best historical reconstruction, which, by its nature, is always somewhat dull.
In this brochure, we will offer a few initial snapshots presenting some features of his portrait as provided by people who knew him. Then we will present some stories or anecdotes regarding the Bishop. Finally, we will offer a collection of his sayings. Everything is taken from the official “Acts” of the “diocesan trial.”
As a rule, the editor will summarize the anecdotes but will quote the Bishop’s sayings exactly as found in the “Acts.”
Scalabrini was all of one piece, and every action of his would reveal him in his totality, as the following three eminent witnesses attest describing their first encounter with him.
Early one morning, Fr. Rinaldi (the future Scalabrinian missionary and Bishop of Rieti) presented himself to Bishop Scalabrini in Rome at the Church of San Carlo al Corso. After the usual greetings, Scalabrini asked him: “Did you say Mass yet?”. “No, Your Excellency.” And he proceeded to serve Mass, leaving the young priest with his mouth open.
Don Orione (the future Blessed Don Orione, Founder), who had given Scalabrini lodging in his community at Fontana Santa, after a “very fiery” toast was gently chided by the Bishop: “I urge you not to lose your voice!” Don Orione, who was a fiery spirit, says that this was a correction “I never ever forgot.”
Bishop Cornaggia Medici saw Scalabrini the first time in the Clementi Restaurant (at the St. Catherine Baths in the Furva Valley), as he was getting up from table, after making an ample and solemn sign of the Cross.
Let me give you the description of the Bishop given by several witnesses in their very own words. They said he had a noble appearance, a grave and dignified bearing, without stiffness, and a familiar manner with all. He was awe-inspiring when he celebrated Mass (as a rule, he assisted at another one).
He had a mystical bearing during religious functions; a warmth of sorts seemed to emanate from him. He looked like one whose thought was always fixed on God. “When you got close to him, you felt your faith increasing” (Blessed Don Orione).
He was always smiling. Besides, he had a good voice and he sang well. Contrary to a common myth, he, too, slept his seven hours, habitually, according to his valet.
When the Bishop’s body was brought from the cemetery to the Cathedral five years after his death, a very large crowd of people flocked to take part in the event, saying: “Let us go out to meet our Bishop! Here we have to get the Bishop’s opinion.”
He was often asked to be “arbitrator” by those involved in a dispute, for example, during the strike of the workers in the button-making factory in the city.
The incident that defined his vocation, namely, his meeting with a crowd of emigrants in the Milan train station, is unquestionably a historical fact and not a literary genre. In fact, he had the habit of going to the Piacenza train station to meet the train carrying the emigrants on their way to Genoa and “to greet and bless them.”
Finally, let us listen to two truly penetrating and enlightening testimonies. On was that of a mother of two priests who came to realize that the Bishop “was always happy when he went to the parishes;” the other by a Scalabrinian nun in Sao Paul, Brazil, who said: “When we had him in our house, we had the sensation of being safe from all evil.”
- Humility -
Long before St. Charles Borromeo’s humility became a part of the Scalabrinian’s coat-of-arms, it had become a part of Bishop Scalabrini’s life. He lived it, first of all, as an intimate sense of creaturehood, drawing from it all the consequences, especially by making way for others and accepting even humiliations.
According to the very words of the witnesses, he was very affable with people and humble, notwithstanding his majestic demeanor and moral superiority. He was so humble that it was a pleasure getting close to him. His humility gave him a maternal touch that tempered his regal dignity (and this testimony is not from a woman but indeed from a pastor!).
He was humble in hiding his holiness, because “he had a carefree and normal way of acting in everything and avoided all manifestations of that exterior austerity that impresses people. Hence, he did not give the impression he possessed the kind of “altar holiness” that common folk often have in mind.”
He displayed his humility in two other ways: by accepting advice from inferiors, like the time he accepted a young student’s proposal to adopt a new textbook for theology classes instead of the one chosen by the Bishop; and by graciously accepting jokes, as the following story will show.
Together with Bishop Scalabrini, quite a few priests were at Veano, where the Alberoni Seminary had its summer home. One of them was the pastor of Denavolo, who could imitate the voice and gestures of people perfectly.
After lunch, seeing that the Bishop had gone off to take a rest, his confreres easily persuaded him to imitate people, for the amusement of all present.
At the best part of the show, Bishop Scalabrini, suddenly throwing open the shutters, appeared at the window and, rather than feeling offended, laughed heartily and said: “Please, stop it; otherwise I’ll die laughing!”. Above all, he was humble in accepting humiliations.
While he was on a pastoral visit in Pianello, where he was joyously welcomed by all the people, a wretch shouted “Long live Miraglia,” provoking the dismay and annoyance of the faithful. The Bishop, instead, was indifferent to this “sour note” and with his customary smile continued with his appointments and, at the end, took part in the catechism exams. And when the pastor finished passing out the rosaries to the children, he good-naturedly said: “Fr. Pastor, will you give me one, too?”
An episode that took place in the last years of his life and was reported by the Masonic newspaper “Il Progresso” sheds more light on his humility. It seems that a poor simple woman, confined to her bed for six months because she could not move her legs, insisted that her husband have Bishop Scalabrini come visit her in hopes of a miracle. At the husband’s request, the Bishop paid her a visit and asked her to move her legs. But she answered, “I can’t.” But at his insistence, she really began to move them and after a minute or two got out of bed. In the face of this happening, husband and wife began to cry out, “miracle, miracle!” But Bishop Scalabrini kept repeating: “No, no! It’s not a miracle, because only saints perform miracles and I’m not a saint.” To keep this news “on his behalf” from spreading, he cut short the conversation with the words: “It could be hysteria.”
But we have to admit that the Bishop’s humility must have found some favor, because it was precisely the newspaper of the Piacenza Masonic Lodge that spread the news.
The most touching episode of humility is reported by a witness of high prestige, Bishop Cornaggia Medici, who said:
“I was deeply struck by his humility in revealing to me, a young priest, that he was subject to certain assaults of the flesh, which he passionately abhorred and which caused him much suffering. This genuinely and deeply edified me and enhanced in me a deeper conviction of his holiness.”
I want to conclude this first series of testimonies with one from another exemplar of humility (and in this he is truly Scalabrini’s spiritual son), namely, Bishop Massimo Rinaldi, who tells us that during his visit to Brazil in 1904, at Encantado, “Bishop Scalabrini adapted himself to everything and was always smiling and good-humored, even at table. He was satisfied with whatever was prepared for him by the cook, who is yours truly…. His preference was for the unfortunate, the poor, and people of low estate, like those he called to himself in my mission at Encantado, farm people who lived in shacks and barracks.”
And since we are in Brazil and in our own family, we offer the following beautiful testimony by another Scalabrinian Sister who gave him lodging at the Orphanage in Sao Paulo for over a month:
“Many times I myself saw the Bishop behaving humbly, especially toward the most unassuming and simple people, as if he were the most insignificant person in the house”
This last comparison has a truly Gospel-like favor.
- Meekness -
Humility of heart is the sister of meekness, or rather of goodness toward the sinner or the one who has erred. Scalabrini knew that the law is made for people and that, in the last analysis, excessive rigor is a sign of weakness. The witnesses of the trial are unanimous in celebrating his meekness or magnanimity toward the person who made a mistake.
His judgment was never one of rigor but of largess, and “even when he had to take severe measures, he went slowly and he suffered. He always tried to attenuate the fault and soften the punishment. He was never hasty or vindictive.”
One day, on one of his customary visits to the Urban Seminary, the Bishop saw that a seminarian was about to be expelled. The Bishop found out from the Rector that it is was a question of “particular friendship.” In the young seminarian’s pocket was found a poem by a seminarian of another group who was expressing a liking for him. This was a case in which the Rule called for immediate expulsion. After asking the Rector for some clarifications and reflecting on the matter a little while, the Bishop said that he did not think the Rule should be applied. The conduct of the unfortunate seminarian, he said, was not one of particular friendship; on the contrary, his seminary conduct bode well for him. And so the seminarian went back to the dormitory with his suitcase, became a priest and even a grateful witness at the trial.
During his pastoral visits, to see if certain priests recited the Breviary as they were obliged to, Scalabrini would ask to borrow the book to take a glance at what page the markers were or to recite the Breviary with them. So, one day, having recited two Nocturnes with an old priest, the Bishop was surprised to see in the margin of the book: “Hic bibitur” (here we drink)!”
Instead of obeying the marginal note, the old priest, though somewhat embarrassed, acted as though nothing had happened and began the third Nocturne. But Scalabrini stopped him: “Before going any further, hic bibitur (here we drink!).
Confused, the poor pastor tried to make excuses, but with a good-natured smile the Bishop said: “There’s nothing wrong, especially in view of your age. In fact, let us both drink together, because this doesn’t take anything away from the devout recitation of the Divine Office.”
This little story, that makes the rounds of the collective Scalabrinian memory as a colorful and witty episode, must not lose sight of the “point” of the story found in those words “especially in view of your age.” These words of the Bishop really call for a divine annotation to reveal not only their largesse but also their wisdom, that is to say, that the holy and pleasant desires of old age also need the comfort of what brings joy to the heart.
For not having taken part in the Diocesan Synod, the pastor of Groppo Visdomo was punish by the disciplinary commission in charge of the Synod and had to make a 15-day retreat. However, after making made only six days, the pastor went to the Bishop and said: “Your Excellency, what will my parishioners think of me if they see me absent for such a long time?”. The Bishop felt sorry for him and said: “OK, go back home. Try to behave and … let’s drop the matter.”
But the best story was told by Blessed Don Orione in his testimony, a story told him in Brazil by the Scalabrinian missionary, Fr. Faustino Consoni. Scalabrini’s zeal was so great that during his visit to Brazil he also thought of renewing relations with the Italian “ex priests” who he knew were present in great numbers in the City of Sao Paulo (many of them with families).
In his great zeal he even organized a retreat of sorts for them. At the opening of the retreat, which he himself preached, Scalabrini was deeply shaken by an unspeakable anguish, because he didn’t expect so many and to find them in such a pitiable condition. He didn’t know what words to use to break the ice.
While in an embarrassed silence the good Bishop kept turning his episcopal ring on his finger, as if begging it for some inspiration, he finally received the inspiration, as if from heaven:
“You see, if the pearl on my ring gets loose and falls into the mud, the pearl gets dirty, but … it always remains a precious pearl. And if I bend over and pick it up and put it in water, the mud disappears and the pearl regains its splendor… Dear brothers, we are pearls ….”
The conclusion is that he captured the whole audience from the very start and that many pearls were cleaned from the mud and regained their splendor.
- Trust in the providence -
A witness testifies that Scalabrini was totally abandoned to Divine Providence and for this reason was able to speak words full of hope, conviction and consolation. A man afire with trust in Divine Providence like Mons. Francesco Torta testifies:
“I am in a position to say that on several occasions the Servant of God confessed to me that Divine Providence had intervened in totally unexpected ways to help him cope with urgent needs. In this connection I remember that one day I went to see him to respectfully remind him of his promise to pay the expenses of the restoration of St. Peter’s Church to the tune of 17,000 lire. When I entered his office, without moving from his desk, he tossed a savings book at me, exclaiming: ‘The Lord has provided: take that filthy lucre!' The savings book contained 33,000 lire!
Another “totally unexpected way” in which Divine Providence intervened (naturally after he had invoked it with “confident prayer”) took place two days before his first missionaries left for America. He still did not have the money for their ship tickets. But punctually “the 25 big bills” arrived from an anonymous donor on the eve of the departure, from Genoa, of all places.
In 1895, on the occasion of the 8th centennial of the first Crusade, Scalabrini — as Bishop of the city in which the Crusade was first proclaimed — was invited to Clermont Ferrant in France. In the cathedral the promoters of the celebration had displayed the banners with respective coats-of-arms of the invited bishops, hence also Bishop Scalabrini’s. Lo and behold, instead of Jacob’s Ladder with an angel coming down from God and another going up to him, a crusader was depicted scaling the walls of an enemy city, a common nobleman’s coat-of-arms in France after the Crusades.
This was a promotion to which Scalabrini often returned with delighted self-deprecation and with a conclusion related to our subject:
“I never knew I was a nobleman. However, if starting big enterprises without the necessary means and bringing them to completion just with confidence and hope in God is indeed a sign of nobility, well then, I am most noble!”
Once, when he was in Rome, he met a “poor person in civilian clothes” who was shamefacedly begging. The Bishop dropped five lire into his hand. Stunned by this munificent gift and moved by the Bishop’s almost bashful gesture, the beggar whispered: “But you know: I’m a Jew.” Scalabrini whispered back to him: “But you really need it, don’t you?” When the beggar said yes, the Bishop gave him another five lire.
In the face of such generosity his master of ceremonies blurted out: “Your Excellency would do well to let me hold on to your money, because, if you he keep this up, we will have to be sent home by mail.” With a smile Bishop Scalabrini replied: “Ok, here take it if you’re afraid we’ll go broke.” And he gave him his wallet. However, trust in Divine Providence did not exempt him from doing everything possible to procure the funds needed to do good.
Scalabrini never had a penny on him because all the money he received — truly considerable! — never stayed in his hands or pockets because he was convinced that money is like blood: it will be useful only if it circulates.
He spent money for good purposes; and, what is even more interesting, he spent it with much satisfaction. Once a pastor paid the Bishop a visit during Christmas time and saw him at his desk taking a calling card and a bill of 100 lire and, with a big smile, enclosing everything in an envelope to send it together with his greetings. That kind of charity was his gain and like his Christmas bonus.
He was especially sensitive to noble families fallen on bad times. He was able to garner as much as 200,000 lire for some of them, like the families of Federico and Augusto L. This was money he received from the former Duke of Parma, Roberto of Borbone, father of Zita, empress of Austria.
To all Christians, especially to priests, the Bishop would warmly recommend the work of charity of visiting the sick. Naturally he put it into practice personally and heroically, as we shall see.
He put it into practice personally and with much trouble, especially on behalf of the so-called illustrious “far-away ones” who had arrived at the end of their lives (and even his care for the “far-away ones” — from the Visconti Venosta ministers, to DePretis, all the way to the fiery anticlerical Carolippo Guerra — has a rich harvest in the “Acts.”).
And when he was not able to visit the sick person personally, he would send what was dearest to his heart, namely, a cross given him by Pius IX, accompanied by his blessing.
Let’s glean more stories.
One day Scalabrini went to visit Cesare Tedeschi, 75 years of age, who was supposed to be seriously sick. The doctor, his family and the sick person himself thought the end was really near. Instead the Bishop reassured everybody, saying: “Stay calm: Cesare will reach 90 years of age.” Those words cheered up everybody, especially the sick man, who proceeded to get well.
When the old man would become indisposed, he did not get over-worried, because the expiration date prophesied by Scalabrini was still a long way off. In fact, the prophecy erred on the side of excess, because Cesare died at the ripe old age of 92.
The Bishop’s heroic practice of visiting the sick is testified to by the following two episodes, among others.
During the years 1890-1895 there lived on Via Diretta (the present Via XX Settembre) a poor sick man who, though very ill, refused to receive any priest whatsoever. In fact, to anyone who mentioned this he would show the revolver he kept on his bedside table, ready to fire on any priest who might come to disturb him.
When the Bishop heard about the situation, he said: “I will go myself!”. In fact, he went to see him and so impressed him with his meekness and courage that the poor fellow broke down in tears and was converted from his ways.
Again: during the bloody events of May 1898, during which even Piacenza paid its tribute of blood, Scalabrini was informed that the son of Mr. A., municipal secretary of Rivergaro, had been seriously injured. Fearing that, because of the turmoil and the frequent cross fire, no priest could get to him, the Bishop himself went to visit the injured man and stayed at his bedside till he died.
The following little story, told by Bishop Scalabrini to the rector of the urban seminary, will conclude this topic.
Once, in Genoa, two young men of the St. Vincent De Paul Society seeking alms for the poor arrived before the door of a rich man.
As they were eavesdropping, they realized that the rich man was quarreling animatedly with his housekeeper because she had not used the matches twice, turning them upside down. After seeing the stinginess of the man, the two young men were about to leave. But something inspired them to present themselves anyhow.
After hearing what the two young people had to say, the rich man made them wait a moment or two and then came back with the munificent offering of 3000 lire!
Before this magnanimous gesture, the two young men were stunned and, in their youthful sincerity, had to confess the “rash judgment” they had entertained against him because of the argument with his housekeeper over the matches.
“So, you see, Sir, not only are we going back grateful but also very confused.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the man said, “I’ve already forgiven you.”
And, as he was accompanying them to the door, he whispered to them:
“But remember that in order to give, one must also know how to save. That’s the way to be helped by God if you want to do any good,” Bishop Scalabrini concluded.
- Charity -
The “Acts” abundantly attest to the celebrated episodes of Bishop Scalabrini’s charity, like the ones that occurred during the 1879 famine: the sale of a pair of horses given him for his pastoral visits, and the pawning of the precious chalice given him by Pius IX. And let’s not forget, Mons Torta added, “that same pair of horses was sold twice.”
Reading the testimonies dealing with this chapter on charity is a truly moving experience. The witnesses, too, feel especially moved, like this surveyor who candidly states: “Scalabrini was always full of charity during his entire episcopate. However, during the terrible winter of 1879-1880, he went into a frenzy: he sold his horses and pawned his golden chalice; and his episcopal residence became one of the centers for the feeding of the poor of the city.”
From the “Acts” we learn that Scalabrini initiated certain charitable practices in his diocese, like the pastoral visit to prisoners in jail, during which “he took care of all of them as a group and also as individuals, going personally to the cells in certain pitiful situations and giving help in kind and in money” or “the touching Easter liturgy for the prisoners in the presence of even the authorities.”
We also read that, after washing the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday, he would invite them to a lunch, during which he himself served them, that he was assiduous in visiting the sick in the city, and that even during his pastoral visits “he regularly visited the sick.”
He expressed his charity in material and spiritual giving and in forgiveness. Here are some stories.
During his visit to Bardi, the Bishop noticed that, among other needs, the people needed a city hospital, given the distance of the city from the nearest hospital. So he urged the citizens to build one. He himself contributed the first … brick to the tune of 15,000 lire, a considerable sum at that time.
Among his works of charity there are also his visits to the prisoners in jail. The person who accompanied him there for several years reports that in 1898 there was a famous Socialist deputy among the prisoners. Leaving the other ninety-nine sheep, the Bishop preferred to go looking for this one. But the lawyer absolutely refused to talk with him in his cell. Not even at the urging of the prison staff did he relent.
Then, leaving the group of authorities, the Bishop went to the door of the cell and tried repeatedly to speak to the inmate. Finally, the poor prisoner allowed him to enter.
When the Bishop came out, he whispered to his secretary: “How good the Lord is!”.
Later on, the meaning of this phrase became clear when this same lawyer would occasionally ask to speak to the Bishop, and the latter would gladly accede to his request. When Todeschini was released from prison, he was seen going to visit Bishop Scalabrini at his episcopal residence.
In the “Acts” we find a rich anthology dealing with Scalabrini’s forgiving charity. For example, the forgiveness and reinstatement of the priest, Don Mizzi, which perplexed and surprised certain narrow-minded people. Or, for example, the forgiveness of that wretch, nicknamed “Tredici,” who during the brawls following the prohibition against religious funerals for King Victor Emmanuel not only insulted the Bishop but also spat on him. Scalabrini’s forgiveness was so magnanimous that, when “Tredici” became a decrepit old man and his King’s successor left him out in the cold, the Bishop he had spat upon paid for a place for him at Piacenza’s Victor Emmanuel Nursing Home, of all places!
Scalabrini was able to offer his forgiveness to Don Albertario (Director of “L’Osservatore Cattolico,” the newspaper of the intransigent Catholics, which had savagely slandered him and made him suffer grievously) when the latter was put in prison for the 1898 events. In fact, the Bishop was able to get permission for him to wear the cassock and say Mass in jail. Finally, Scalabrini took advantage of all his friends and powers-that-be to have the priest freed from jail.
When Don Albertario went to Piacenza to thank Scalabrini for what he had done to get him free, the meeting between the two men was quite emotional.
To those who asked Albertario how in the world he had the courage to present himself to the Bishop after all he had done to him, the answer was quite simple: “I knew who Bishop Scalabrini is.”
In the Scalabrini Museum of the Motherhouse in Piacenza we have the two volumes of “A Year in Jail,” written by Albertario during his detention. In the first volume, above the metal badge with the prisoner’s number is this dedication: “Eternally grateful to His Excellency the Most Reverend Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini – Don Davide Albertario.”
- The pastoral visits -
This distinctive, not to say primary, aspect of Scalabrini’s pastoral ministry is the one most attested to in the depositions of the witnesses.
From the testimony two things become very clear: these pastoral visits required an extraordinary amount of work and effort; and they were pastoral in nature, in no way juridical or formal.
Bishop Scalabrini called the pastoral visit “the gravest and dearest of his responsibilities.” The mother of two pastors in Fiorenzuola said that “Bishop Scalabrini is always happy when he goes into the parishes.” Another witness put it this way: “The Bishop got so much satisfaction out of the pastoral visits because he was meeting simple souls, hearing the confessions of the men and women, and because it was a joy for him to come into contact with simple priests, so good, so concerned for their eternal salvation, and to admire their poor and humble life.”
The pastoral visit was certainly a great event for everybody – the direct contact with their Shepherd and what a Shepherd! – but I would say that it was a great event especially for those parishes that had never seen the Bishop, so much so that in Scopolo, lost somewhere up in the Apennine Mountains, “someone thought that the Holy Spirit had descended!”
The fruits of the “sacred visit” were those peculiar to a genuine Christian life, fruits one can recognize in this simple fact, recalled by the teacher at Scopolo: “That the Bishop’s word produced good results is obvious from the fact that, over the period of a few years, seven priests came out of our parish of 400 people.”
And now a few little stories.
During his third pastoral visit the Bishop stopped for four days on the Penna Mountain (5200 feet) “comforting with his word and works of charity” the 300 workers who, in conditions of extreme poverty, were working there nine months a year gathering wood to make coal out of it.
In the factory of Cav. Enrico de Thierry – a Protestant Scalabrini will convert to the Catholic faith – a miracle took place.
It was 1902. During the summer Bishop Scalabrini was there on a pastoral here when a fire broke out in the desiccator of the plant for the distillation of wood belonging to the Gandiani, Girardi and Berni Company.
There was great fear among the townsfolk gathered at the fire when the church bells and the factory siren sounded the alarm because they were afraid the fire would also engulf other warehouses in the vicinity. There was another danger: nearby were also the storage tanks of alcohol obtained from the distillation of the wood.
Cav. Thierry, administrative director of the company, was informed.
Now, that very evening the Cavaliere had hosted the Bishop. As soon as he learned of the disaster, the Bishop ran to the factory, where the workers had already assembled, helpless to control the fire. He prayed and made the people pray and then blessed the fire.
At once, to everybody’s amazement not only did the flames die out, but, after a half hour, everyone went back to work. We must remember there had been much material on fire which obeyed the Bishop’s command to die out.
At once the story of the miracle spread far and wide like wildfire.
Scalabrini was one who was satisfied with little, and, like his model St. Charles, felt at home with the poverty of the pastors in the mountains. Let us choose some stories.
At Centenaro, the grandmother of the pastor was worried because she didn’t know what to offer the Bishop that might be to his liking and was decrying the fact that in the mountains “we don’t have the conveniences of the city.”
The Bishop answered: “Do you have milk? Do you have butter? Do you have eggs? That’s more than enough!”
Another witness says: “I never heard that Scalabrini ever complained about the treatment he was receiving during his pastoral visits; rather, he was always satisfied with whatever was prepared for him. I especially remember the time an old uncle of mine, the pastor of Montecatini, an unceremonious man, prepared only two eggs and a fish of very poor quality: the Bishop seemed very pleased with everything.”
All the witnesses who are also priests recall the Synodal rule according to which meals prepared on the occasion of pastoral visits or other sacred functions were to be limited to two courses and one kind of wine. Even regarding lodging, the Bishop was very accommodating. He often relished telling the story of the time a pastor in the Val di Nure improvised a bedroom for the Bishop by separating a room regularly used as a hen-house with a divider. The Bishop caught on right away when he received the visit and company of other little guests, even though the room still smelled of creosol! In fact, he had the rooster singing right next to his pillow. But the music had begun much earlier when the animals, sensing the arrival of the light, began to move around and greet the new day.
Even during pastoral visits the Bishop was faithful to his daily exercise of meditation. His secretary also had the task of looking after his meditation book or, better, his “little book,” because circumstances did not allow him to carry around large volumes.
Fr. Preti, who was a diocesan priest before becoming a Scalabrinian missionary, recalls that Scalabrini was always trying to go off to a quiet place for his meditation, “as happened one day at Cogno S. Savino, where I found him hidden in the sacristy, in which he had closed himself to make his meditation, while outside preparations for the sacred function were at fever pitch.”
Regarding his zeal, the same priest, Fr. Preti — who was then on the staff of missionaries preparing his pastoral visit — tells the following story.
One day Scalabrini was at the Parish of Pradovera for the pastoral visit. In the afternoon of that day he was supposed to go to the Parish of Cogno S. Bassano, about three miles of mountain roads away. As he was leaving, a terrible storm broke out, accompanied by a torrential rain. We priests begged him to postpone his journey or, at least, wait till the storm ended. But he didn’t want to hear of it and left under a rain that came down in buckets. He was all taken up with the thought that lots of people were waiting for him in the next town.
Naturally, even on that occasion he was able to say with a smile and with no hint of annoyance what he had said in a similar situation in the town of Olgisio: “Enough water fell on me to drive a mill.”
During his visit to his missionaries in Brazil, his style doesn’t change; on the contrary, one has the impression he has become much more gracious.
When the Bishop arrived in Sao Paulo, the Benedictine Abbot, Michael Cruz, insisted that he stay at the abbey. But Scalabrini answered: “Let me stay in a shack but with my sons.”
The inconveniences down there were even more onerous than those in the Apennines, at least as regards the enormous distances, the winter season, which was also the rainy season, and especially the exacerbation of his ailment, which made it hard for him to ride horseback. Then, according to Fr. Antonio Serraglia, when he could not longer stand riding horseback, they would put him on an improvised cart, drawn by two or three horses. In this way, he was able to visit the various chapels.
On a day of pouring rain, the inhabitants of a village in Rio Grande do Sul (L.C. St. Lawrence), among whom were many people from Piacenza, knowing that he was headed toward a neighboring parish, went out to meet him and led him to their wooden chapel.
What a heart-rending scene that was: to be able to see their own bishop, at the ends of the earth, to hear his comforting word, and to be able to ask him for a priest, because there “they were living and dying like animals.”
The Bishop himself was moved to tears and promised them a missionary, a promise he kept.
Scalabrini, who had the missionary vocation to the unbelievers in his blood, would relish telling the story of the experience he had in Brazil the time he had a meeting with the tribal chieftain and his court in a village in the middle of the jungle.
Even though it was the chieftain who had requested the visit, Scalabrini advanced into the virgin forest with holy fear. To make an impression on the savage, he had donned the most showy sacerdotal vestments and had recommended himself especially to his holy protectors, because he had heard that those savages had not always been good savages.
The meeting was enthusiastic and, before leaving, the Bishop had to promise he would bring the Pope two silver cruets belonging … to a Jesuit missionary and would send them a missionary. Which he did in the person of Fr. Simoni.
- Purity -
Everyone agrees on the heroicity of this virtue of his, whose contrary tendency seems to have been his “dominant passion". In the exercise of this virtue he really leaves us somewhat perplexed, because his extreme modesty seems to have been somewhat excessive.
A witness says that, “when helping him put on his leggings and footwear for pontifical High Mass”, one had to make sure not to uncover his ankle too much nor to raise his cassock more than necessary. When he got sick in Pomaro during a pastoral visit, his friends advised the doctor who came to attend him: “Be as considerate as you can and uncover him as little as you can, given his sensitivity.”
We know that his aversion to being treated was the reason why, for many years, he hid the ailment that was tormenting him, namely, hydrocele, a condition which when operated on would take him to his grave.
When he could not do without the doctor, he would use this little ruse. He would attribute to others the ailments he himself suffered and ask the doctors what remedies he might suggest to them. This he did with the doctor on board the ship during his voyage to and from Brazil.
To his valet who wanted to assist at his surgery, he responded curtly: “You, young man, will stay outside: if I need you, I’ll call you.”
The engineer, Mr. Martini, the assistant director of the work of restoration of the Cathedral, has this testimony:
“During the work on the Cathedral I and some bricklayers, noticed that during the day the Bishop would go from his office to his bedroom to relieve himself near the night table. I felt duty-bound to inform his staff, and from that day the window facing the Cathedral remained always closed.”
They tell the story that during his first years as bishop (let’s not forget the first impression of the people of Piacenza who kept saying: “How good-looking our Bishop is, how good-looking he is!”) a certain woman would go to see him for insignificant things. So he would come out with a napkin in hand to give her a hint to cut it short.
Those close to the Bishop tell us that, during his first years as a bishop, another woman, a certain Bordini, a serious and honorable person, a woman of charity, would often ask to see him, and he would receive her amiably because of the help she provided him with. However, once he imagined that this frequency of visits might not make a good impression, he arranged that from then on his staff, respectfully of course, would no longer let her in.
One of the reason he refused to become cardinal – this is the opinion of more than one witness – was also the worldly protocol that surrounded the “purple,” a worldliness which his reserved character abhorred.
In this connection, another witness tells the following story.
In Paris Bishop Scalabrini had to take part in a diplomatic dinner.
According to protocol, all, including ecclesiastics, were expected to offer their arm to the Lady assigned to them and in this way enter the dining room. But when the moment came, the Bishop, with a prudent ploy, instead of offering his arm to the Lady, lowered his arms as a sign of surrender, made a little bow, and graciously indicated she should enter alone. And she became the object of more attention in this way than if she were leaning on the arm of her knight.
We have to say that the Bishop genuinely savored this incident, because he never finished telling his friends about it. Dr. Marchesi says that, regarding the way women should be received or approached, Scalabrini once told him: “Dear Doctor, you must approach women with a firebrand, like St. Thomas.”
And, since the doctor thought this was a bit too much, Scalabrini insisted: “Exactly, with a firebrand.” And he accompanied his words also with his arm. (At this point, we must explain that St. Thomas in this anecdote is the one from Aquino, who, as a young man in his castle, was tempted by a naked woman sent him by his family to dissuade him from his religious vocation and had to defended himself by taking a firebrand from the lighted fireplace.)
If we wanted at all costs to find a defect in our hero, this excessive rigor might border on a defect rather than his tobacco habit or that — of dubious certification or interpretation — of sometimes tinting his hair. But please note: the tobacco was “of the poorest quality, “the “Macuba or Macubino” brand, to be exact..
Besides, his master of ceremonies testified that he “snuffed” only after celebrating Mass, as a thanksgiving of sorts!
Fom the Acts of the Beatification Process we can put together an anthology of “golden sayings” of our Founder, which throw light on the holiness of the great Bishop of Piacenza. This is the second installment of Bishop Scalabrini’s sayings. The first one contained sayings taken from his writings.
1. During extraordinary situations he would say:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Leave me alone so I can pray for light and divine help.keyboard_double_arrow_right
2. In the face of opposition he would say:
keyboard_double_arrow_left This is a good sign: the devil doesn’t want this work. Which means that God wants it. So, right on!keyboard_double_arrow_right
Your Institute (of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart) will not die, because it was born at the feet of the Cross. Nor would I have so protected it,
if I had not been
aware of this.keyboard_double_arrow_right
3. Following are some of Scalabrini’s economic principles:
Give God 10 and he will
give you back 100keyboard_double_arrow_right
keyboard_double_arrow_left With credits you don’t do anything. With debts, instead, you accomplish somethingkeyboard_double_arrow_right
You mustn’t worry about how much money you happen to have: spend with discretion, with prudence,
and then rely on divine Providencekeyboard_double_arrow_right
You must never desist from doing good works for fear you won’t be able to meet expenses, just as long as you use
prudence and frugalitykeyboard_double_arrow_right
Don’t hold on to money;
distribute as much as you havekeyboard_double_arrow_right
keyboard_double_arrow_left Hands full and pockets emptykeyboard_double_arrow_right
4. Following are some of Scalabrini’s political principles:
Let us save souls; and let the rest
take care of itselfkeyboard_double_arrow_right
I would even get on the devil’s shoulders
if I were sure he would bring me
to save a soulkeyboard_double_arrow_right
5. When necessary, he would scold his friend, Bishop Bonomelli.
If you carry on in this way, they will take away
even your baptismkeyboard_double_arrow_right
Beautiful! First act
and then think!keyboard_double_arrow_right
6. To the famous writer, Antonio Fogazzaro, who had gently hinted at his long wait due to Scalabrini’s stay in the chapel, the good bishop answered with a tinge of friendly irony:
keyboard_double_arrow_left What do you expect! We have to pray even for those who don’t pray.keyboard_double_arrow_right
7. To one who objected that strict fasting is bothersome he rejoined:
If oil bothers you,
skip the meal.keyboard_double_arrow_right
8. Here is a deeply theological maxim, that affirms that the soul is naturally Christian:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Nothing is more natural than the supernatural.keyboard_double_arrow_right
9. His obedience to the Pope touches on the paradoxical:
keyboard_double_arrow_left If, the Holy Father commanded me to walk on my hands upside down, I would try my best to do so.keyboard_double_arrow_right
10. Regarding the new poor, namely, the fallen nobility:
keyboard_double_arrow_left When one is born poor, habitual poverty is less felt. That’s why I feel sorry for families that have fallen on bad times.keyboard_double_arrow_right
11. The refrain of humility:
We must always be
afraid of ourselves.keyboard_double_arrow_right
12. When speaking casually, Scalabrini loved to speak in his dialect from the Como Region. And his words would take on different colors:
Andé là che un bel bast
ve lo misskeyboard_double_arrow_right
(Now go on; I’ve saddled you with a pretty good pack)
He would say this sympathetically after a difficult job of persuading somebody to accept an appointment.
Andé un po’ pu pulitkeyboard_double_arrow_right
(Be a little cleaner)
Said as a good-natured fraternal correction to the bishop of Parma, who was rather unkempt.
E mi consùli tutkeyboard_double_arrow_right
(I am all consoled)
A liberating confession at the thought that even St. Alphonsus died with some debts.
Me piasi no quela vitakeyboard_double_arrow_right
(I don’t like that lifestyle)
Referring to the lifestyle of Apostolic Nuncio to which Leo XIII wanted to appoint him: ostensibly because it was too worldly and profane but really because he preferred pastoral life.
El miga anche trop es Vescov de Piacenza?keyboard_double_arrow_right
(Isn’t being Bishop of Piacenza more than enough?)
Humble and humorous self-deprecation when they wanted to make him Nuncio, or Cardinal of Venice or of Ravenna.
Paghi mi, paghi mi!keyboard_double_arrow_right
(I’ll pay, I’ll pay!)
He would say affably to the seminary superiors on behalf of needy seminarians. Here the dialect is translating the Gospel formula: Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
13. One of Scalabrini’s strongest and expressively most powerful sayings, which alludes to the piercing of Christ’s side with the spear:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Woe betide the priest who makes a hole in the Host by celebrating sacrilegiously.keyboard_double_arrow_right
14. Here is a charming example of how to deal with a doctor who was rather allergic to the Sacrament of the Sick:
keyboard_double_arrow_left You have saved my body and I come to save your soul.keyboard_double_arrow_right
15. But he too was preparing himself for death:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Forget the (cardinal’s) purple: I have to prepare myself for death! My purple will be the funeral pall.keyboard_double_arrow_right
16. Blessed are those persecuted for justice’ sake:
Haven’t they smashed your windows yet? It means you haven’t done your duty.keyboard_double_arrow_right
He smilingly addressed these words to a pastor. In that smile was all the understanding of the fragility of that window that is man. Whereas in this other saying he stigmatizes excessive rigorism:
Noli esse nimis justus!keyboard_double_arrow_right
(Don’t try to be too just!)
Besides giving it a tone of affability, the use of Latin in this case enunciates a general norm.
I’m sure he will come back because he had a good mother who is now praying for him in heaven.keyboard_double_arrow_right
He would say of the apostate priest, Don Mizzi. And, in fact, that is what happened.
17. This he said against the “non-expedit” imposed on the Italian Catholics of the time, namely, the prohibition of Catholics to elect or be elected.
keyboard_double_arrow_left How in the world can you expect good laws to come forth if good deputies are not sent to Parliament?keyboard_double_arrow_right
18. Just like St. Charles (according to his biographer Giussani):
He doesn’t even leave
the saints alonekeyboard_double_arrow_right
19. Referring to the clergy of Piacenza who, at the beginning of his episcopate, still believed that bringing back the Pope’s temporal power was possible and useful:
I know I’ve come to a
land of dreamerskeyboard_double_arrow_right
The following saying recalls St. Augustine’s words: “Unity in what is necessary, freedom in doubt, charity in all things.”:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Of course, it is not enough to be intransigent; one must be most intransigent, but using charity, tookeyboard_double_arrow_right
20. To those who water down the radicalism of the Gospel:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Would it perhaps be a strange thing for a Bishop to die on straw when our Lord was born on it and later died on the Cross?keyboard_double_arrow_right
21. Here is a vivid testimony of an altar boy of Scalabrini while pastor of St. Bartholomew’s in Como:
keyboard_double_arrow_left He would call me his ‘little rascal,’ and he wanted me to be a priest but I didn’t have the vocation.keyboard_double_arrow_right
22. He would give advice to children on how to save their souls:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Remember, my child: your soul belongs to you. I’ll help you save it, but you’re the one who must save it.keyboard_double_arrow_right
23. Finally, he would often tell Sisters:
keyboard_double_arrow_left Keep your tongue in your mouth, because prudence is never enough!keyboard_double_arrow_right
- A letter from the author -
“The day of the Lord” is fast approaching. November 9, 1997, will be a historic date for the religious Family of Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini. May it mark the beginning of good things for the Congregation, the Church and our Mission to the migrants and refugees.
To whet your appetite for things Scalabrinian, I thought of sending you Fr. Stelio Fongaro’s beautiful “Anecdotes and Sayings of Bishop Scalabrini.” Sit down and read them. They read well. You can start from the beginning and go to the end in 20 minutes or pick and choose anyone of the stories and sayings and find joy, peace, serenity and good humor in them. They have a Franciscan flavor; they’re full of beauty, innocence, simplicity and love. Some of the anecdotes are indeed thought-provoking; they leave one speechless. Try them; you’ll like them.
If you need leaflets, prayer cards, biographies, large and small, in English, Italian, or Spanish, on our Founder, please contact our Provincial Beatification Office. Ask and you shall receive.
Sincerely yours in our Blessed Founder,
Fr. Gino Dalpiaz, C.S
Migrantes is a Spanish language publication focused on the shared interest in migration and human mobility in order to provide real perspective to the phenomenon of how and why people move, and the work of Scalabrinian missionaries around the world to assist and help migrants.