Six lessons on Catholic education from the life and work of St. Frances Cabrini

(Gregory A. Shemitz | CNS photo)

Editor’s note: This homily was preached for the Mass during the day of professional development for the staff of the Catholic Schools Office of the Archdiocese of Detroit, Nov. 13, 2019, the liturgical memorial of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. This article first appeared in Catholic World Report.

By a happy coincidence, as we meet for this staff development initiative, this is also the day on which the Church in the United States honors the memory of the indomitable St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. Of course, I am then reminded one of the many insightful, wise sayings of Pope John Paul II: “A coincidence is what a believer calls Divine Providence.” I like to say that I grew up in Madre Cabrini’s shadow because, as a boy in grammar school, I played in a park in Newark, New Jersey, named for her and in which a statue of her still graces its entrance.

For those of you not too familiar with this saint, permit me to rehearse but a few of the more salient elements of her life story.

Francesca Cabrini was born in 1850 in a small village near Milan. As a young girl, she was very much taken by the stories of missionaries and wanted to join a missionary order. Plagued by poor health, she was denied admission to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, who had taught her and through whom she had gained her teaching certificate.

Undaunted, Francesca founded her own religious community, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, having gathered around her seven young women. With equal parts of prayerfulness and resourcefulness, she surfaced people willing to contribute to her new community with their time, treasure and talent. Her vision for the new institute was that they would be missionaries to China, for which she sought and obtained an audience with Pope Leo XIII to gain his blessing (it seems it was quite simple to get access to the Pope in those days). To her surprise and probable disappointment, Leo told her: “Not to the East, but to the West.” His goal for her and her Sisters was that they would establish a beachhead in the United States to provide pastoral care for the burgeoning population of Italian immigrants, who were not great Catholics when they reached Ellis Island and became even worse after a while in the anti-Catholic environment of nineteenth-century America.

In New York City, she established schools, hospitals and orphanages; her outreach extended to such far-flung American cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Denver, Los Angeles, Omaha, St. Louis, and Seattle. Her work also brought her renown worldwide, with requests for her to open schools in Europe, Central and South America. Her love and respect for the United States was so strong that she became a naturalized citizen in 1909. She traversed the Atlantic Ocean 23 times — quite remarkable for a woman who was terrified of sea travel! By the time of her death in 1917, she had established 67 institutions — one for each year of her life.

She did her great work for Christ and His Church out of a sincere conviction that God willed it and, that if He willed it, He would provide the means to accomplish His will.

Her reputation for sanctity was so great that Pope Pius XII canonized her in 1946, thus making her the first American citizen to be named a saint. In 1950, he declared her Patroness of Immigrants.

Mother Cabrini’s remains are entombed in the altar of her national shrine in New York City’s Fort Tryon Park; well, not her heart, which was sent back to Italy! That shrine is but a five-minute walk from The Cloisters Museum (part of the Metropolitan Museum network), which houses the most magnificent collection of medieval religious art and artifacts. For years, I have delighted in giving tours of The Cloisters to Catholic school children and then capping the day by offering Holy Mass for them over Mother Cabrini’s holy body.

You may have heard that some months ago, a process was established by Mayor DiBlasio’s wife to nominate women who had made important contributions to life in New York City. The hands-down winner was Mother Cabrini. Will you be surprised to learn that the will of the people was coopted by the Mayor’s wife and the other secularists who run the City? Interestingly, Governor Mario Cuomo mounted his white steed to come to the rescue by declaring that he would take responsibility for erecting a monument to our saint of the day. Given his less-than-pious proclivities, I suspect it was Italian sensibilities more than Catholic ones that were offended by the snub. It likewise gave him the chance to engage in yet another confrontation with the Mayor. I imagine that Mother Cabrini is probably not exactly ecstatic with having Cuomo for a defender. At any rate, as the saying goes, God can indeed “write straight with crooked lines.”

We know that when the Church presents us with saints for veneration, she also does so because she wants us to take them for emulation. Therefore, what are some lessons we as Catholic educators should take from this holy and valiant woman? Let me offer six for your consideration.

First, we can suppose that she wasn’t exactly thrilled when Leo XIII upset her plans to evangelize the Orient. However, as a loyal daughter of the Church, she followed his counsel and God blessed her apostolate a hundred-fold. Sometimes, we have to believe that God does have a better plan — something beyond our present ability to see or comprehend.

Second, she had an indefatigable trust in Divine Providence. She was a penniless immigrant among penniless immigrants and yet founded 67 institutions in the course of relatively short life. She conducted no feasibility studies but knew, intuitively, what was unfeasible — namely, that a new generation of Italians would be unevangelized and uncatechized. That could never have been God’s intention; therefore, she incarnated St. Paul’s maxim, “Caritas Christi urget nos” (The love of Christ compels us; 2 Cor 5:14). She was no reckless dreamer, but she would have been horrified to witness hundreds of parishes being built in the 1970s — and until the present day — with no school as part of the program. Which leads us to the next lesson.

Third, although it is unlikely that she had read any of the pastoral letters of the American bishops who preceded her, she certainly embodied the spirit of so many of them. Immediately comes to mind the assertion of Archbishop John J. Hughes of New York: “The days have come, and the place, in which the school is more necessary than the church.” Or, that of Bishop John Lancaster Spaulding of Peoria: “Without parish schools, there is no hope that the Church will be able to maintain itself in America.” Closer to our own time, Pope Paul VI, in his bicentennial message to the Church in the United States declared that “the strength of the Catholic Church in America is in her Catholic schools.”

I would suggest further that it is no accident that almost every canonized saint of our nation was a promoter of Catholic education: Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Katharine Drexel, Mother Theodore Guérin; Mother Rose-Phillipine Duchesne — and, oh yes, one man: John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. It is not only our privilege but our bounden duty to accept their legacy and to build on it.

Fourth, so often we hear that today parents cannot afford our schools any longer. Here are a few of my responses to what is supposed to be a conversation-stopper.

A few moments ago, I made reference to the “penniless” immigrants of Mother Cabrini’s day. I like to ask how it is that penniless immigrants built our Catholic institutions and that the most affluent Catholic population in the history of the Church cannot maintain them? Immediately, my own Ukrainian grandmother comes to mind. In the midst of the Great Depression, she was raising three children by herself and working under intolerable conditions for about five dollars a week – yet she gave a dollar a week to her parish. Years later, I asked her, “Grandma, how could you afford to give 20% of your paltry salary to the Church?” Her reply: “If we didn’t do it, who would?” You see, that is the answer of faith. Our problems in the contemporary Church are not financial; they are faith-related. One of the most embarrassing statistics thrown in our faces is that Catholics in this country give the least of any other religious group – although they have the highest standard of living. That realization prompted one of my boyhood pastors to chide the congregation around 1962: “Catholics are for the birds — cheap, cheap, cheap!”

To be sure, there are parents who truly cannot afford current tuition rates, but the vast majority of those who claim a financial obstacle do not hesitate to subscribe to hundreds of cable channels or to take wonderful winter vacations – and pastors are loathe to challenge such unevangelical priorities; in fact, most are totally intimidated.

As for parents in need of assistance, I can only echo the Code of Canon Law: “Christ’s faithful are to promote Catholic schools, doing everything possible to help in establishing and maintaining them” (canon 799 §2). In other words, the cost of Catholic education is not primarily that of parents, nor of a parish that happens to have a school on its premises; no, it is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community — an understanding that was firmly ensconced in the American Catholic consciousness prior to Vatican II (although, ironically, Vatican II was the first ecumenical council in history to devote an entire document to the importance and centrality of Catholic schools in the life of the Church). If every Catholic were seen to be and became a supporter of our schools, we could return to that earlier era when “tuition” was unheard of and when Catholics pointed with pride to “our schools.” I am delighted that the Archdiocese of Detroit is moving in that direction.

Fifth, on a day honoring the Patroness of Immigrants, I would be woefully remiss were I not to allude to a huge elephant in the middle of the American Catholic living room — and that is the shockingly near-absence of Hispanic children in Catholic schools. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston often bemoans the fact that there are more black Baptist children in our schools than Hispanic Catholics. For the first time in American Catholic history, the institutional Church has neglected an entire generation of immigrant children (it is probably two generations already). In every other era of the Church’s existence on these shores, the children of immigrants were integrated and rooted in the Catholic community and likewise inserted into the larger culture, precisely through our schools. The fact that I, a grandson of four immigrants, became a priest and have two doctorates is clear testimony to the effectiveness of the education apostolate. So many observers remark about the tragic hemorrhaging of Hispanics from the Catholic Church and the pitiful trinkle of Hispanic vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, yet they fail to connect the dots and conclude that this sad situation is due primarily to the hierarchy’s failure to ensure the Catholic education of these children.

In the 1980s, Archbishop Pio Laghi, then papal nuncio to the United States (and eventually prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome) castigated the bishops for their pastoral negligence in this regard. A few years ago, this regrettable lacuna in pastoral outreach was highlighted in a study produced by Notre Dame University, and some serious remedial action has been taken, so that Hispanic enrollment has gone from 12.8% of the overall Catholic school population to 15%. Although some cause for rejoicing, that figure is still unacceptable, given the fact that Hispanic youth comprise approximately 50% of all Catholic youth.

Sixth and last, some terribly misguided people in the late 60s caused immense harm to the Catholic school movement. All too many clergy and religious advanced a notion of Catholic education which was not at all Catholic; most of them went off the cliff but left an horrific mess for the rest of us to clean up. Yet others argued that our schools were not necessary because the basics of the Faith could easily be communicated through out-of-school religious education programs; the abysmal failure of CCD and all its cousins stand as witnesses against that benighted view. The Church’s newest saint, John Henry Cardinal Newman, reflected on this latter point in a response he wrote to the Archbishop of Sydney in 1879:

It is indeed the gravest of questions whether our people are to commence life with or without adequate instruction in those all-important truths which ought to colour all thought and to direct all action — whether they are or are not to accept this visible world for their god and their all, its teaching as their only truth, and its prizes as their highest aims — for, if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?

Of late, so many people — Catholics included — are decrying the rise of the “nones.” I am amazed, however, to be unable to find a single Catholic commentator to connect the Catholic “nones” to the near-dismantling of our Catholic school system.

Simply put: We need Catholic schools — authentically and unabashedly Catholic schools — now more than ever before. An hour a week of catechesis — even in its best form — cannot undo the damage of 30 hours or more of institutional hostility to Christian values put forward in the godless government schools.

You are here today for this period of spiritual reflection and staff development because you are blessed with an archbishop and a superintendent of schools who truly believe that we need strong Catholic schools as never before. Here you are not engaged in closing schools but in strengthening them and in opening new ones. In the name of the Church, I want to thank you for accepting the challenge to recapture that thrilling vocation of leading the “little ones” to Jesus Christ and His Church.

Through the intercession of St. Frances Cabrini, may your tribe increase.

Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments