Welcoming the Immigrant


Monday before last was Columbus Day, one of rejoicing here in the archdiocese, especially for our Italian community. The Mass in the cathedral, and the parade following, were glorious!

The preacher at the Mass was the Bishop emeritus of Brooklyn, Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, long admired for his work as a priest and bishop on behalf of immigrants. As a son of proud Italian new arrivals here, his words had particular cogency.

The bishop candidly recalled our own history of, yes, welcoming the immigrant, but also the darker side of some in the Catholic community who were less than hospitable to our incoming Catholics from other countries. While it stung for me to hear, as an historian, I had to somberly nod in agreement that, for those of us of Irish lineage, our record has not always been that shiny. At times—not always—the welcome given arriving immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Germany, was hardly warm and helpful.

The preacher went on to extol two great saints—our own St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, and just canonized St. John Baptist Scalabrini—whose example of advocacy for the Italian arrivals was dazzling.

One would expect that we Catholics today would be on the frontlines of embracing today’s refugees and asylum seekers. We know from our own ancestors how bitterness and antagonism by the people already here can hurt and scar them. Even we Irish can recall the disdain that greeted our hungry ancestors as they poured into this city, the vicious slurs and oppressive climate that the Italians later faced.

Thank God, the Church is now recognized as one of the acclaimed agencies greeting the incoming people, now mostly from Latin America. Our own Catholic Charities has received national acclaim for its heroic work welcoming them.

But, sadly, even some of our own have not learned, as Catholics can be found among those who are afraid of and resistant to our new arrivals. This is a shame!

True enough, we Catholics also work hard for a reform of a broken border system, and defend a nation’s duty to protect our borders.

But, we insist that such be done fairly, justly, without rancor, and that the proud American (and Catholic) legacy of welcome and hospitality not be jeopardized.

Recently, one of our own parishes rudely shouted down a proposal from Catholic Charities to use their former school building as a place of welcome, care, and education during the school day. It must have escaped the notice of this largely Italian parish that their grandparents met the same hostility.

One would think we know better!

The legendary Mayor Ed Koch observed to me often, “When the immigrants arrived here in New York, two women embraced them: Lady Liberty and Mother Church!”

I hope we still deserve that accolade. We need more Mother Cabrinis and Bishop Scalabrinis today.