Many migrant communities gathered at St Brigid’s Catholic Church in North Fitzroy last Saturday 12 November to celebrate the canonisation of St Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, the founder of the Congregation of the Missionaries of St Charles Borromeo. Known as ‘the Father of Migrants’, the Blessed was canonised by Pope Francis on 9 October 2022, and Archbishop Peter A Comensoli was present at St Brigid’s to celebrate the Mass of thanksgiving.

The Scalabrinians are an international community of missionary religious whose charism is to assist and care for migrants. Founded in 1887 by Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, Bishop of Piacenza in Italy, their first charges were migrants seeking to cross the Atlantic and reach the Americas, so their first mission fields were the United States and Brazil.

However, Scalabrini’s work began in his home country of Italy. In the diocese where he was bishop, he became aware of the significant effects that migration was having on the families of his people. Visiting all 365 parishes under his episcopal area, he went to great lengths to provide practical assistance to migrants who were struggling to make a life for themselves in their new homes.

Scalabrini wasn’t afraid of lobbying on behalf of migrants. He would frequently urge civil and religious authorities to make migrant care a top priority, and during a trip to the United States in 1901, he spoke with many of the bishops there and even President Theodore Roosevelt. In a letter to Pope St Pius X, he urged the pontiff to make the problems associated with migration a central priority for the Church, writing, ‘Whether migration is good or bad is not a concern. What is important is that migration is happening and it must be dealt with creatively.’

Although the Scalabrinians are made up mostly of priests, they also have lay brothers among their community. They live to proclaim the Good News to migrants, to defend their rights and to promote a more humane society. Their charism is a unique mix of spiritual care and civil care, sou that they engage frequently in community-building, education, legal referral and advocacy, and the promotion of further study of migration.

The Scalabrinians arrived in Australia in 1952, along with waves of other Italian migrants, and while they generously devoted themselves to the care of the Italian communities of the time, their ministry has since broadened to encompass Filipino communities, Portugese- and Spanish-speaking migrants, and more recently Chinese migrants.

This was reflected in the thanksgiving Mass, which was attended by hundreds of people and in which the prayers of the faithful were spoken in several languages: English, Tagalog, Spanish, Italian and Portugese.

In his homily for the Mass, Archbishop Comensoli reflected on the influence that St Charles Borromeo had on Scalabrini. Borromeo, ‘the greatest post-Reformation bishop of the 16th century’, was a man who demonstrated tremendous missionary outreach, travelling across Italy to apply the teachings of the Council of Trent in his own time.

Scalabrini’s own travels were wide and embodied what it meant for the Church to be ‘synodal’, as he discussed the most pressing issues of the day with local communities and fostered the training and formation of clergy and laity alike.

‘Again, we see the link back to St Charles Borromeo,’ the Archbishop said, ‘and to the deep Christian calling to attend, in faith, to the poor and needy, wherever they may be found.’

St Brigid’s in North Fitzroy, and St Luke’s in Lalor, are both places in which the Scalabrinian way has found a home, he said, bearing much good fruit in the communities where they minister. In our own day, he reminded the congregation, we are being called to ‘take up the synodal ways of the Church and renew our missionary endeavours among our local neighbourhoods of grace.’

He encouraged the parish of St Brigid’s in their vocation and prayed for God’s continuing providence over the Scalabrians and their ministry.

Where the poor and struggling are to be found, where education of the young and catechesis of all is in need, there might we be found in the vision of St Giovanni Batista Scalabrini, who drew on the ways of St Charles Borromeo … May the gospel of Jesus Christ, which inspired the pastoral ministry of St Scalabrini, find fruit in us, as we seek to bring Christ to our families.