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FRESH Exemplar: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

November 13

Happy Memorial of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

The saint the Church celebrates today, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, is a reminder to Christians of a central reality of their lives, i.e., they are by their very nature, pilgrims. Accordingly, it is of paramount importance that Christians strive to integrate within themselves and live out a pilgrim mentality. This was a message that early Christian authors sought to impress upon nascent Christian communities. For instance, the Letter to the Hebrews calls the attention of Christians to the fact that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb. 13:14), tying this aspect of their lives to the life of Abraham, and thus to their Hebrew heritage (Heb. 11:13-14). Again, the First Epistle of Peter refers to its addressees three times as “exiles” (1 Pt 1:1, 17 & 2:11). Similarly, the second century Letter to Diognetus, which the Church meditates upon in her Liturgy of the Hours, is famous for its teaching that there is something “extraordinary about [Christians’] lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through…Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country…They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.”

This last line is of special importance, for its speaks of the Christian’s aversion to mediocrity, i.e., Christians don’t simply wish to be “nice” people or follow the “rules,” for their life of faith is not a simple moral code but rather one of radically virtuous incarnate love. This is something important to notice for Christians have been charged, since the very beginning, with having a disdain for the world in which they live and of being desirous of a flight from the world. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Not only the Letter to Diognetus, but the Letter to the Hebrews and the First Epistle of Peter both call Christians to a life of holiness here and now (see, e.g., Heb. & 1 Pt. 1:13- 25 & 2:11-17). More to it, Christians are called to live radical lives of virtuous love precisely because their home is not here, but rather the Spirit Who inhabits them (1 Cor. 6:19) makes their home, already here and now, the embrace of their loving God, who calls them to “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pt. 1:16). For Christians, holiness is Christ, and thus their love must imitate His love (1 Pt. 2:18-25), and by participating in His Life give their flesh precisely for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51; cf. Jn 10:10).

We would be hard pressed to find an individual who embodied the Christian pilgrim life and its tension of being in the world but not of the world better than St. Frances Xavier Cabrini. Frances was born to wealthy cherry tree farmers, Agostino and Stella Cabrini, in 1850. Born two months premature, Frances remained in a delicate state of health throughout her whole life. Her poor health was the first threat toward her dedicating her whole life to Jesus Christ, as at the age of 18 she was rejected by a religious order precisely because of her frailty. Yet Frances remained undeterred. Embodying the Pauline dictum that “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13), Frances took religious vows in 1877 while working as a headmistress at the House of Providence orphanage in Codogno, where she also taught. Three years later, when the establishment closed, Frances, along with seven companions, established the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Beginning her work in Italy, Frances soon developed a desire to begin missionary activity in the fashion of her namesake, Francis Xavier, petitioning Pope Leo XIII to go to China. However, Pope Leo responded, “Not to the East, but to the West.” Accordingly, in 1889, along with her six sisters, Mother Cabrini set out for America, arriving in New York City on March 31. From the very beginning Mother Cabrini and her sisters were met by disappointment and setbacks. For example, when she arrived in New York City the house intended to be her first orphanage was no longer available and Archbishop Michael Corrigan suggested they returned to Italy. Mother Cabrini refused, and the archbishop eventually found housing for them in the convent of the Sisters of Charity and then granted them permission to found an orphanage in what is now West Park, NY, known today as Saint Cabrini Home. This would be the first of 67 missions established by the woman who was once deemed too frail to live religious life. Over the course of her missionary activity, she crossed the ocean 30 times, and established schools, orphanages, and hospitals on three continents (see: cabrinipilgrimage.org/mother-cabrini).

The source of Mother Cabrini’s seemingly inexplicable endurance and tireless activity becomes obvious in her writings which reveal the heart of a woman deeply in love with Jesus Christ and intent on making her Beloved known and his loving presence felt to anyone she could. The reason for this was nothing else but her deep desire to imitate her Beloved so as to share in His life and become like him. In her retreat notes of 1878 we find this written to Jesus: “…your mercy, my Lord, inspires me to suffer for your love and to imitate your life which was one continual martyrdom of suffering…” (Journal 11). She would later exhort her daughters to develop within themselves the same attitude, writing that they must endeavor “imitate Christ as best as you can,” assuring them that the whole of their missionary efforts depended upon this (Letter, New York, May 1, 1889). In various places, Mother Cabrini indicates that the way her daughters were to do this was to intentionally cultivate the virtues which would help them to imitate and embody the perfection of Jesus, writing that in this way that would “not only walk, but fly, like royal eagles along the paths of the most robust virtues” (To the Ends of the Earth: The Missionary Travels of Frances X. Cabrini, 134). Paramount among the virtues she taught were humility, simplicity, and courage (Letter, Rome, January 10, 1888).

However, a true exemplar of the Christian faith, Mother Cabrini new that the imitation of Christ was not something that could be accomplished by one’s own efforts. Thus, in another letter to her spiritual daughters, she asks them to realize that their lives as religious sisters, devoted to the imitation of the love of Jesus Christ, was totally dependent upon the action of the Holy Spirit within them and assures them that this same Spirit “will remove all difficulties and will give you strength and ability for your spiritual progress” (Letter, New York, May 23, 1890). Elsewhere, she writes that “it is the Holy Spirit, He Himself, Our beloved, who works, prays, helps us with wearisome tasks, enlightens, teaches, energizes and comforts us with His abundant and lasting insight. His motions and impulses direct us to every holy work. In sum, He is around us with the loving solicitude befitting His eternal love for us” (To the Ends of the Earth, 47).

For Mother Cabrini, praying for and relying upon the action of the Holy Spirit within so that they might cultivate the life of virtue in imitation of Christ had the same twofold aim spoken of from the Scriptures and early Christian writings above. First, it would instill in within the Christians a detachment from the world. Thus, she encourages her daughters: “detach yourselves from whatever is of earth, which is human and egoistic, and raise yourselves to the pure spheres where the air that surrounds you is filled with the love of God who lightens every pain and sweetens every burden.” And secondly, in the very next line of the letter, she goes on to add that this detachment must be exercised by working “untiringly and charitably in the vast field of the Heart of Christ; do not disdain the rough manners of the peasants but look at their beautiful souls made to the image of Him who chose you to be His bride” (Letter, New York, February 15, 1895). Thus for Mother Cabrini, detachment from the world in favor of the love of Jesus Christ resulted not in disdain for the world, but profound love for the world. What we see here is a Christian understanding of what has been called since Augustine the ordo amoris, i.e., the only way to love something truly and rightly to the extent that it must be loved is to love it in the right order, i.e., by loving God first and then it (whatever it may be) for the purpose for which God intended it. Consequently, from this perspective, it is the Christian who precisely because of their detachment from the world can love it best, can love it to the fullest possible extent. This is because Christians, as Mother Cabrini taught, believe that the creation was called into existence for loving communion with God, and thus they are called to be initiators of that Kingdom here and now. Thus, she writes to her sisters imploring them for their prayers so that she might work to expand the kingdom of God (Letter, New York, May 23, 1890). This was what Mother Cabrini was doing in establishing orphanages, hospitals and schools acting upon the first belief that “the Kingdom of God has no limits; its limits are those of the globe itself” (Too Small a World, the Life of Mother Cabrini, 179). And to those who would shirk from such work, or think themselves unequipped to engage in such an august task, Mother Cabrini, who herself faced adversity in working for God’s kingdom for various reasons including her own health, assures us: “Do not fear; mistrust yourselves and confide in God, for as I have already said omnia possum in eo qui me confortat” (Too Small a World, 179, cf. Phil 4:13).

St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, great exemplar of Christian courage and charity, pray for us that we might be cultivate an attitude of detachment so that like you, we might give ourselves over to the workings of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to imitate Jesus Christ so as to make the peaceful and loving kingdom of our Heavenly Father known and present today.

2 thoughts on “FRESH Exemplar: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini

  1. The St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in the Hudson Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan overlooks the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge, and the New Jersey Palisades. As Cabrini’s cause for sainthood accelerated in 1933, the Missionary Sisters moved her remains from the Sacred Heart Orphanage she had founded in rural West Park, New York, to the chapel of a Catholic school she had founded in Manhattan, freshly renamed Mother Cabrini High School. When it became a popular pilgrimage site with her beatification in 1938, the Sisters enshrined the major portion of her body in a glass-enclosed coffin under the altar of the school chapel. Her 1946 canonization brought a further sustained level of public interest, so in 1957–1960 a larger shrine was built adjoining the school. When the new shrine was near completion in 1959, her remains were transferred to a large bronze-and-glass reliquary casket in the shrine’s altar. She still rests in perpetual display for veneration, covered with her religious habit and a sculpted face mask and hands for more-lifelike viewing.

  2. Humility, simplicity and courage. Three virtues we need today more than ever before. Beautiful St. Frances, pray for us!

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