“Burst Open the Doors: God is Looking for You!”
I’d like to share with you the excellent homily Monsignor Thomas Sandi, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Manhattan, gave at the Columbus Day Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral this Monday morning. Thanks again to Monsignor Sandi for joining us to celebrate Italian faith, food, and heritage!
Your Eminence, Cardinal Dolan, Most Reverend Bishops, Reverend Monsignors, Fathers and Deacons, Honorable members of the Diplomatic Corps, distinguished guests and friends. . . Signore e signori. Sia lodato Gesu’ Cristo! Oggi e sempre sia lodato! (May Jesus Christ be praised! Today and always!)
I can still see it clearly. The tall, grey-haired priest confidently mounted the marble pulpit and shouted, “Spalancate le porte! Spallancate le porte!” (“Burst open the doors!”) It was 1959. I was eleven. Solemn High Mass was being celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Pernicone (originally from Regalbuto, Sicilia). It was swelteringly hot in the fabled Arthur Avenue Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (La Madonna del Carmine). We altar boys, who did not speak Italian, literally jumped in our seats. Our grandparents and great grandparents, who packed the pews, elegant in their Sunday best, leaned in, their gazes fixed on the dramatic preacher. The elderly, Milanese priest continued, “Miei carissimi, spalanacate le porte . . . le porte dei vostri cuori! Dio vi sta cercando!” (“My dear brothers and sisters, open the doors of your hearts, God is looking for you!”)
Barnabite Father Leonardo Ceroni, C.R.S.P., was imploring our ancestors to be fearless and open up to the embrace of a God, who, in the somewhat raw expression of St. Catherine of Siena, is pazzo d’amore, ed ebro d’amore (crazy in love, and drunk in love, for us). He was asking them to share what little they had, and feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. Why? Because they could! Because, he knew Christians “. . . acting as one [Church] in charity, reveal God’s action [in the world]!” Because Jesus said in no uncertain words, “Whatever you did for one of these least [important] of my brothers, you did for Me.”
Now, here in this vast, sacred space, you can see some of the cloud of saintly witnesses, representing peoples from around the world:the British-American Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the Irish Patrick and Brigid, the French Bernard, Louis IX, Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle, Thérèse Lisieuxand Isaac Jogues, the Scot Margaret, the Lebanese Charbel, the Mexican Lady of Guadalupe, the Peruvian, Rose of Lima, the Egyptian Catherine of Alexandria, the Hattian Pierre Toussaint, the Polish Stanislaus, the Lady of Czestochowa, Maximillian Kolbe and Pope John Paul II, the Albanian Teresa of Calcutta, the Portuguese Anthony, the German Bruno, the Spaniard Dominic, the Native American, Kateri Tekawitha, and the North African Monica,
But today, almighty God has summoned us here to honor men, women and children of Italian heritage, a heritage of unequalled merit in music, science, exploration, literature, painting, sculpture, theater, engineering, architecture, fashion, theology, film, education, automobiles, fashion, philosophy, and of course, succulent cuisine and wines!
We, the proud bearers of a noble legacy, remember the millions of poor Italians who came to America in pursuit of freedom and opportunity, armed, often, only with a dream of a new life, and the Faith that would help them endure hardship and adversity. In the spirit of the famed Cristoforo Colombo of Genoa, who sailed to the New World for the Spanish crown 527 years ago, our people knew that you could . . . never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. In that spirit, they bravely left everyone they knew, and everything they had, spurred on by one goal: to “become” Americans. Some were educated, many were not, some were old, many were young, some were sick and weak, many were healthy and strong, but deep in their bones, in the very fiber of their beings . . . in their souls, they believed it could be done, and, as we are all witnesses, they did it . . . together.
Theirs was a vibrant, public faith. The pioneering work of two, compassionate Catholic heroes for immigrants of the 20th century come to mind. First, Blessed Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, C.S. of Piacenza, “The Father of Migrants,” who came to new York in 1901, and founded the Missionaries of Saint Charles and the Mission Sisters of Saint Charles. He personally visited the United States to help Italian immigrants maintain the practice of the Catholic faith in the New World. Then there is Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, MSC, of Lombardia, “The Patroness of Immigrants”, and the first naturalized-American saint, who came to New York in 1889. She founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and multiple, benevolent institutions in America for immigrants, the poor and their children. Very recently, a municipal public-arts campaign was initiated to address the lack of monuments dedicated to the historic accomplishments of women in New York City. And who received the most votes, by a two to one margin? Mother Frances Cabrini. Notably, in this very cathedral, there are two beautiful depictions of this revered heroine: on the rear wall and on its massive, bronze doors, facing Fifth Avenue. Now, as for a suitable, outdoor statue of Mamma Cabrini . . . it will be erected, one way or another (if necessary, through private funding), on the streets of New York City!
My ancestors and yours were determined to better themselves, and in doing so, bettered the communities in which they lived. Though not wealthy, they held on to their dignity, grit their teeth and nourished each other’s souls with their ingrained, Catholic Faith. They fiercely guarded that certain je ne sais quoi Italians call la bella figura! They believed in self-respect and God’s promises. Longingly and confidently, as were the wandering Hebrews of old, Italian immigrants, “. . . did not receive [all of] what was promised, but they saw it and greeted it from afar.” The generations of families to whom they would give birth saw it, celebrated it, and generously shared the bounty symbolized by Lady Liberty in New York Harbor, who “lifts high her torch beside the Golden Door!”
In the many Italian national parishes and parochial schools, dedicated laypeople, organized and encouraged by passionate pastors, Religious Sisters and Religious Brothers, practiced their Faith generously in community building, in education, in divine worship, and in widespread charity. They put down necessary roots in brick and mortar and in the hearts of their children and grandchildren. They did everything together.
We stand here today, proudly, because they risked everything then as strangers and aliens seeking a new homeland. They left behind much sorrow and pain; they suffered and worked very hard. And, as had so many others before them, Italians found more sorrow and pain; they suffered more and worked harder. They came face to face with unfriendliness, discrimination, ridicule and hurtful prejudice. No doubt they felt the cruel bite of their old saying, Abbiamo avuto tutti gli oneri, ma nessuno degli onori. (We had all the problems but none of the respect.) They held each other close.
You see, the secret of their success was always found in their family and in their faith, nella la casa e nella la chiesa. In the sacredness of their homes and parishes, veritable “shelters,” they felt safe to open up to each other. There, they were nourished for life’s challenges, and empowered to then step out into the world and act as responsible Christian people and “feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.” Those who came to the American shores from as far north as Piemonte, Trentino and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and as far south as Puglia, Calabria and Sicilia—they knew how to survive. At home, they depended on the hands and hearts of their extended families. In church, they were nourished by God Himself along with other members of the Christian family.
And there was, of course, one more ingredient of their success—that which literally kept them alive! To la casa e la chiesa, they added la cucina, food, glorious food, with un po di vino e dopo, con una tazza di caffe’, forse café’ corretto! Listen to how a list of ingredients beginning with the letter “P” can make Italian hearts soar and Italian mouths water: pasta, pollo, pane, pesce, pizza; pancetta, prosciutto, prosecco, panforte, pignoli, porcini, polpette; parmigiano, pecorino, prezzemolo, panettone, pomodoro, portobello, pappardelle e pepperoncini! And, may I remind you, there are twenty additional letters in l’alfabeto Italiano! Yes, as grandmothers and mothers repeated endlessly, Eat and you’ll be happy. Mangiate e sarete contenti; non e’ vero?
I remember my grandmother, Mary (Quintiliani) Ioli, quoting a poor-man’s proverb she learned as a little girl in the ancient village of San Donato Val di Comino, Provincia di Frosinone. She would say, “Pane, cipolle, contentezza!” (“Just give me some bread and onions and I’ll be satisfied!”) And knowing the many ways Italians can raise the simplest cooking ingredients to a high, gastronomic art, I know she knew what she was talking about. Brava, Nonna! But she also knew ultimate satisfaction could only be found in the “Bread of Angels” (il pane degli angeli). Yes, because you see, “. . . se non mangiate la carne del Figlio dell’Uomo, e non bevete il suo sangue, non avrete in voi la vita.” (“If you do not eat the Body of the Son of Man, and drink his Blood, you cannot live.”)
Now soon, each of us . . . sons and daughters all . . . will humbly approach God’s Table to be spiritually fed and be impelled to become another Christ. Afterwards,we must demonstrate that we have “become what we have eaten” and willingly “ . . . give as a gift what we have received as a gift.” And exactly what have we been given? “ . . . a passionate love that is impossible not to share, what Dante called un “ . . . amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona.” It must be passed on. After all, you and I have been promised a prized seat at the Table of the Savior, and you and I know people who actually have no seat to sit on, no table at which to eat on this earth. Yes, we must share, as did our faithful ancestors.
Allora, fratelli e sorelle, spalanacate le porte dei vostri cuori! Dio vi sta cercando! Open your hearts, again and again,so needy men, women and children may see Jesus in us, who dare to call ourselves “Christian.” For, you see, it is only among the needy “. . . in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet . . .” that Jesus will find us and greet us with the some of the tenderest of words of the New Testament, Venite, benedetti del Padre mio, ricevete in eredita’ il regno preparato per voi fin dalla fondazione del mondo! (“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit a Kingdom prepared for you . . . from the foundation of the world!”) Sia lodato Gesu’ Cristo! Oggi e sempre, sia lodato!