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Mother Cabrini, the saint of ‘modernity’

Saint of the month

Modernity is probably not one of the determining factors which makes a Christian saint.  And yet in the case of Mother Cabrini it is precisely her modernity, or even ultra-modernity, that brings her close to our human experience and allows us to relate to her.

Mother Cabrini was the first American citizen to be declared a Saint.  For this reason she is very well known in America and ironically much less known in Italy, even though she was born and raised there.

To speak of her experience today we would most likely refer to her as a “multi-national” woman with a “hybrid-identity”.  A ‘multi-national’ identity is a phenomenon becoming increasingly more relevant as the world becomes more globalized.  Like Mother Cabrini, thousands of people have had similar experiences of leaving their country of origin, even though the reasons for leaving in the present have changed from those in the past.

Because of modern transportation it is much easier for immigrants, and even second and third generations, to move between two worlds.  They can practically live between their country and culture of origin and the one to which they, or their parents or grandparents, have immigrated.

Mother Cabrini intuited that Italian immigrants in North America had great difficulty assimilating to the ‘new world’.  Many of them lived in dire conditions as a result of poverty.  She realized that the immigration experience was being lived as two different extremes, on the one hand with great nostalgia and on the other with an uncritical outlook of the ‘new world’.  There was a great temptation to close in on themselves out of anger and remain in their own identity as a dispersed people.  It is the same temptation of every people that immigrates in diaspora.

Because of modern communication and transportation such as satellite television, mobile telephones and low cost airlines, it is possible to live as a foreigner in another country and not completely assimilate to the culture. To associate evil with everything that is different than one’s own country of origin is probably what is at the root of fundamentalism.  It’s a problem of identity. There’s a risk with any type of diaspora whether it be Islamic, Hindu, Orthodox or Christian in general, to put itself in opposition to the modern world by condemning everything that it represents.  To attack another’s traditions as a way of defending oneself has a lot to do with presumptive pride of one’s past.

Often different cultural categories influence the way we interpret both the past and present.  It’s incredible that a Catholic woman was able to foresee this and create a way to help others integrate.  Mother Cabrini never identified America with the “American Dream”, but rather she always had a realistic outlook—it was neither worse nor better than Italy at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.  But perhaps America was less hypocritical than Italy was with its own people, using loud rhetoric about the Italian immigrants’ hard work there, while taking advantage of the money that they sent back home.  Cabrini’s reaction to globalization was based on a pragmatic approach.  Instead of complaining and becoming victims of modernity, she encouraged Italians to acquire all the instruments needed to fully be a part of American society, first and foremost by learning English and secondly, but no less important, by seeking to understand its cultural norms.

So what did Mother Cabrini have that made her a saint of “modernity”?  Most likely she had an openness to the world, a curiosity for the new and lack of prejudices, all the qualities that truly make a person cosmopolitan.  Perhaps they are qualities intrinsic to Christianity, an inevitable consequence of which is universalism.

Certainly she had a great capacity to put things into perspective and to put cultures and their values into context.  She had an explorer’s courage which was expressed through the rich way in which she lived her life journey as an immigrant.  For her the journey was not a distraction but a fundamental experience of relativity and shared experiences of humanity, problems and hopes.

It would be wonderful to see Mother Cabrini proclaimed as the patroness of globalization, or patroness of the capacity to be a citizen of the world.

Franco La Cecla (1956) taught cultural anthropology at the following universities:  Bologna, Palermo, Venezia, Verona, University Vita-Salute San Raffaele, the University of California at Berkeley, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Universidad Politécnica de Barcelona, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Among his publications, Mente Locale, un’antropologia dell’abitare ( A local mind-set, a living anthropology ) (Eleuthera 2011), Perdersi ( To lose yourself ) (Laterza 2010), Il Malinteso ( Misunderstood ) (Laterza 2009), Contro l’Architettura ( Against architecture ) (Bollati Boringhieri 2009).  He won the San Francisco Film Festival with the documentary, In altro mare ( In another sea ) (2010).

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