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‘Cabrini’ reminds us of all that religious women have done for society

Joseph F. Naumann is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

This past Friday, I had the opportunity with a number of our archdiocesan staff to view the movie “Cabrini,” which chronicled the life of the first U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint. The movie focused on the period of her life when, overcoming enormous obstacles, she founded her first mission in New York City.

She was born prematurely on July 15, 1850, and given by her parents the name Maria Francesca. She battled serious health problems her entire life. In 1870, at the age of 20, she attempted to join the religious order, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who staffed the school that she had attended as an adolescent. Her former teachers did not grant her admission to the order because they considered her physically too frail to be able to meet the demands of religious life.

As a young laywoman, she became headmistress of the House of Providence orphanage in Codogno, Italy. By the age of 27, she had drawn a small community of young women who shared her desire for religious life and the service of the poor. At the age of 30, with seven other women, she founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In religious life, she took the name Frances Xavier, choosing the great Jesuit missionary as her patron.

The future saint wrote the constitution and rule of life for the new community. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini became the superior for the fledgling religious institute and remained the superior general until her death in December 1917.

In September 1887, at the tender age of 37, Mother Cabrini sought Pope Leo XIII’s approval to establish missions in China. The Holy Father encouraged her to go to the United States to care for the material and spiritual needs of thousands of Italian immigrants. At the age of 38, Mother Cabrini and six other Sisters arrived in New York City to take on a seemingly impossible mission.

The film “Cabrini” is artistically beautiful. It also depicts accurately the great challenges the future saint faced in her efforts to serve the Italian immigrants. Archbishop Michael Corrigan did not give Mother Cabrini and her Sisters a warm welcome.

I have some sympathy for the archbishop. He did not recognize that he was in the presence of a saint who possessed indomitable courage and relentless tenacity. The one weakness of the movie is that it perhaps does not adequately capture the source of her incredible strength, her deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Mother Cabrini had to contend with a political and cultural environment that did not warmly welcome the Italian immigrants. This woman of frail health had a will of steel that refused to buckle under the huge adversities to her mission.

Though unique in many ways, Mother Cabrini was emblematic of the religious Sisters that played an essential role in building the Catholic Church in the United States. Tens of thousands of religious Sisters, who for decades staffed most of the Catholic schools in the United States, donated their talents and literally their lives to make Catholic parochial schools educationally excellent as well as economically affordable for financially struggling Catholic immigrant communities. These heroic Sisters were crucial in the spiritual formation of generations of Catholics in the United States.

Similarly, like Mother Cabrini and her Sisters, many other women religious established hospitals, orphanages and other charitable ministries throughout the United States. They brought the love and mercy of Jesus not only to Catholics, but to all those in need.

In a scene near the end of the movie, the New York mayor, considering it a compliment, admiringly proposed to Mother Cabrini that she would have made a great man. Mother Cabrini replies that no man could do what she and her Sisters were doing. I am not certain of the historicity of this scene, but regardless, it told an important truth. The Catholic Church in the United States as well as American society would be much poorer were it not for generations of saintly, consecrated religious Sisters.

I encourage you to see the movie “Cabrini.”  You will be inspired by the depiction of the first U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint. Even more, I encourage you to express your support and encouragement to religious Sisters, who serve today with dedication and continue to bring the love of Jesus to all those in material and/or spiritual need.

We are blessed in the archdiocese with many amazing religious Sisters. We just need more of them. Pray for the religious Sisters, who are heralds of the risen Jesus and ministers of his love and compassion. Ask the Lord to give these consecrated women glimpses of the great good Our Lord is accomplishing through their heroic lives.

Encourage young women in your families and parishes to consider the possibility of a vocation to become a consecrated religious. Our church needs more religious Sisters.

Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini is an example of the great good Our Lord can accomplish through a woman who is willing to entrust her life to Jesus and selflessly serve his people. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, pray for us.

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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