Diocesan News

Bishop Emeritus Nicholas DiMarzio’s Full Columbus Day Homily

This is Bishop Emeritus Nicholas DiMarzio’s full homily from the Columbus Day Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan on October 10, 2022.

The Word of God chosen for today brings to our attention two aspects of Italian culture which characterize the Italian people. First, there is a certain self-respect and righteous pride balanced by a sense of dignity. On the other hand, there is a certain modesty, humility, and unassumingness that characterizes our Italian culture. 

The first reading today from I Corinthians emphasizes the fact that “Each one of us is the temple of God that the Spirit of God dwells in us.” And as Paul goes on to say, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written, He catches the wise in their own ruses, and again the Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, but they are vain.” 

And in the Gospel, we heard the parable of the conduct of the invited guest to the banquet who takes not the first seat but the last, but then he is invited from his humble place to a more appropriate place of honor. 

Allow me to apply these Italian national and Scriptural characteristics today to our celebration of Columbus Day. A day for which Italian Americans take righteous pride. Columbus was an Italian-born explorer who had the courage to believe the world was round and so discovered a new continent. 

No matter what historical revisionism exists today, Columbus truly began the evangelization of the newly-found American continent. He was a religious man, and many of the ills attributed to him are the result of historical re-interpretation. 

When the first Italian immigrants came in large numbers at the beginning of the 19th century, there was little to bolster their pride. They were mostly poor, some were illiterate and were relegated to menial jobs. But they came to the land that Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian, had discovered. They collected money to build statues of Columbus — like the one in Columbus Circle. Mostly poor people’s money built it. This gave them that sense of righteous pride that characterizes their culture while at the same time recognizing their humble status. 

The history of the great migration of Italians to the United States has much to offer us by way of comparison to the migrations we experience today right here in New York City — busloads of people a day — no comment on politics. We Italian Americans take modest pride in our ancestors who braved many difficulties in order to establish themselves for the sake of their progeny. In the United States, the basic characteristics of migration have not changed. 

When migrants come today, some may not be as poor as our ancestors, and yet some are poorer, but they seek a better life for their children, just as our ancestors did so many years ago. 

Recently, at the annual fundraiser for Catholic Charities Brooklyn & Queens, its executive director, Msgr. Al LoPinto, told those attending the dinner of an incident with one of the newly arrived migrants from Venezuela. 

He found a mother and her son not a block away from the Catholic Charities building in Brooklyn Heights, where the newly arrived are dropped off. In Spanish, the woman told him that her son needed a coat because he was dressed only in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. 

Before the end of that dinner, a young Italian-American man promised Msgr. LoPinto that he would donate 200 coats by the end of the next week. This makes us proud of the generosity of our people. We should be the first to defend them because it is part of our own heritage and history. 

The present-day poor migrants to New York City give Lady Liberty’s position in New York Harbor a new mission. As the famous poem by Emma Lazarus says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 

Immigration to the United States gave us two Italian-born saints of whom we are very proud. These two saints understood the problems and challenges of Italian migration two centuries ago, especially the problems here in New York City. 

The first was Saint Frances Cabrini, who, on the day of her canonization, was named by Pope Pius XII as the Mother of Immigrants. The life and work of Mother Cabrini is fascinating because she accomplished so much in so many places, but began here in New York City. 

Not only was she a tireless mother to Italian immigrants but also to others whom she met along the way. I recently previewed a full-length movie about her life and her work in New York City, to be released sometime in the spring of 2023. 

The determination of Frances Cabrini was clearly Italian, as were her pride and dignity, while at the same time showing modesty and humility as a servant of others. 

There is an adage that says saints beget saints. So it is true that we have another Italian saint in Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini. I call them the two “brinies.” Scalabrini was just canonized on Oct. 9 in Rome, however, when he was made “Blessed” by Pope John Paul II, he gave him the title Father of Migrants. Giovanni Scalabrini cooperated closely with Frances Cabrini. He also visited New York in 1901 to personally see the situation himself. 

Recently, Cardinal Silvano Tomasi published a book containing the correspondence between these two great Italians and saints. He is our hero, and she is our heroine, for each demonstrated the best of our culture and religious tradition by their selflessness and devotion. 

Since my earliest years as a priest, I have worked with Italian immigrants and have come to understand the characteristics of a righteous pride, tempered by modesty and humility. 

Let me tell you a story from the early 70s. I was a priest in Jersey City, New Jersey, and took a group of Italian women who had formed a society dedicated to Mother Cabrini on a day trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. They were new immigrants benefiting from the new immigration law of 1965. We boarded the boat in Jersey City, for, after all, both monuments are on the Jersey side of the Hudson. After visiting Ellis Island and listening to their comments about how much more difficult it was for the earlier immigrants since they themselves had all come on planes, we arrived at the Statue of Liberty. We disembarked, and one of the women came to me and said, “Padre, che Madonna é questa?” (“Father, what is the name of the Madonna?) How could I disappoint her, so I said, “la Madonna della libertá” (Madonna of Liberty”). 

And so everyone knelt down and said the Rosary, perhaps the only group Rosary ever said on Ellis Island. But their view of the world, as new immigrants, was still sacral, they saw the world from another perspective different from our secularized culture. 

I served some of these people from the first day of their arrival in the United States. I have maintained contact with some of them. 

I have seen their families grow, become educated, and make tremendous contributions to our society as doctors, lawyers, and teachers and in many other helping professions. 

We should be proud of our new Italian immigrants, and we are of our ancestors. We should also be proud of our Dreamers or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients who came here as undocumented minors. 

They, too, already have made a great contribution to our society through their educational advancements and work ethic. It took us two or three generations to enter the mainstream of society. However, it happens more quickly now as a result of a more integrated society. 

Today we need immigration reform to eliminate the prejudices against our modern-day immigrants, who leave their homeland for the same reasons of the past — they want to make our country their own. 

I hear many Italian-Americans saying, “My ancestors came here legally, and no one helped them.” This lament is half true. Before 1922 there were few restrictions on immigration in a land that needed labor. 

But there was a very restrictive immigration law that was almost completely discriminatory against Southern and Eastern Europeans. Not until 1965, when a new law was passed, was immigration equally available to all nations. And if no one helped your ancestors, now it is our chance to make America what it purports to be. 

Saint Scalabrini once said, “la patria e la terra che gli da il pane” (“The homeland is the land which gives you your bread, your work”), never forgetting your origins, but making your new land your country. 

Mother Cabrini became an American citizen, the first to be canonized. She understood Scalabrini’s genius. She established a religious order as he did, whose primary work was to assist immigrants. 

In the beginning, it was Italian-focused, but now work of both orders extends around the world to many situations of migration. 

We need to learn from our own heroes and saints, and we should be the first defenders of the history of our nation as one of immigration, because we are the first witnesses to the results of when immigrants are accepted. They contribute to the life of the country. 

Today we honor these two great saints and Columbus himself on this day so important to Italian Americans.