“I am glad to hear that the Church considers her a saint, because I thought she was a witch!” These words, allegedly spoken by a priest of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, reinforced in my mind the already intimidating image of this saint, whose feast we celebrate today.
That she was fearless and feisty was to her credit, I supposed. But I found myself cowed by her seemingly impossible standards of self-sacrifice. It has been recounted how, when just a young girl, she wanted very much to be a missionary. Then, one day, when about to eat a piece of candy, she was told that missionaries could not eat such sweets. So she didn’t. Not that day, NOT EVER AGAIN. She didn’t complain—even when suffering from ill treatment, or ill health—and forbade her fellow nuns to complain about ANYTHING. Not even the weather. She was relentless in her pursuits, in both her numerous missionary projects (schools, hospitals etc. throughout the world) and in her pursuit of holiness.
Even the Girl I Ought To Be does not aspire to such herculean efforts, and Real Me, rather than taking inspiration from her, merely added her to the list of Saints I Don’t Like. What common ground could I have with such a saint?
So it was something of a surprise when I found myself at her shrine, one morning in May, while preparing for a talk. The shrine offered the best chance for Mass, so there I was, praying not a few feet from the altar under which her body is encased.
That night I was to give a talk on Mary’s Fiat, and while I had been preparing for some time, I felt a subtle urge to change what I was going to say. To talk about fear. Fear? I questioned the voice inside. How does fear relate to anything?
Was Mother Cabrini smiling, just a little, when the priest began his homily, and began to speak of fear? How in fact the saint I saw as fearless had some very big fears indeed. One of these was of water. When she was a child of seven, little Francesca Cabrini would make paper boats, fill them with violets (pretending they were her missionaries) and float them down the river. She was shy and quiet then, and this solitary activity brought her much peace and joy. Until one day she fell in.
Nobody knows how she got out. She was discovered on the water bank, soaked and shaken, with no memory of who had rescued her. Credit was given to her Guardian Angel, and yet for the rest of her life Francesca had a deep fear of drowning.
God did not take away her fear. Rather, He allowed her to offer it back to Him, repeatedly. No less than twenty-seven times, St. Frances Cabrini crossed the oceans between continents. This was more than a century ago, and so passage was by boat, and slow, a matter of days. Yet she did it, again and again, in spite of her fears.
Her first time crossing the Atlantic brought her to New York City. Like her patron, St. Francis Xavier, she had wanted to go to China. But the pope told her, “Not to the east, but to the west.” And so New York it was, where she arrived with a few nuns to begin her first mission in a convent that had been prepared for them. Only, there was no convent—there had been some miscommunication—there was in fact no lodging prepared at all.
Mother Cabrini and her nuns spent the first night in a boarding house infested with bed bugs and mice. Mice, I was to learn, were another fear of hers (I see her smiling at me again). She spent the whole night sitting up, using the occasion to intercede. So began her work among the immigrants of NYC.
How did she do it? Like the apostles in the boat, terrified of the storm about them, she was comforted by the voice of Jesus, saying “It is I.” She knew that voice personally. She had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart (one of her nuns spoke to me of her mystical “exchange of hearts” with Jesus). She knew that He would carry her, that He would provide for her poverty and weakness. He continued to reward her trust in Him.
In April of 1912 she was scheduled to sail yet again from England to New York. But urgent business directed her elsewhere that day, and she canceled passage for herself and another sister. She can only have wondered, later, when she saw the news that the boat she was booked on, the Titanic, had sunk off the coast of Newfoundland.
Why was her life spared? We can talk casually about the mysterious plans of God. Other saints were on board that day when the ship went down. But God had chosen her for further things.
Ultimately, for St. Frances Cabrini, for Our Lady at the Annunciation, for each of us—our Yes is not to an abstract plan, but to a Person. To Someone, not merely something.
When we offer even our fears to God, He responds by giving us more gifts than we could imagine. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and more than 67 institutions throughout the world. She was the first American citizen to be canonized.
May she carry our prayers to the heart of Jesus.
Jesus Walks on the Sea by Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons