Rev. Anthony Benedetto Pizzo, O.S.A. – Homily Columbus Day

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Homily given during the Italian American Heritage Mass (Columbus Day), 12 October 2020 at Casa Italia

Rev. Anthony Benedetto Pizzo, O.S.A., Prior Provincial of the Midwest Augustinian Province

Our being here today acknowledges that the Italian American community is looking to solidify our validation and affirmation in Chicago.  This is part and parcel of our DNA to find our place in our respective communities so as to build up our collective and mutual appreciation for our contributions to this great nation.

The COVID pandemic along with addressing racial equality has been altering our thinking and behavior.  The 2nd Monday of October has been the day when we recognize the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus who traveled across the Atlantic with the intention to not only discover a new route to the orient but also to re-ignite the Christian Faith in the Holy Land.  Little did he know that he was to encounter unknown cultures at that time.  The discourse we have used in the past, we have discovered, has been questioned.  The current discourse now uses expressions like conquest, others, a clash of cultures and still others, an encounter of cultures.  Each expression is going to have its own nuance depending on which cultural and ethnic lens one may interpret the narrative.  Before an historical narrative is revised, there are steps to be taken to get closer to the truth.  With literary and historical critical tools used in scholarly work, like Dr. Carol Delaney’s book, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, revisions then, should reflect adjusted narratives that include factual research based on historical documents.  Revising the narrative must include the factual research that illuminates our knowledge to include all perspectives, the positive as well as the negative. None of us are exempt from making poor choices or decisions even with the best of intentions.  We cannot change the past but we can transform the present narrative, our narrative, the Italian American narrative into something more than what we have been given and to which we have been confined.  This opens up the door toward dialogue and fruitful conversations that contribute to mutual respect and appreciation.

There is no argument these days, politically, that our world is polarized.  A year ago, the Jesuit columnist, Fr. Matt Malone sheds light on this very topic of what to do with the polarizing narrative of Columbus, his accomplishments and his motives.  He says:

Polarization does not respect nuance.  But without nuance, without some appreciation for the complexities of our history and the reality of the fallen world we live in, our otherwise good intentions become a blunt instrument, more appropriate for brute confrontation than genuine encounter with each other. [1]

So, rather than polarize, we are given an opportunity to bridge, educate, and create productive and mutually respectful encounters.  We are invited to become salt and light, to give flavor to our rich culture and to illuminate the darkness of falsehoods so that we can accompany one another to the truth.

In other words, rather than react we respond.  There is a qualitative difference.  Arguing from one side or the other doesn’t accomplish that for which our Italian American culture is known…hospitality, welcoming, table fellowship, family and faith.  We are left with a rhetorical question of: how can we move beyond the polemics of what “really” happened at that time?  What was Columbus “really” like?  My response is Educate do not eradicate!  In mutually respectful conversations and dialogue, how can we move from fruitless arguments to a richer and more profound understanding of our history and the accomplishments not only of one man but the collective accomplishments of so many Italian Americans who have contributed to the richness of our culture in this nation?  This will not take away the symbolic importance of Columbus but will widen the perspective of the American people that Italian American accomplishments are not only centered in one person.  Besides, we are not going to find someone who is perfectly altruistic other than Jesus Christ, the reason why we are celebrating this Eucharistic Liturgy, by the way.  But we can come pretty close.  For instance, today, in NYC, Governor Cuomo is unveiling a statue of Saint Francesca Saveria Cabrini.  He says that:

Mother Cabrini is the “personification” of Italian American achievement, having founded 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages.

“She served the poor and the immigrants. She had boundless energy and unlimited capacity and she was a model for female empowerment before the expression was ever used – doing all of this in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The city of Denver has declared that the 1st Monday of October will honor Mother Cabrini for her accomplishments with the immigrant communities.

She is an important part of my own family narrative as well because my maternal grandparents used to talk with her when she was pushing the wheel barrel as construction was going on building Columbus Extension Hospital which was later named Mother Cabrini Hospital on Racine.  But she, who is a canonized saint, had a questionable side of her character after she threw out of the hospital my paternal grandfather when he refused to leave my grandmother’s side in her hospital room.  He would later say, “how could the Pope canonize ‘una strega.”  No one is exempt from questionable behavior.

In his recent encyclical pastoral letter, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis calls us to disrupt our lives and pay attention to the world around us NOW!  We cannot change the past but we can certainly enhance our present narrative for future generations. The Holy Father’s urgent message challenges us to look at the world from different perspectives and take action through a genuine encounter with one another.  The Holy Father addresses our social relationships by recognizing that love and attention, followed by accompaniment is the model for us to take action on how to build bridges and remove the obstacles that prevent us from seeing the face of God in each other.  This will lead us to fruitful engagement with one another that, hopefully, will lead our good intentions toward the common good.[2]

I want to see the face of God, now!  We shouldn’t have to wait for Eternity to gaze upon God’s face.  I want to see his face in you, and in the indigenous person, person of color, the homeless, the marginalized, the immigrant. And I certainly  hope you can see the face of God in me, otherwise I have failed.  Yet, He’s been here the whole time.  He reveals himself in the most unlikely person and circumstance.  Keep your eyes open, my friends.  Christ makes himself present to us in this act of thanksgiving on the altar.  He calls us in communion with one another and then to be witnesses as light in darkness giving flavor to the bland taste of indifference.

What we have been offering and what we can still offer, namely, the depth of faith, our welcoming and inviting posture, and as the Prophet Isaiah describes in yesterday’s first reading, offering juicy rich food and pure choice wines will enhance the rich social nature of our culture.

Our historical narratives may change but the Gospel narrative does not.  Living in a fractured world as wounded people, Christ, nonetheless, accompanies US to be agents of healing, reconciliation and peace.

[1] Malone, S.J., Matt. “Columbus Day is a chance to acknowledge a nuanced history in a polarized world.”  America Magazine, October 15, 2020.

[2] Wells, Christopher, Linda Bordoni. “Fratelli tutti: “a call to disrupt our lives and pay attention to the world.” Vatican News, 9 October 2020.