My History; Our Nation's Future

We are pretty certain that Tom Roberts needs no introduction to CACG members. A one-time editor and long-time writer at the National Catholic Reporter, Tom’s book The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself has received wide critical acclaim. Recently, Tom and his wife Sal joined a one-day fast in solidarity with the Fast for Families on the National Mall. For this week’s Common Good Forum, we asked Tom to reflect on his reasons for joining the fast.

All four of my grandparents arrived from the East Coast of Italy, from a space along the Adriatic Coast that ran from Ortona to Tollo. One was primarily a peasant, farm family; the other was a more entrepreneurial city family.

I know the details only of the decision of my grandfather on my father’s side. He had done, as I heard it over the years, at least two stints in the Italian Army and was not going to do a third. As he told it in very broken English: “I go to my momma one day and say, ‘I going to ‘Merica,’ and inna’ two days, I’ma gone.”

He probably went to Naples and boarded a ship that eventually deposited him in Boston. Somewhere in that mix he met a fellow traveler from the same region of Italy. He would forever be known as Uncle Joe to us. My grandfather eventually caught a glimpse of a photo of his friend’s sister, wrote to her, sent her passage. She arrived and within 72 hours they were married. They had nine kids. It was in citizenship court around 1903 that the name switched from Rabottini. As the story goes, the person doing the paper work heard the “Rab” as “Rob” and said, “You’re Roberts.” That’s the story I heard from childhood.

There’s lots more to the story, especially on my mother’s side. Her name was Palladino and remained unchanged. She was one of eight. These two large Italian Catholic families were the universe through which I floated almost exclusively for the first 15 or 16 years of my life.

I recall that personal history because I am a single generation away from that immigrant experience and what I’ve taken from all the stories is the sheer will my grandparents had just to get here. It is the history I recalled when I decided, with my wife Sally (as Irish in origins as I am Italian but with a much longer history on U.S. soil) to join the Fast for Families for one day in early December. I don’t usually don’t go in for fasting. I don’t have that kind of discipline. But this one gave me an opportunity to join in solidarity, however briefly, with brothers and sisters who face the hardship of leaving their homelands for opportunity, to provide for their families, to seek the same kind of changes that drove my own grandparents to emigrate. I spend a great deal of time in my work pondering what’s wrong with the culture and its politics. This day provided an opportunity to sink deeply into what’s right with it and why so many will go to such desperate ends to be here.

My relatives faced some bumps and minor discrimination early on, but they didn’t have to live in the shadows. What they generated in the course of a century was somewhat remarkable, because among their legacy are an ongoing business, successful entrepreneurs, scores of teachers, several PhDs, gangs of college graduates, nurses, lawyers, a composer and conductor of some note, an environmental scientist, political activists, computer wizards, craftsmen, artists and artisans of all sorts. The leap of hope and faith taken by four obscure Italians that unbound the ties to place and old cultural expectations unloosed upon this new land a significant ongoing contribution to church and state.

We are best as a country when we are generous. That day of fasting came to a close with a prayer service at our parish, St. Camillus in Silver Spring, a place of dizzying diversity where, I am told, more than a hundred countries are represented in the congregation. For many people here, immigration reform is more than an intellectual exercise. It is the only hope for reuniting with loved ones, husbands and wives, siblings with each other, children with parents.

Kept in the shadows, their contributions will be confined to the minimal, their development constricted, the relationship demeaning for both sides. We will take what they can safely offer and otherwise keep them marginalized. Laws and borders are still essential, but we have to begin to ask, in certain circumstances, if the cost to maintain the boundaries, in terms of treasure and national soul, is worth whatever security might be gained. Pope Francis has articulated a different calculus, particularly for those of us in privileged circumstances.

As I looked over the diversity evident in the church that night, I could only imagine, somewhat selfishly, what good awaited us all if the assembled cultures and their gifts were allowed to flourish in full sunlight.

Must Reads

At the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg on the legacy of Mandela 

At Commonweal, David Cloutier remembers Cardinal Bernardin’s “Seamless garment of life” speech

At the Catholic Health Association blog, Sr. Carol Keehan criticizes a recent New York Times editorial

At America, Kevin Clarke on income inequality

At the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters challenges “illiberal lefties”

At the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker on Evangelii Gaudium

 

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