Father James Keenan, SJ

One nation, full of immigrants

October 11, 2017

I have known Andrea Vicini since the mid-1990s. Born in Bologna, Italy, he entered the Jesuits there as a pediatrician. After his ordination, in consultation with his provincial, he studied medical ethics at Boston College. He worked with Lisa Sowle Cahill and me doing a license and a doctorate and returned to Italy in 2000 to teach at the Jesuit School of Theology in Naples. 

In 2009 he was awarded the Gasson Chair to visit Boston College again. Two years later he became a professor here and later began applying for a green card.  
Early last month he told me that his citizenship application had gone through and that he was going for an exam to become a U.S. citizen. After the exam he had an interview and four days later received a notice that he was invited to the swearing-in ceremony on Sept. 22 at the Memorial Auditorium in Lowell, Massachusetts. 

“Are you allowed guests?” I asked. “Yes, only one.” Knowing that his family was in Italy, I offered to go. “You need a friend, a witness and someone who can take some photos. I can do all three.”

On the 22nd, we headed to Lowell having no idea how many would become naturalized citizens that day. When we arrived at the auditorium, I was ushered to the balcony and Andrea was welcomed into the large hall. In time we would learn that 884 people would become citizens.

As we waited for the judge to arrive, the hall became filled with hope and gratitude. Those of us in the balcony were taking pictures of all on the floor, waving away in expectation. The joy was felt also by the auditorium staff, who had also interviewed these candidates for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 
I could see Andrea talking to his own interviewer, who had remembered Andrea. “How did you remember me?” “I don’t have an Italian Jesuit priest who is a medical ethicist at Boston College every day,” he answered.

As I scanned the floor, I saw an indiscriminate sea of humanity. The spectrum of racial, ethnic and national diversity was complete. Economic diversity was there as well. Whether they worked in a store, taught at a school, owned a company or were simply related to an already naturalized citizen, there was nothing but a wide swath of economic security and labor positions.

Next to me a man struck up a conversation with the guest on his other side. The other man turned out to be Romanian. As the conversation continued I was surprised at how knowledgeable about Romania the man next to me was. He turned out to be Bulgarian. They began talking about famous Bulgarian TV series.

The judge arrived and lifted our spirits even higher. He reminded us of President Kennedy’s book “A Nation of Immigrants,” which stressed the importance of understanding our nation that way; he referred to the fact that the nation’s founders in the Declaration of Independence condemned King George III for his restrictions on immigration into the colonies; and finally he talked personally about his wife and he attending the naturalization proceedings for their adopted daughter.  

That day immigrants were celebrated in a way that I had not heard in some time. They were not a threat to the future of the United States, but, together with Native American people, the backbone of the American identity.

By the time the new citizens took the oath, there was not a dry eye in the house. As he left the auditorium, I snapped the photo: It’s the same smile that was found on the other 883 new citizens and the same flag. 

After the ceremony I asked Andrea to write down why he wanted to become a U.S. citizen. Here’s what he wrote:

“A spiritual reason. It is a further way to be grounded and rooted where I live and work, to be incarnated here by embracing America and its people at the point of becoming one among them, with all the pluses and minuses, strengths and limitations and responsibilities that being an American citizen entails.”

Like those 883 others, like the roughly 700,000 people who are naturalized in the U.S. annually, here was Andrea “embracing America and its people at the point of becoming one among them.” I was humbled by his decision and very glad to accompany him.