It is not hard to remember from last fall the images on our television screens of the thousands and thousands of migrants and refugees streaming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Some of these people’s journeys began in perilous boat rides across the Mediterranean Sea. Now the issue of taking in refugees has been raised in the United States as well.
The vast numbers of people leaving their homes to find a more secure and better place has been rightly called a humanitarian crisis by world leaders. The plight of migrants and refugees has long been a concern of the Church as well, and for more than 100 years, since 1914, it has observed a world day dedicated to them. The theme for the 2016 World Day is “Migrants and Refugees Challenge Us: The Response of the Gospel of Mercy.”
Recognizing how the human family is interconnected and that we have an obligation to care for one another, from the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has often lifted up for the world the needs of those seeking refuge and a better life. The Second Vatican Council fifty years ago also spoke of the need for universal cooperation, saying that organizations of the international community “must make provision for men’s different needs, both in the fields of social life—such as food supplies, health, education, labor and also in certain special circumstances which can crop up here and there, e.g., the need to promote the general improvement of developing countries, or to alleviate the distressing conditions in which refugees dispersed throughout the world find themselves, or also to assist migrants and their families” (Gaudium et Spes, 84).
In this year’s Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which will be observed on Sunday, January 17, Pope Francis says that “migration movements are now a structural reality and our primary issue must be to deal with the present emergency phase by providing programs which address the causes of migration and the changes it entails, including its effect on the makeup of societies and peoples.”
We know from our local communities that the concern for migrants and refugees is not something happening in distant countries but also here at home. Pope Francis reminds us in his Message that these people are not really strangers, but “our brothers and sisters in search of a better life, far away from poverty, hunger, exploitation and the unjust distribution of the planet’s resources which are meant to be equitably shared by all.”
Our Holy Father is asking us to reflect on what a Gospel response to this challenge might look like. It begins with the mercy of a welcoming attitude.
All of us at some point in our family history were migrants and foreigners who wished to be welcomed. Our country is a nation of immigrants and we have been enriched by the gifts, talents and ethnic heritage that they have brought and continue to bring.
As Americans, given our personal family backgrounds, we should be able to relate to migrants and refugees, and be mindful of the contributions they have made and continue to make in our communities. As Catholics, we can bring the Gospel to bear on the question of how to meet their needs.
While others might debate the politics, what we in the Catholic Church in America bring to the table is Jesus Christ – his vision, his way of life, and his promise of a culture of inclusion is historically what has made the United States great, making neighbors of strangers and welcoming their contributions to our country. Precisely because of our faith in Christ, “no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities,” observed Pope Francis during his visit here.
As members of God’s family we know that in building relationships, in coming to see “the stranger” as a sister or brother, we overcome prejudices that are born in ignorance and unfamiliarity of “the other.” In welcoming them, showing them hospitality, we also learn that our newly arrived immigrants often bring a deep faith and desire to contribute to the life of our Church and community.
Please visit mercy.adw.org/migration-week to read the inspiring stories of some immigrant members of our local Church who in the past came here and are enriching our culture and strengthening our communities and our Church. They share with us not only the strength of their Catholic faith but also their hopes for own lives and the lives of their families. In them we see the American spirit that is so much a part of the story of the United States.