Homily: National Migration Conference Opening Mass

One time after Mass, a youngster asked me, “Why do you call us brothers and sisters?  You’re not my brother.”  I responded, “Ah, but we are all members of God’s family.”  After he received a nod of affirmation from his mother and father who stood behind him, he said, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” Then, offering a youthful declaration of approval, he added “That’s cool.”

Clearly we belong to our own natural families, but we also belong to God’s family, with an obligation to care for one another.  It is from that perspective that we see the issues that form the agenda for this National Migration Conference.

The purpose of this National Migration Conference is to address the pressing concerns raised by the arrival in the United States of many, many migrants who come looking for a better life.  The issues that these waves of immigrants generate are many, complex, challenging, but need to be resolved.  Certainly it is not the purpose of one brief homily to try to do that.  Rather that is part of a much larger ongoing discussion that you are so qualified to participate in and to which you bring great wisdom.  I simply am going to share a few reflections based on the readings selected for this Mass.

The first reading for today, from the Letter to the Hebrews, exhorts us to be mindful of others.  One way we do this is the way in which we treat those around us.  We are told do not neglect hospitality.  Instead we are to share what we have in mutual love.

This is not just a good natured admonition.  It is an obligation that follows on our unique spiritual perspective.  Our view of reality includes the extraordinary vision that we have here no lasting city.  As fellow citizens of God’s kingdom being made manifest in our world, we need to look at one another precisely as brothers and sisters, children of a loving God who invites us to a new relationship to one another.

As Pope Francis lamented in his visit to immigrants on the island of Lampedusa last year, in much of the world, “we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters.”  There is an insensitivity with respect to migrants, he said, a “globalization of indifference” (Homily of July 8, 2013).

In your reflections during this Conference all of us are called to recognize the human quality, the faith dimension and the spiritual character to all of those individual faces that stand behind the data, statistics, numbers and policy responses.  While it is imperative to try to identify the steps needed to resolve the undeniable problems that exist with regard to migration and human trafficking, nonetheless in the meantime there is a need for concrete action on a personal level to help our sisters and brothers in crisis.

We can look to the Gospel today for inspiration on the attitude we should have when facing a human issue of this magnitude.  We are told that when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will sit on his glorious throne and then he will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

One of the norms for this dramatic assessment will be our response that allows someone to say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  In discussing these issues we are asked to put ourselves in the place of the stranger looking for welcome.  Not only is it a spiritual imperative that we see Christ and therefore ourselves in others, but it’s a historical reality as well.  All of us at some point in our family history were strangers who wished to be welcomed.

If we personally are not immigrants, we are most certainly descendants of immigrants, so we can identify with the people of today who leave their home countries to come here, the place we take pride in calling “the land of opportunity,” the place where Lady Liberty says to the world, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Given our personal family backgrounds, we can relate to immigrants and refugees and we are mindful of the contributions they have made and continue to make in our communities.

A few days ago our nation celebrated its Independence Day.  In two weeks, we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington on July 22, 1939.  Since the founding of our nation and this archdiocese, both have seen enormous growth, much of it due to immigration.

Saint John Paul II noted in his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America, that “immigration is an almost constant feature of America’s history from the beginning of evangelization to our own day.”  In the New World, he said, we have “experienced many immigrations, as waves of men and women came to its various regions in the hope of a better future” (17, 65).

Many of us may no longer be immigrants ourselves, but we are in a sense here as citizens of another place, with our primary allegiance to another kingdom.  We are ambassadors for heaven’s kingdom, missionary disciples, sent to a particular land. “Here we have no lasting city,” the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us.  Instead “we seek the one that is to come.”  As citizens of another city, our perspective is precisely that of the effort to realize the kingdom of God here and now.

Throughout the United States and other countries, there are people and organizations who are there to offer help in a spirit of fraternity and solidarity, including the hosts of this conference, the U.S. bishop’s conference, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, and Catholic Charities USA, and many more.  They all do invaluable work providing food, clothing, housing, resettlement and integration assistance, health care, legal services and much more.  For all that each of you here today do to assist migrants and refugees, I say “thank you.”

Pope Francis tells us that we cannot be just another special interest group guided by ideology, much less partisan politics, detached from the Gospel.  What we in the Catholic Church bring to the table is Jesus Christ, his Gospel, his vision, his way of life, and his promise of a kingdom abounding in truth, justice, compassion, kindness, understanding, peace, and love.

Such a culture of inclusion is historically what has made the United States great, making neighbors of strangers and welcoming their contributions to our country.  Our history as a nation of people from every land has been enriched by the gifts, talents and ethnic heritage that immigrants have brought and continue to bring.  As Americans and as Christians, we are heralds of this blessing.