Seeing Jesus in the Face of Migrants

Eritrean refugees hold candles during memorial gathering to mark first anniversary of Lampedusa migrant shipwreck.

Eritrean refugees hold candles during memorial gathering to mark first anniversary of Lampedusa migrant shipwreck. (CNS photo/Tiksa Negeri, Reuters)

Lent offers a time for reflection and examination of conscience. We are invited to meditate on the infinite mercy of God and how we might in our lives manifest that mercy in our world today. As we make our Lenten pilgrimage, I invite you to keep present in your thoughts and prayers our sisters and brothers who feel compelled to leave their homelands in search of a better, safer, more secure life.

At the end of his General Audience on February 11, Pope Francis again called the world’s attention to the need for solidarity and humanitarian assistance to address the continuing crisis in migration. His appeal came amidst news reports of more than 300 people from Africa drowning or dying from hypothermia while attempting to cross the sea in small boats to seek refuge in Italy. This tragedy is only the latest of many as a growing flow of migrants brave treacherous conditions in an attempt to reach other lands, with many losing their lives in the process. We have seen such tragedies before, as with the Vietnamese, Haitian and Cuban “boat people.”

A few days earlier, our Holy Father visited a shantytown called “Camp Rainbow” on the outskirts of Rome which accommodates displaced families from many different countries – Peru, Ecuador, Eritrea, Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere. With this simple caring gesture, as with his July 2013 visit to Lampedusa, the Pope brought a little bit of joy and hope into their hearts.

This concern for migrants, which Pope Francis has shown throughout his pontificate, has a particular resonance for the Lenten season. This time that the Church lifts up for us is often referred to as a journey which helps us to re-experience important chapters of the mystery of salvation. We recall the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert and, as heirs to the covenant, we are invited to identify with the Israelites who were strangers in Egypt and who journeyed as strangers in the desert for 40 years after leaving slavery in Egypt.

“Each year during Lent,” Pope Francis said in his Message for Lent 2015, “we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.” Our Holy Father has shown himself to be such a voice, continually speaking to our hearts to remember those on the peripheries of society – the poor, the young and elderly, the disabled and the stranger in our midst, the migrant who seeks a better life and needs our help.

In Holy Scripture, the Lord tells his people, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34, see also Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Old Testament prophets cried out to show kindness and compassion toward resident aliens and do them no wrong or violence (Zechariah 7:9-10; Jeremiah 22:3). We are warned that we will be judged for the way we treat the foreigners among us (Ezekiel 22:29; Malachi 3:5), and if we are harsh to them, we cannot enter into the land God has promised his people (Jeremiah 7:6-7).

Concern for those who are strangers, those who are downtrodden, vulnerable and marginalized is among the essential qualities that the Lord expects of his good and faithful people. This regard must be more than mere obligation. It should be a response of gratitude that flows from our hearts for the blessings we have received ourselves, for our deliverance from bondage and being gifted with the Promised Land.

In confronting the phenomenon of widespread migration, and the global indifference often shown to migrants, we should understand that often times they are more or less forced to leave their homes. They would prefer to stay, but violence, persecution, extreme poverty or other suffering – like we see with Christians in the Middle East – compel them to leave and seek refuge elsewhere.

Similarly, the vast number of people coming across the southern border of the United States do so with hope for a better, more secure future for themselves, many of them fleeing harsh or oppressive conditions. We need to be alert to their essential needs and insist that their fundamental human dignity be respected.

As Christians, we are all sojourners ourselves, strangers in the land. At the same time, we are a Church without borders. The kingdom of which we are subjects is universal, transcending national boundaries. Consequently, from the Christian perspective, the person from Mexico or Central or South America, Africa or Asia is not a stranger to us in the U.S., but a brother or sister, a fellow citizen of God’s kingdom.

Over and over again Pope Francis has said to us something we already know but need to hear with great regularity. He tells us, “God loves you” and we should see in others the face of his Son. In a special way, he says, “Jesus Christ is always waiting to be recognized in migrants and refugees, in displaced persons and in exiles, and through them he calls us to share our resources, and occasionally to give up something of our acquired riches” (Message for World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2015).

As a matter of good conscience, we know what we should do going forward on an individual and social level. Beyond raising awareness and urging national leaders and the whole international community to implement humane policies and take concrete steps to address the migration crisis, we can show solidarity with migrants through our prayer and support of humanitarian relief efforts by Catholic Charities and other ministries.

If migrants are the face of Christ, then we are obligated to treat them as we would treat Jesus himself. What we do for them, we do for him (Matthew 25:40). What we do not do for others, we do not do for Christ (Matthew 25:45).