Editors note: This is a Jan. 3 column titled “National Migration Week: A reminder of our duty to welcome the stranger” by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone from the Catholic San Francisco, archdiocesan newspaper.
In 2003, the Catholic bishops of the United States and Mexico issued a historic binational pastoral letter on immigration, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” The title takes its inspiration from St. Paul, who, in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, states: “… you are strangers and aliens no longer. No, you are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God.”
He is writing here to the Gentile Christians at Ephesus who had been “excluded” from the people of God, since they were not members of the chosen people of Israel. But now God has revealed himself to all people and given all nations access to membership in the people of God through the sacrifice of his son Jesus Christ on the cross. Therefore, whereas before the Ephesians had been “far off” from the people of God, now they have been “brought near” because they have accepted this revelation and regulated their lives accordingly.
That was 15 years ago. I was a new bishop at the time, and felt very inspired by the bold and creative pastoral vision of my elders in the episcopacy, a vision whose impetus came from a meeting of the Catholic bishops of the dioceses along the border between Mexico and Texas. In the year 2000, they wrote a letter to the presidents of the Mexican and U.S. conferences of Catholic bishops expressing their concern for the loss of life and destruction of family life resulting from existing immigration policies and practices.
For myself, ministering in another border diocese at the time, San Diego, I saw up close the need for immigration reform and the human tragedy that results from our failure to achieve it. In fact, one of the first pastoral invitations I received as an auxiliary bishop was to celebrate Mass in a cemetery in the Imperial Valley for those buried there. The graves were unmarked. They had to be. The cemetery was for those who had died trying to enter the United States through the desert. Their bodies were found, unidentified. There were over 200 such victims buried in that cemetery at the time.
I had hoped at that time that, by now, our nation would have arrived at a workable solution to the plight of those seeking asylum, refuge or immigration to our land in a way that achieves justice for all involved. Instead, sadly, the problem continues to grow, and seemingly to have exacerbated especially in this last year, with many of our friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers and fellow parishioners living in fear of being separated from their families at any given moment, afraid that any little misstep or untimely encounter could result in deprivation of livelihood and loved ones. People should not have to live in the shadows and in fear, nor should they have to risk their lives to come to a place where they can find honest work to provide for their loved ones.
For almost 50 years now, the Catholic Church in the United States has celebrated National Migration Week, which is being celebrated Jan. 7-14 this year. This week is an opportunity the church gives us to reflect on the harsh circumstances faced by migrants of all types, such as immigrants, refugees, unaccompanied minors and other children and victims and survivors of human trafficking. It is a reminder to all of us of the duty incumbent upon us as Christians to take responsibility for those suffering from our broken immigration system for, as St. John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” yes, we are all our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
I would therefore ask our Catholic people to do two things to honor National Migration Week: that is, two things to do not for or during National Migration week, but to do in order to apply the meaning of this week to their lives throughout the year.
First of all, for those not already well versed in the church’s teaching on migration, I would ask that they become so. While it is true that some policy decisions fall within the area of prudential judgments, there are also basic moral principles that must always be respected if justice for migrants, and the countries they are seeking to enter, is to be attained. It is important that our people understand what our church teaches on this critical and timely topic, which provides the rationale for the sorts of policies for which we advocate.
A good starting point would be to obtain a copy of “Strangers No Longer” and give it a thorough reading. Other information is available on the USCCB immigration website, justiceforimmigrants.org.
Secondly, this important body of church teaching must not remain in the head. Behind every immigrant story is a very real and moving, and sometimes tragic, human experience. Immigration is an issue which, perhaps more than any other, looks very different when one can put a human face to it. As Pope Francis has stated: “Each migrant has a name, a face and a story.” It is imperative that all people native to our country get to know immigrants and migrants and listen to their stories.
Every one of us in this country has an immigration story somewhere in our families’ lineage, and so in justice we must not see the newly arrived immigrant in our midst as “the other” or, even worse, a statistic, but rather pay attention to and care for them. And as Christians, we have the even higher calling of welcoming the stranger as Christ himself, for he reveals himself to us through them: “I was … a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
St. Paul’s teaching in his letter to the Ephesians is of one people, reconciled to each other in Christ, and through Christ reconciled to God the father. It is a vision of disparate peoples who find a new peace and unity with each other through the revelation of God’s saving action. They are, then, no longer strangers to each other, nor to those who went before them in faith and now share the fullness of life in God’s kingdom. This means, therefore, that if we are to be people of God, we cannot allow differences to be causes of division and hostility. Rather, we are to welcome persons of all cultures and languages as brothers and sisters.
In closing, in addition to everything else, I would ask us all to remember, above all, to pray: to pray for those suffering hardship in seeking a new home whether as immigrants or refugees; to pray especially for victims of human trafficking; and to pray for a permanent solution leading to a just, equitable and comprehensive reform of our nation’s immigration system.