Refugees and Migrants – Are they part of Our Common Good?

By Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., Secretary General, International Catholic Migration Commission

In my global advocacy activities, both as the secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) and as part-time attaché at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, I have been amazed at the positive response of diplomats and international nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocates to Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’[1]. Many who would pass by me at the United Nations when they noticed my Roman collar now greet me warmly and tell me, “I like your Pope and his encyclical!” Despite my joy upon receiving these positive echoes, I am concerned that too many still see the encyclical as focusing on climate change alone (as vital and important as that issue might be) and do not discern the deeper implications of Pope Francis’s call for “integral human ecology,” which requires a profound discernment of our relationship with God, with nature, and with ourselves and each other.

In the sixth chapter of the encyclical, the Holy Father issued a rather curious challenge – that is, to promote “civic and political love”: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it (220)…. Social love is the key to authentic development (231).” What a contrast between Pope Francis’s admonition and the demeaning political rhetoric that dominated the recent referendum vote in the United Kingdom and the political campaigns in the United States and Europe!

The bitter debate about admission of migrants and refugees into Western countries is literally the most glaring proof of the crying need to promote civil and political love in our world. In February 2016, while standing at the border between Mexico and the United States, Pope Francis described the current situation in this manner: “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”[2]

On January 15, 2017, the Catholic Church observes the 103rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees. For this occasion, Pope Francis has decided to focus on “Minor migrants, vulnerable and voiceless,”[3] who often arrive unaccompanied in their destination countries, “are unable to make their own voices heard” and “easily become victims of grave violations of human rights.” In his message for this day, the Holy Father insists on the need to strike a balance between “the right of states to control migratory movement and to protect the common good of the nation … with the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants.” He reminds us that the migration phenomenon is part of salvation history, which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.” Echoing dominant themes of Catholic social teaching, and specifically of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for far-sighted perspectives, “capable of offering adequate programmes for areas struck by the worst injustice and instability, in order that access to authentic development can be guaranteed for all,” and reminds us that “this development should promote the good of boys and girls, who are humanity’s hope.”

My own organization, the ICMC, received a mandate from Pope Pius XII, “…to unite and organize existing Catholic associations and committees, and to promote, reinforce and coordinate their projects and activities in behalf of migrants and refugees.[4]” I recently visited the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey; our staff there are deeply engaged in assisting families to apply for resettlement in the United States. These refugees cannot return home, and their current host country is unable to offer them permanent residence, employment, and long-term safety.

During my visit, I spent time with a group of children who were receiving instruction on life in America. As most children, they were enthusiastic and curious – they grinned from ear to ear and spoke of what they planned to do in their new homes. Each had colored a map of the United States, placed his or her destination state in a special color and spoke with confidence about heading to better and happier lives. But behind their smiling faces, I noticed pain and trauma in their eyes. They had witnessed terrible atrocities; several had lost their loved ones. I am sure that they were experiencing much anxiety and concern about how safe they would be as they boarded an airplane heading for parts of the world that would be very unfamiliar to them. What impressed me most about these children, however, was their sense of hope – they could imagine a better life for themselves and their families despite the many challenges they had experienced so early in life. They, like the Child Jesus, could still imagine the world described by the prophet Isaiah, where “… the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat. The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them (Is. 11:6).”

For me, the time with these child refugees was a real lesson in a way to promote “civic and political love” that seems to be so lacking in our contemporary society and living proof that refugees and migrants are part of our common good!

 

[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 24 May 2015, available at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/ documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

[2] Idem, Apostolic Journey to Mexico, Homily during Mass at Ciudad Juarez Fairgrounds, 17 February 2016, available at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2016/documents/papa-francesco_20160217_omelia-messico-ciudad-jaurez.html.

[3] Idem, Message for The World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017 (“Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless”), Vatican City, released 8 September 2016, available at https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/ messag[15 January 2017], es/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20160908_world-migrants-day-2017.html.

[4] Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethana, 1952, available at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/ p12exsul.htm.

 

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