Welcoming the Migrant: Becoming a Sacrament of Unity
by Janet Diaz, D.Min.
Dean, Institute for Ministry
Sacred Heart Major Seminary
"The presence of so many people of
so many different cultures and religions in so many different parts of the
United States has challenged us as a Church to a profound conversion so that we
can become truly a sacrament of unity" (Welcoming
the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, [Washington, DC: United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000]).
The migration of people from their
homes to other countries has become an astonishingly common occurrence. The
United Nations estimates that there are currently 230 million migrants globally.
Immigrants come specifically to the United States for a myriad of reasons,
including a desire for higher education or a better standard of living, the
need to flee from war and other types of violence, dire poverty, religious
persecution, or the reunification of families that have been torn apart because
of conflicts. Some migrants travel here safely and with visas; others make
treacherous, often life-threatening journeys to enter the United States without
proper documentation. Every migration story is unique. There is, however, one
feature that characterizes a large percentage of the recent immigrants to the United
States—they are Catholic.
While some Christian congregations
have seen their numbers dwindle over the past several decades, recent
statistics show that the number of Catholics in the United States is staying
the same in certain regions and growing in others, largely because of
immigration (American Religion:
Contemporary Trends, Mark Chaves [Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2011], 23). Hispanic immigrants comprise the largest minority group within the
Catholic Church in the United States.
What is our heritage with regard to
pastoral care of immigrants? The Catholic Church in the United States has a
long history of service to immigrant communities. During the 1820-1920 "great
migration" from Europe, the Church provided all types of support to immigrants,
usually through the "national parish" model in major cities. Today, the
landscape is different. We have fewer national parishes and more multicultural
parishes; the majority of our immigrants are from places other than Europe; and
the new immigrants tend to be everywhere—in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
From a pastoral perspective, how do
we care for migrants? How can we provide ongoing evangelization for them,
helping them grow continuously closer to Jesus Christ while strengthening their
commitment to the Catholic Church and ensuring their involvement in parish
life? How can we be active partakers in the Church's commitment "to advance
social justice" through our advocacy for immigrants (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults [Washington, DC: USCCB,
Sacred Scripture provides a foundational
theological understanding of migration as an integral part of our faith story. With
regard to Church teaching, our beliefs about the human person and solidarity,
especially with the poor, serve to guide our orientation toward immigrants. We
are called to live out these truths by becoming genuine communities of welcome,
appreciating our God-given unity in diversity and realizing that "the new
evangelization means openness to the gifts of the Spirit wherever they might
appear" (Welcoming the Stranger Among Us:
Unity in Diversity, 55).
Sacred Scripture: Migration Narratives and the Call to Love
"You shall not oppress a resident
alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens
yourselves in the land of Egypt" (Ex 23:9).
Salvation history, from its very
beginnings, abounds with migration stories. God called Abraham, the first of
the Israel's patriarchs, to migrate to the land of Canaan (see Gn 11-12). The
Jews were exiled to Babylon and then returned to the Promised Land. In the New
Testament, the Holy Family became migrants when the angel instructed Joseph to
flee to Egypt to escape Herod's brutal massacre of the Innocents (see Mt
2:13-15). During Jesus' earthly ministry, he himself lived as an itinerant
In addition to including many migration
narratives, Scripture also teaches us how to care for those who are not part of
our "in-group," such as migrants. Three themes are prominent in this regard: love
of neighbor, hospitality, and our oneness in Christ.
In Leviticus, the Jews are
instructed to love those from outside their group in the same way they love
themselves: "You shall treat the alien who resides with you no
differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as
yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lv 19:34). In the
Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as
ourselves; the law and the prophets are built upon the command to, first, love
God and, second, love neighbor (see Mt 22:37-40, Mk 12:30-31).
The patriarch Abraham models servant
hospitality. When three strangers approach his tent, he declares, "Let some
water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest under the tree. .
. . Let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves" (Gn 18:4-5).
The exhortation to hospitality continues into the New Testament. The writer of
the Letter to the Hebrews reminds his communities: "Let mutual love continue.
Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained
angels" (Heb 13:1-2).
The New Testament repeatedly
teaches of our unity, or oneness, in Jesus Christ. As the early Church
struggled to understand whether the Gentiles were brothers and sisters in Christ,
St. Paul repeatedly insisted that no one is excluded from the promises of God:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there
is not male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).
Safeguarding the Human Dignity of Migrants within a "Church
"The divine image is present in
every man" (Catechism of the
Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana
(LEV)– USCCB, 2000], no. 1702).
As Catholics, we are responsible
for safeguarding the dignity of every human being from conception to natural
death. This call is grounded in our belief that each person is a reflection of
the Imago Dei—each of us is made in
the image and likeness of God (CCC, no. 1700).
Human beings who are especially
vulnerable, such as immigrants, call out for our compassionate response. Pope
Francis reminds us that our solidarity with these brothers and sisters, many of
whom are poor both economically and
in spirit, calls us to recognize Jesus' suffering in the migrants' suffering: "It is essential to draw near to new forms of poverty and
vulnerability, in which we are called to recognize the suffering Christ…
Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a
Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all. For
this reason, I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than
fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of
cultural synthesis" (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [Washington, DC:
LEV–USCCB, 2013], no. 210). This exhortation to loving openness applies
not only to countries but also to our parish communities.
The recognition of
migrants' human dignity must consciously extend to those who are living in the
United States without proper documentation. As the U.S. Hispanic/Latino bishops
proclaimed in their 2012 letter entitled, "Estas son las Mañanitas… of the
Hispanic Bishops": "We recognize that every human being, authorized or not, is
an image of God and therefore possesses infinite value and dignity" (usccbmedia.blogspot.com/2011/12/estas-son-las-mananitasof-hispanic_12.html).
Communities of Welcome
"There is no fear in love, but
perfect love drives out fear" (1 Jn 4:18).
First and foremost, we are called
to welcome migrants, to make our parish communities homes-away-from-home for
them. Even though one of the three visitors in the Genesis narrative,
unbeknownst to Abraham, turns out to be the Lord God, Abraham at first seeks to
serve the strangers out of pure hospitality, simply because they are, in his
perception, fellow human beings present in his midst. As leaders in the Catholic Church,
we are called to put our principles into practice in ways that will help
migrants know without a doubt that they are welcome, that their presence with
us is deeply appreciated, and that they bring unique enrichment to our
In order to authentically welcome,
we must be willing to pull down some of our familiar "walls" and enter into an
understanding of the migrants' backgrounds and experiences. Especially in
multicultural parishes where immigrants are the newer parish members, those who
have been long-term parishioners sometimes feel threatened by the immigrants'
presence and the looming changes to which their presence points. It is difficult
to express love toward the migrants as long as parishioners focus on their
fears. But as Pope Francis writes, we must let go of our fear of the "loss of
local identity" and display "generous openness" in seeking to integrate
positive aspects of the migrants' cultures into our own.
Parish communities need to ask God
to bless them with a heart to love migrants, a spirit of reconciliation that
will enable them to let go of fear and embrace life-giving change, and an
appreciation of the mutual enrichment that will result. In this way, our
parishes will be transformed into living signs of a sacrament of unity.
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Excerpt from Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, Libreria
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