Parish Resource - Diaz

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedWelcoming 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, 2006], 43)?

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 Migrants

"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 preacher.

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 without Frontiers"

"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" (

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 parishes.

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.

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Used with permission. All rights reserved.