I am writing this article as a column, as opposed to an editorial, so that while sharing with you, gentle reader (as Miss Manners would say), the teachings of the Church regarding immigration, I might also share my own opinion. As such, I am not writing this column as a official representative of the Church.
Mark Fisher, one of the Republican candidates for governor of Massachusetts, was quoted in the Boston Globe last Friday saying, “I don’t take my moral example from Deval (Patrick, the current governor)or the mayor of Somerville, but rather from Pope John Paul II who, for the occasion of World Migration Day, stated on July 25, 1995, that ‘Illegal immigration should be prevented.’” I do agree with that statement, but I think that Fisher may be taking the sainted pope’s words out of context when applying them to the present situation of the minors showing up at the U.S.-Mexican border.
Right before the sentence which Fisher quoted, the Holy Father wrote, “Today the phenomenon of illegal migrants has assumed considerable proportions, both because the supply of foreign labor is becoming excessive in comparison to the needs of the economy, which already has difficulty in absorbing its domestic workers, and because of the spread of forced migration. The necessary prudence required to deal with so delicate a matter cannot become one of reticence or exclusivity, because thousands would suffer the consequences as victims of situations that seem destined to deteriorate instead of being resolved. His irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored.”
In other words, St. John Paul was speaking about the situation in 1996, which he called a “social emergency” due to competition for jobs between documented (or “legal”) and undocumented (or “illegal”) immigrants and citizens and due to what he termed “forced migration,” due to drastic situations in the countries of origin. Note that at the end of the paragraph, the pope reminded us that “inalienable rights” cannot be denied to anyone, regardless of their immigration status.
Next the Holy Father said the line which the gubernatorial candidate quoted (whose positions on the “non-negotiable issues” of life and Marriage are the only ones amongst the candidates which are in conformity with the teachings of the Catholic Church, so please do not think that I am personally hostile to Fisher). St. John Paul wrote, “Illegal immigration should be prevented, but it is also essential to combat vigorously the criminal activities which exploit illegal immigrants. The most appropriate choice, which will yield consistent and long-lasting results is that of international cooperation which aims to foster political stability and to eliminate underdevelopment. The present economic and social imbalance, which to a large extent encourages the migratory flow, should not be seen as something inevitable, but as a challenge to the human race’s sense of responsibility.”
Here we see the context of the pope’s quoted line. He would want all countries involved, the ones from which are coming the immigrants, as well as the “destination” countries, to work together to fight criminals who are exploiting the immigrants (such as the drug cartels in Latin America). He said that the “most appropriate choice” of what to do would be to work together to eliminate the causes of this flow of people. He noted that we all have a “responsibility” to do this.
The saint then discussed the Church’s role in this situation: “The Church considers the problem of illegal migrants from the standpoint of Christ, Who died to gather together the dispersed children of God (cf. Jn 11:52), to rehabilitate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant, in order to integrate all within a communion that is not based on ethnic, cultural or social membership, but on the common desire to accept God’s Word and to seek justice. ‘God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him’” (Acts 10:34-35). This quote is a reminder to all of us Catholics that we are called to be “co-heirs” with Christ (as the second Eucharistic prayer reminds us) together with our brothers and sisters from any and all countries. We need to be welcoming to whomever crosses the threshold of our parishes, realizing that we are Catholics first and foremost.
Next the pope said what we (Catholics in lands where these folks were arriving) had to do. “The Church acts in continuity with Christ’s mission. In particular, she asks herself how to meet the needs, while respecting the law of those persons who are not allowed to remain in a national territory. She also asks what the right to emigrate is worth without the corresponding right to immigrate. She tackles the problem of how to involve in this work of solidarity those Christian communities frequently infected by a public opinion that is often hostile to immigrants.” To summarize this, we need to: (1) meet their needs; (2) respect laws; (3) question whether the laws are just; (4) not allow ourselves to be “infected” with anti-immigrant sentiment.
The Holy Father then told us a concrete thing that we could do. “The first way to help these people is to listen to them in order to become acquainted with their situation, and, whatever their legal status with regard to state law, to provide them with the necessary means of subsistence.” The Catholic Church always strives to do this (although, we may need to remind ourselves that the Church is not just its social services arm, it is each and every member of the Mystical Body of Christ. We are all called to do this — to take the time to patiently listen to the immigrants and see how we can be of help).
Next the pope did turn to a responsibility of the immigrants themselves, but even here he is much more lenient than Fisher implied. “Thus it is important to help illegal migrants to complete the necessary administrative papers to obtain a residence permit. Social and charitable institutions can make contact with the authorities in order to seek appropriate, lawful solutions to various cases. This kind of effort should be made especially on behalf of those who, after a long stay, are so deeply rooted in the local society that returning to their country of origin would be tantamount to a form of reverse emigration, with serious consequences particularly for the children.”
I could continue to quote from this document, which is very much worth reading (it can be found at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/messages/migration/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_25071995_undocumented_migrants_en.html). Fisher inadvertently did us a service by bringing it to the Globe’s attention. St. John Paul reminded Catholics, “In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere. As a Sacrament of unity and thus a sign and a binding force for the whole human race, the Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized and accepted as brothers and sisters. It is the task of the various dioceses actively to ensure that these people, who are obliged to live outside the safety net of civil society, may find a sense of brotherhood in the Christian community.”
The Diocese of Fall River, as an institution, strives to live out what the saint wrote here. Again, we need to remember that the diocese is each and every Catholic living in this territory.
Right before extending his apostolic blessing at the end of the document, St. John Paul wrote, “Today the illegal migrant comes before us like that ‘stranger’ in whom Jesus asks to be recognized. To welcome him and to show him solidarity is a duty of hospitality and fidelity to Christian identity itself.” May we do our duty.
Father Wilson is executive editor of The Anchor, and pastor of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Attleboro.