This week is Refugee Week, an opportunity to reflect on the plight of those who have been displaced from their native lands by war, persecution, or poverty, and commit them to our prayers and action. The Christian faith has always emphasised the importance of welcoming the stranger, especially amidst the worst possible situations.
In the last decade alone, we have seen some of history’s most dramatic displacement of peoples, rivalled only by those that took place during the twentieth century. As a result, the theme of human fraternity and the plight of refugees have featured strongly throughout Pope Francis' pontificate.
Here are three times Francis encouraged us to think, and act, compassionately and differently about refugees.
Catholic Social Teaching firmly believes that the family is the basic unit of society; the cell from which the whole organism grows. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis reminds us that the displacement of people, for whatever reason, but especially because of war and distress, actively undermines the family. It uproots it, divides it, scatters it. Refugees are not simply individuals, but family members: in many cases, members of families that have been broken apart by chaos and catastrophe.
Furthermore, forced migration of families, resulting from situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice, and marked by the vicissitudes of a journey that often puts lives at risk, traumatises people and destabilizes families.
In accompanying migrants, the Church needs a specific program addressed not only to families that migrate but also to those family members left behind . . . Extreme poverty and other situations of family breakdown sometimes even lead families to sell their children for prostitution or for organ trafficking (§46).
War and persecution are not abstract realities. Often, situated as we are from a physical and digital distance, it’s easy to treat these topics in the abstract. We should avoid this tendency, Francis says, instead opening ourselves to others by hearing their stories, allowing ourselves to be moved to compassion by their suffering:
Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil. Let us not remain mired in theoretical discussions, but touch the wounded flesh of the victims. Let us look once more at all those civilians whose killing was considered ‘collateral damage’. Let us ask the victims themselves.
Let us think of the refugees and displaced, those who suffered the effects of atomic radiation or chemical attacks, the mothers who lost their children, and the boys and girls maimed or deprived of their childhood. Let us hear the true stories of these victims of violence, look at reality through their eyes, and listen with an open heart to the stories they tell. In this way, we will be able to grasp the abyss of evil at the heart of war. Nor will it trouble us to be deemed naive for choosing peace (§261).
Pope Francis encourages us to overcome the ‘us versus them’ mentality that persists in human nature and thinking. In his 2021 message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he suggests that part of the Christian Revelation is that we were created for communion with one another, and this communion transcends borders and nationalities:
Salvation history thus has a ‘we’ in its beginning and a ‘we’ at its end, and at its centre the mystery of Christ, who died and rose so ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21). The present time, however, shows that this ‘we’ willed by God is broken and fragmented, wounded and disfigured. This becomes all the more evident in moments of great crisis, as is the case with the current pandemic.
Our ‘we’, both in the wider world and within the Church, is crumbling and cracking due to myopic and aggressive forms of nationalism and radical individualism. And the highest price is being paid by those who most easily become viewed as others: foreigners, migrants, the marginalized, those living on the existential peripheries.
To celebrate Refugee Week (19-25 June), the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office and the ACBC Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace have created a number of resources for use in schools, parishes and organisations:
Christian Bergmann05 June 2023