04 February 2017

Homily - 5 February 2017 - Migrants are persons, with their own names, stories and families

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

By the arranging of Divine Providence, the first reading assigned for this Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah seems particularly chosen for the challenges of the present moment. The Lord God says to us through his prophet: “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own” (Isaiah 58:7). Looking out upon the world today, how can we fail to see the hungry, the homeless, and the naked? How can we fail to see those made exiles and refugees by the scourge of war without our hearts being pierced with compassion for them?

If we read carefully, we see that the Lord’s command first concerns those who are strangers and foreigners, those who are others and outside the community, which is why the last clause comes as something of an afterthought: “and do not turn your back on your own.” Yet, the Lord Jesus does not allow such a mentality, of “us” and “them,” as we see demonstrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan or in the parable of the judgment of the nations in which Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (cf. Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 25:41-43).

When those so condemned by their failures to love ask how this could be so, Jesus answers them most solemnly: “Amen, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Matthew 25:45). Do we, as individuals and as a nation, wish to be so cast out from the presence of the Lord? We cannot forget that we are our brothers’ keeper and that “anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor” (cf. Genesis 4:9).[1] It really is that simple.

The Lord God has given us his command to feed the hungry, to shelter the oppressed, and to clothe the naked for a very specific reason. It is only when we so open our hearts in love to those in dire need that, as the Lord himself says, “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:8). If we do not enact these corporal works of mercy, we – as a society and a nation – will not grow in virtue and will not achieve the reconciliation we so greatly desire and need.

Our forebears recognized the need to keep this command of the Lord God and so put these words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

If we do not honor these words, if we do not keep this explicit command of the Lord our God, then we should remove that plaque and perhaps even that symbol of American life and hope itself. The Lord Jesus calls each of us to be, with him, “the light of the world” (cf. John 8:12; Matthew 5:14). What is more, he commands that our light, which is always to be a reflection of his own merciful love, “must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16).

How can we desire to close our borders to the 350,000 children who are forced to remain in the city of Mosul alone and who currently live under the explicit threat of death from the Islamic State?[2] How can it make sense to force His Excellency the Most Reverend Bashar Warda, Archbishop of Irbil, to cancel his planned visit to discuss the plight of persecuted Christians with His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association?[3] How can we do this and still claim our light shines forth? It is as Pope Francis has said: “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, [to] toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”[4]

Contrary to what many claim in our day of regrettable binary thinking, this does not mean a nation must simply open its borders to everyone. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens (2241).

It is under the framework of this teaching that Pope Francis reminds us that

Prudence on the part of public authorities does not mean enacting policies of exclusion vis-à-vis migrants, but it does entail evaluating, with wisdom and foresight, the extent to which their country is in a position, without prejudice to the common good of citizens, to offer a decent life to migrants, especially those truly in need of protection. Above all, the current crisis should not be reduced to a simple matter of numbers. Migrants are persons, with their own names, stories and families. There can never be true peace as long as a single human being is violated in his or her personal identity and reduced to a mere statistic or an object of economic calculation.[5]

Indeed, the Holy Father asks us, “How can we not see the face of the Lord in the face of the millions of exiles, refugees, and displaced persons who are fleeing in desperation from the horror of war, persecution and dictatorship?”[6] He further challenges us to see that in “every one of them, each with a unique face, God reveals himself always as the one who courageously comes to our aid.”[7] And if God comes to our aid, then we must come to their aid, not because of who they are, but because of who we are as members joined to Christ Jesus.

These are not easy words to speak or to hear in our politically charged culture, but these words are not about politics because, as Saint John Bosco says, “a priest has no politics but the Gospel, and he fears no recriminations.” These words instead concern the fundamental principle of Christian charity that must motivate our every action. If these words upset you, I urge you to pick up the Gospels and read them in full to know the heart and mind of Jesus. Make his heart and mind your own “so that your faith might not rest upon human wisdom but on the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:5).

If it is authentic and sincere, Christian charity cannot be extended only to those among my family and friends; it must also be extended to everyone in need. Our own immediate ability to welcome the hungry, homeless, and naked refugee may not be too far-reaching, but we can – and should – include these brothers and sisters in our daily prayers. Moreover, we should support organizations who help them – such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Charities – to the extent that we are able. We should also speak up when we hear others attempt to label all refugees as terrorists or extremists or anything else that borders on the ignorant or the ridiculous.

If each of us opens our hearts to the love of Jesus Christ, how can we not extend that same love to our neighbor? We may not be able to do much as individuals to come to the aid of those in dire circumstances, but as a nation we can – and should - do great and good deeds to  bring glory to our Father in heaven.

Let each of us, then, do all that can to receive those who come to us “in weakness and fear and much trembling” so that we might introduce them to Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 2:3). May the Lord so move our hearts and direct our thoughts and actions so that the light may rise for us in the darkness and the gloom become like midday (cf. Isaiah 58:10). Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 15.
[3] Julianne Dos Santos, “Travel Ban Postpones U.S. Visit of Chaldean Archbishop of Irbil,” Catholic New York, 1 February 2017.
[4] Pope Francis, Audience with Catholic and Lutheran Pilgrims from Germany, 13 October 2016.
[7] Ibid.

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