Joshua J. McElwee and Cindy Wooden, eds.
Liturgical Press, 2018.
The following article is a modified excerpt from A Pope Francis Lexicon. This collection, edited by the chief of the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service and Vatican correspondent to the National Catholic Reporter, offers a set of more than fifty essays exploring the pope’s use of words like clericalism, family, joy, money, and sourpuss. In her essay titled “Refugee,” Rhonda Miska summarizes the pope’s position on all aspects of the refugee issue from root causes, the stories of refugees, to how we as Christians should welcome these brothers and sisters. In the excerpt below, Miska introduces us to Pope Francis’s shared grief for the plight of refugees and the world’s indifference to them, and explores his radical suggestion that the refugees are here to evangelize us, not vice versa.
“We have lost a sense of brotherly sensibility and forgotten how to cry,” said Pope Francis during his first papal trip outside of Rome to Lampedusa, a small Mediterranean island that for many is Europe’s perilous entry point. This call to solidarity and lament is one of countless challenges Francis has offered on behalf of migrants and refugees whom he calls “brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.”
Pope Francis threw a wreath of flowers in the water at Lampedusa, spoke of his grief as “a painful thorn” in his heart, recalled the story of the Good Samaritan, and lamented “globalized indifference.” The “penitential liturgy” there was a public expression of his commitment to the peripheries, especially to the estimated 65 million men, women, and children worldwide forcibly displaced from their homes. Francis also offered greetings to “those Muslim immigrants who this evening begin the fast of Ramadan,” making clear his concern for all—not just Catholics—from the beginning of his papacy. […]
While the dominant rhetoric in many nations portrays displaced people as “problems to be solved,” for Pope Francis, they are at the center, not the margins, of community. Pope Francis has communicated this message in multiple places. In his message for the 2014 World Day for Migrants and Refugees, he commented: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph knew what it meant to leave their own country. … They were forced to take flight and seek refuge in Egypt. ” In their sojourning, refugees mirror the church who “herself is a missionary disciple,” he wrote in his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. In his January 19, 2014, Angelus message, Francis spoke directly to migrants: “Dear friends, you are close to the church’s heart, because the church is a people on a journey toward the kingdom of God.”
Evangelii Gaudium presents the paradoxical truth that the church exists to evangelize and simultaneously needs to be evangelized by those on the peripheries. The poor, particularly displaced people who mirror the Holy Family’s displacement, are a living symbol of the church as God’s pilgrim people.
Pope Francis’s call to see migrants and refugees as agents of evangelization resonates deeply with my experience. My own Catholic faith and trust in God have been touched in powerful, humbling ways through the accompaniment of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. In 2014, I served as a legal assistant to unaccompanied children from Central America fleeing violence and seeking to reunite with family in the United States. After taking the testimony of a fifteen-year-old boy about leaving Honduras and journeying north, and confirming he knew about his upcoming court appearance, I asked if he had any questions.
“When I go to court, will Jesus be with me?” he asked, after a thoughtful pause.
I was speechless momentarily before responding, “Yes, Jesus will be with you.” For those of us from backgrounds of privilege and security, such encounters prophetically stretch our own confession of reliance on God’s providence and call us to deeper personal and collective conversion.
When I read Francis’s encouragement to those accompanying refugees at the Astalli Center to “always witness to the beauty of this encounter,” I recalled another heart-stretching encounter with a different asylum-seeking Central American boy. During the interview, after he described the gang violence that claimed his brother’s life, I asked this boy why he came to the United States. His answer took my breath away: “Porque yo tengo dignidad humana y quiero vivir en paz”—“Because I have human dignity and I want to live in peace.” While this boy had lost his home and his family, he retained hope, purpose, and a sense of God-given identity.
Shortly before Christmas 2016, after interpreting a legal consultation between my attorney colleague and an asylum-seeking Guatemalan teenaged girl, she thanked us, saying: “Dios está con ustedes”—“God is with you.” In listening to the voices of our refugee brothers and sisters, we can hear God’s name spoken and be evangelized anew.
This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Liturgical Press.