This past fall, Pope Francis launched an initiative called Share the Journey, and he invited bishops to recognize the presence and the lives of those who have moved into their dioceses from another country of origin. In connection with the beginning of that initiative, I held a listening session at the Juan Diego Center here in Omaha. I invited a group of migrants and refugees to come and just talk about their experience, about why they left their home country, what their experience was when they came here, and what some of their hopes are for the future.
One of the things I heard is that those who have migrated have often faced very difficult, sometimes violent, situations in the place where they had been living. Parents, because of their great love and concern for their children, want them, first of all, to be safe. They want their families to be able to live together and to take care of one another, and so they look for a place where that might be possible if it does not seem to be where they are currently living.
I am not a parent myself, but I appreciate the beauty of that vocation, and the responsibility of husbands and wives for one another and for their children. It is very touching to hear that responsibility being described both in the struggle for survival and in the desire to thrive.
One of the things that we are doing very well, which is easy to take for granted, is that we have a very vibrant parish life that welcomes those who are immigrants and invites their participation and leadership. I’m so grateful to the priests, the deacons and many dedicated leaders in parishes where we have large immigrant communities. There is a tremendous vitality and joy in those parishes, but as with any parish, there are many pastoral challenges.
Where I think we may be deficient – which we heard in the listening sessions as we were working to formulate our pastoral vision – is that Catholics in various communities around the archdiocese are often living past one another. We are involved in our own parish, our own community, our own culture, but we do not often enough look out to see what might be going on not very far from us. I think the Holy Spirit is providing a diversity of gifts in the church and inviting us to share those gifts and mutually benefit from them.
One of our pastoral priorities is to create a culture of unity, which we know is the mind of the Lord: There is one church. There is great diversity, of course, but my hope is as we move into the future and as we try to implement our pastoral vision, that we will find ways to overcome that deficiency and engage in an exchange of gifts among the peoples of various cultures and languages.
We just celebrated the feast of Christmas and we are reminded that when our heavenly Father looks on us in all of the messiness of our lives, no matter what it might be, he does not demand that we get everything straightened out before he loves us or cares for us. He sent his Son to be with us, to meet us where we are, not because we are so good and we’ve got our act together, but because we need a Savior and because he loves us so much.
If we are going to be disciples of Jesus in fact, we need to advert to the needs of our neighbors, whether they are immigrants or those who have been in this country a long time – even if they may have gotten themselves crosswise with the law. We have all made decisions that we regret, which have bad consequences for us or for others. Again, we do not take any of that lightly, but that never excuses us from the obligation to love them and to care for them, to extend the love and mercy of God to them today.
Eventually, we hope that by working together, we can get the bigger questions straightened out, but the human questions place demands on us at this present moment.
Q: As you have mentioned before, thinking of persons only in terms of abstract categories (such as their nationality, legal status, etc.) dehumanizes them, and means in a sense that we are missing the call of the Gospel. How can we begin to respond more faithfully to this invitation in our local community?
In all of our parishes, we experience the richness of life in Christ, which is some days joyful, some days sorrowful, some days challenging, and most days all of that mixed together.
Pope Francis keeps reminding us that when we think about people who are “other,” or different from ourselves in some way, those are people with names and faces and stories. We shouldn’t generalize nor excuse ourselves from a relationship with those neighbors of ours simply because we think we cannot understand them or they cannot understand us. This has been a challenge ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, I think. The separation in the human family is the effect of original sin. The Lord has been very clear that we will be judged on how we perform the works of mercy, which are not only performed in tragic or difficult times, but also where we share the abundance of the earth and share our knowledge and our experience and allow others to share that with us.