Last summer, Pope Francis paid a pastoral visit to the people of Lampedusa. At the boundaries of Europe, he shined a bright light on the immigrant experience and the need to overcome the culture of indifference. That visit inspired US bishops to relive the pope’s gesture stateside.
Under the direction of Cardinal Séan O’Malley, a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal Advisers, eight bishops, representing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, paid a pastoral visit to Nogales, Arizona on April 1. There, the church leaders sought to relive the immigrant experience, crossing the treacherous Mexico-US border after sojourning for hours in the hot desert and eating at a Mexican cantina with would-be immigrants.
In Nogales, the bishops celebrated the Eucharist against the backdrop of the rusted border wall that divides the US from Mexico. America’s bishops had sent the eight member delegation to remember those who had died in the hot and desolate desert, searching for a fresh start to life and better financial opportunities for their families in the United States.
At Mass, the bishops and others gathered for the event, listened to the words of Jesus’ parable about the good Samaritan. Speaking at turns in English and Spanish, Cardinal O’Malley spoke about the meaning of the parable in the context of the United States. He explained that
“We come to the desert today because it is the road to Jericho; it is travelled by many trying to reach the metropolis of Jerusalem. We come here today to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert.
“Pope Francis encourages us to go to the periphery to seek our neighbor in places of pain and darkness. We are here to discover our own identity as God’s children so that we can discover who our neighbor is, who is our brother and sister.
“As a nation of immigrants we should feel a sense of identification with other immigrant groups seeking to enter our country.
“The United States is a nation of immigrants. Only the indigenous Native Americans are not from somewhere else. So the word of God reminds us today that our God wants justice for the orphan and the widow and our God loves the foreigners, the aliens and reminds us that we were aliens in Egypt.”
In a pointed passage of his prepared remarks, Cardinal O’Malley issued a direct challenge to both voters and law-makers alike, insisting that “The author of Hebrews urges us to practice hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” And, he added that “The [immigration] system is broken and is causing untold suffering and an untenable waste of resources, human and material.” As such, it must be fixed.
To be sure, these demands for immigration reform tend to invite criticism. Oftentimes Pope Francis and the US bishops are presented as agents of leftist political factions. On March 31, the Pope told journalists that “I heard two months ago that someone said … ‘This Pope is a communist.’” He shot back: “No! This [i.e., care for the poor and the marginalized] is a banner of the Gospel, not of Communism: of the Gospel!”
Nonetheless, Pope Francis’s and, the bishops’ humble faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ transcends ideological boundaries and categories. And as such, it is capable of resonating with people on all sides of the political spectrum. As a matter of fact, both the pope and the bishops seem to have struck a chord in conservative American politics.
On April 6, during a public appearance at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Florida’s 43
rd Governor, Jeb Bush, son of the 41st US President, sat down for a discussion on a range of political issues. Shannone Bream, Fox News anchor and host of America’s News Headquarters, moderated the town-hall conversation. At one point, Governor Bush fielded a question on immigration. In response to it, he proffered that
“There are means by which we can control our border better than we have. And there should be penalties for breaking the law … But the way I look at [it is] this — and I’m going to say this, and it’ll be on tape and so be it. The way I look at this is someone who comes to our country because they couldn’t come legally, they come to our country because their families — the dad who loved their children — was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family. I honestly think that that is a different kind of crime that there should be a price paid, but it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”
For Governor Bush, the love of families constitutes the prism through which immigration questions need to be studied and evaluated. That prism is integral to the Church’s teaching on immigration, as well.
The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace discoursed on that prim in 2004 in its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. There, the Church taught that “Immigrants are to be received as persons and helped, together with their families, to become a part of societal life. In this context, the right of reuniting families should be respected and promoted.” Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI had a term for this prism, which entails a readiness to receive others as persons and an effort to center social life around families. He called it the "culture of the gift."
In America, the culture of the gift has been a cornerstone of the experience of immigration.
In 1989, Russell Kirk, the father of American conservatism, authored an economics textbook on behalf of the Educational Research Council of America. The book was entitled “Economics: Work and Prosperity” and its fourteenth chapter expounded upon ‘A Cheerful View of our Economic Future.’ On the question of immigration, Kirk wrote that
“Surely large shifts of population are in progress already. But the peaceful coming of people from abroad is not usually a cause of economic decay. Rather, such migrations mean that the host country is acquiring more human resources. Most such immigrants, especially in the history of the United States, have been hard-working, ambitious people who hoped to improve their economic condition. Often immigrants are willing to accept, at least in the beginning, hard, dangerous, or unpleasant work for which it is difficult
to find sufficient labor within a country’s established work force.
“In the long run, most immigrants become strong upholders of the culture, the political system, and the economy to which they come. (Also, aspects of their culture enrich our own.) America’s present economic success is built, in no small degree, upon the hard, intelligent work of millions of immigrants, coming in wave upon wave, decade after decade. New waves of immigrants during recent years already are being absorbed into American social and economic patterns. Some are people who migrate from their native lands in search of employment, notably nowadays Mexicans and Central Americans. Others are political refugees — Cubans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Ethiopians, Poles, Hungarians — many of them highly educated and able. It would not be unreasonable to cry, ‘The more, the merrier!’”
In other words, when societies welcome immigrants, both sides benefit. Societies gain important human capital and immigrants are given a new chance to make something of themselves. Immigrants are not drains on their new communities, therefore, Kirk suggests. Rather, immigrants are a vital resource, making significant cultural and economic contributions.
To be certain, the subject of immigration presents almost countless questions. And, Catholics can come to different conclusions about them. But, Pope Francis, the US bishops, and political leaders like Governor Bush and Russell Kirk present some important guidelines that should be consulted when sorting out these questions.
With Pope Francis and the US bishops, we must strive to overcome the culture of indifference and to cultivate the virtue of neighborliness that characterized the good Samaritan. We cannot let the cries of immigrants fall on deaf ears. We must draw close to those at the boundaries. When we do so, we come to see the world from their perspective. That doesn’t have to mean that we must accept the world on their terms. It doesn’t have to mean that we need to eschew all immigration standards. But, we cannot conceive the US as a fortress, keeping us at a comfortable distance from those in need.
With Governor Bush and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, we must remember the central role of families and the culture of the gift. They remind us that a truly pro-family immigration policy will work to tear down the walls that separate families, not build them up.
And, Russell Kirk sets before us the valuable contributions of immigrants to life in America, reminding us that, from being drains on their new societies, immigrants are a vital force of cultural and economic strength.
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church. Readers can find him on Facebook (John Paul Shimek) and Twitter (@pilgrimjournal). He maintains a website and blog entitled John Paul Shimek, The Pilgrim Journalist. And, he can be contacted at email@example.com.