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Sorting out the migrant and refugee problem — a Vatican official explains how


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Ary Waldir Ramos Diaz - published on 01/04/18

Jesuit Father Michael Czerny has a simple solution.

Pope Francis dedicated this week’s World Day of Peace to the theme of migrants and refugees, urging the faithful not to rob them of their hopes for peace, since all men and women have this right.

In order to understand better Pope Francis’ many reflections on this topic, leading up to an international conference in November on the role universities can play, we had a conversation with Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Section for Migrants and Refugees of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. For the moment, the pope himself is at the helm of this Section.

We offer you this interview now, in light of the Pope’s message for the 2018 World Day of Peace.

“Since the beginning of his pontificate, using both persuasive words and actions, Pope Francis has encouraged the Church to accompany every category of persons who have been forced to flee. In 2017, he established the M and R (Migrants and Refugees) Section to help work towards this great pastoral goal,” Fr. Czerny told Aleteia.

Fr. Czerny, now 71, was born in what was Czechoslovakia at the time, and was taken to Canada by his parents when he was two and a half years old.

“We have to put ourselves in the shoes of migrants and refugees, and listen to their stories,” he explains.

Aleteia: Do you believe that the globalization of indifference shows its worst side when dealing with refugees and migrants, especially regarding the lack of educational opportunities? 

Fr. Czerny: No. It could be said that indifference involves many variables, and has many faces. But, it’s true that the problem of forced displacement of peoples gives us an important, and even cruel, example of this indifference. The problem is that our societies are organized in such a way that they perpetuate various aspects of indifference. For example, many homeless people are victims of mental illness. And we don’t know how to help them, we don’t know how to respond on an institutional level, nor on a personal level. Consequently, we can’t say that the situation of a homeless person is less serious than that of a person forced to migrate or of a person seeking asylum. Indifference is globalized and generalized. Therefore, people who have recently arrived to a country also suffer indifference.

Regarding the congress scheduled at the Pontifical Gregorian University for the first four days of November, what will be the contribution of the special M and R Section, in accordance with the desire of Pope Francis, in the area of higher education to help migrants and refugees improve their education and overcome their situation of marginalization or ghettoing?  

Fr. Czerny: The point of departure is the vocation of universities. It’s not a matter of saying that they have to become something different. Universities need to fulfill their vocation in all its fulness. That means investigation and teaching, but also social involvement. Our contribution will be to remind universities of the various dimensions of their vocation regarding the many people who are fleeing persecution, violence, poverty, and grave changes to the climate. Universities should help them to overcome marginalization, but if the universities get comfortable in the “ghetto” of their privileges and tranquility, they won’t be able to respond, or they will only do so superficially.

What exactly are we talking about: scholarships, programs that are more open and that influence culture or society … ?

Fr. Czerny: We are going to propose a list of elements that Catholic universities can strive toward. But for us, the most important thing is not to prescribe this or that program, or scholarships, but rather the fulfillment of the vocation of universities in relation to today’s society. For example, a university that is not self-critical in the way it confronts ideologies, racism, or xenophobia, is not contributing “universitarily” to the society of which it is a guest. Having many doctorates, degrees, scholarships, and a lot of money is secondary to the vocation, to the mission, which a university should fulfill in relation to society.

The pope said once at a pontifical university, “Theology is done while kneeling …” Probably, academic life also should be done while kneeling?

Fr. Czerny: Exactly! But, also while walking, not just kneeling before the Tabernacle or in a classroom or in a laboratory; it’s done while walking, going out to meet society.

Why is it difficult to understand the idea that Francis invites us to consider, that migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life?

Fr. Czerny: To begin with the most common cause: it’s a fruit of sin. The most common manifestation of sin is the ignoring of my brother and my sister as such. On the contrary, I’m always tempted to treat them as obstacles, or even worse, as the enemy of my interests. This sin is fundamental. Perhaps we need an examination of conscience: What are the interests of our Catholic universities that hide the fraternal faces that seek to be welcomed among us? How is it that, from our privileged, academic, Catholic position, we don’t see them?

What is the most difficult aspect of universities’ mission to fulfill in Pope Francis’ call to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants and refugees”?

Fr. Czerny: The most frequent obstacle is that of being “too busy” and in a rush; we don’t have time to breathe, much less to listen. Universities create for themselves a series of duties, tasks, chores. As Jesus said to Martha, “you are preoccupied and worried by many things, but only one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10)

What are the aspects we often forget from a more personal perspective?

Fr. Czerny: Right now, we do not have the capacity, the ability, and the habit of putting ourselves in someone else’s place. I am convinced that everything would be different if we listened to the narrative of a refugee seeking asylum or of a migrant seeking a new future. If we were to listen to some of their story, we would instinctively say, “In his place, I would have done exactly the same thing, but I would not have reacted with as much patience.” They face terrible things with patience and hope. After a little bit of interaction, we cannot help reacting with sympathy and understanding. Sadly, in the meantime the media are inundating us with a perverse selection of images and news, without giving us much access to the breadth and depth of the phenomenon.

There will be a global accord regarding refugees and a global accord for safe, orderly, regular, and responsible migration. Both are expected to be finalized at the United Nations by the end of 2018. What will be the contribution of the M and R Section?

Fr. Czerny: In order to contribute to these processes, the M and R, guided by the pope, has prepared two documents. The 20 Points of Pastoral Action are for the use of dioceses, parishes, religious congregations, and movements of the Church, and of schools, groups, and other secular organizations that provide care for those “forced to flee.” The Points are pastoral priorities for local programs, and key themes for homilies, education, and media. The M and R invites everyone to join in reflection, prayer, communication, and action. The 20 Action Points for Global Agreements are expressed in legal language and provide greater detail. They are for dialogue with governments and international organizations, in the hope of seeing these concerns included in the two Global Accords.

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