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Refugees in Tradition and the Magisterium



Miriam Diez Bosch - published on 01/12/18

Jesuit Alberto Ares explains key points.

During the first centuries after Christ, Patristic tradition initiated theological reflection on Christian welcoming and hospitality, among other topics.

In his booklet Sons and daughters of a pilgrim: Towards a theology of migrations, published by Catalonian publishing house Christianisme i Justícia, Jesuit author Alberto Ares explores the Bible, Tradition, and the Magisterium to illuminate the situation of refugees from a faith perspective. In this article, we present what Tradition and the Magisterium have to say on the issue. Aleteia published an article on his summary of Refugees and the Bible earlier this month.

Alberto Ares is a Spanish Jesuit who is an expert on the topic of migration. He has accompanied migrant communities in various parts of the world. Currently, he’s the Delegate of the Social Sector of the Jesuits in Spain, and a researcher associated with the Institute of Studies on Migration of the Pontifical University of Comillas in Madrid.

Ares cites various Apostolic Fathers (early theologians who were taught by the Apostles) and Apologetic Fathers (who wrote and spoke in defense of the faith before Christianity was accepted) who reflect on migration from various perspectives: the Epistle to Diognetus, Clement of Rome, the Didache, Origen, Lactantius, Basil, Aristides, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ambrose of Milan. “They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.” (Epistle to Diognetus 5, 1.5)

Similarly, the Magisterium of the Church deals with the reality of migration, but it only starts to deal with it in a special way beginning in the 19th century. From Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis—the son of a migrant family—”the Church’s Magisterium has accompanied the sorrow and suffering of this reality, but it has also presented the richness and hope that migrants contribute.” The centrality of migration in Pope Francis’ teaching is significant.

We find stories of human mobility from the earliest accounts in the Bible: from Abraham’s call to the Exodus from Egypt, from the people of Israel wandering in the desert in exile and the voyage of the Holy Family in Egypt, to the Church’s missionary activity.

Migration is a true “sign of the times” that is part of the structure of our globalized world, as is reflected in the encyclical Gaudium et Spes, which calls us to see the world with a penetrating gaze in the light of faith.

The Bible presents the reality of migration as a common element in salvation history; it portrays the People of God as a pilgrim people, in movement.

Mobility in Patristic texts

An incipient reflection on human mobility can be found in the Patristic tradition (1st to 8th centuries).

In Origen’s commentary on the Letter to the Romans, he points out that we are asked to be solicitous and active in offering hospitality: “When it says that we should be solicitous in hospitality (Romans 12:13), it doesn’t only mean that we should receive guests who come to us, but also that we should seek them out, that we should be solicitous, that we examine and inquire diligently everywhere, lest by chance there be a guest in a public square who would have to sleep without a roof.”

In the 4th century, John Chrysostom highlights hospitality over other material needs: “Think of this, then, regarding Christ. He is wandering and a pilgrim, needing shelter; and you spend your time adorning the floor, the walls, and the capitals of the columns, and hanging lamps with golden chains … All of these treasures can be taken away …; what you do for your brother who is hungry, an immigrant, or naked, not even the devil himself can take from you.”

Saint Augustine explains that hospitality enriches both the guest and the host: “Let no one become proud because he welcomes an immigrant: Christ was a migrant. Christ, welcomed and aided, was greater than those who welcomed and aided him … Let no one then, my brothers, be proud when he helps the poor, not even in his spirit.”

St. Augustine even questioned whether migrants should be called such, because the world we inhabit belongs to all: “How can you receive someone as a guest, if all of us are in our own homeland?”

Refugees and the Magisterium

Ares insistently reminds us that the Church has always been concerned for immigrants, but official teaching in this regard has been explicitly developed principally starting in the 19th century.

Leo XIII is the first Pope to dedicate a document specifically to migration, with the letter Quam aerumnosa (“How sad,” 1888), in which he authorizes the constitution of national parishes, societies, and groups of priests in order to aid immigrants.

The successors of Leo XIII continue the line of action and thought of their predecessor, creating Catholic works specifically for immigrants.

Pius X underlines the role of dioceses of origin in this service, while Benedict XV and Pius XI point to local churches’ responsibility to welcome migrants.

In 1914, during the pontificate of Benedict XV, the World Day of Migrants and Refugees is instituted. Pius XII, who lived through the Second World War (1939-1945) and its effects (massive deportations and waves of refugees), considers emigration from the perspective of permanent and universal rights of human beings as such, based on the principle of solidarity, and recognizes the need to protect the “natural freedom to emigrate.”

In the apostolic exhortation Exsul Familia (“The family in exile,” 1952 ), Pius XII offers the Holy Family in exile in Egypt as the icon of massive forced migrations that we are seeing today: “The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.”

In the encyclicals Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth,” 1963) and Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher,” 1961), Pope John XXIII reaffirms the principles formulated by Pius XII, and contributes new insights in the face of growing consequences of globalization, which began during the 1960s (PT 106).

The Second Vatican Council spoke abundantly along the same lines, and proposed generous legislation regarding recently arrived immigrants. Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope,” 1965) includes numerous references to the problem of migratory movements (see GS 66). Paul VI continues this path marked out by the Council and his predecessors, and creates the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migration and Tourism.

In his book, Ares explains that Pope John Paul II includes in his writings many references to the problem of migrants, amply developing the Social Doctrine of the Church on this topic. John Paul II’s last social documents, above all Laborem Exercens (“Through Work,” 1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“The Social Concern of the Church,” 1987), and Centesimus Annus (“The Centenary,” 1991), as well asFamiliaris Consortio (“The Family in the Modern World,” 1981), Christifideles Laici (“The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful,” 1988) and Redemptoris Missio (“The Mission of Christ the Redeemer,” 1990), which are mostly ecclesial in nature, contain rich doctrine and many and useful practical directives for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Immigrant People (LE 23; SRS 38; CA 48; CL 35-44; FC 46; RM 58). One of the main emphases of John Paul II is the central value of the human person.

He also transforms the Pontifical Commission created by Paul VI into the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Immigrant People. Benedict XVI, during whose pontificate the world suffers a global financial crisis, proposes in Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth,” 2009) a more integral and ethical perspective, which refocuses international relations, paying special attention to migratory movements.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI speaks of migration as “a sign of the times” (World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 2006).

Faced with the great global increase of forced migratory movements, Pope Francis has become one of the great world leaders who has directed special attention towards the reality of sorrow and suffering, as well as to the richness and hope that migrants contribute.

In January of 2017, he created a new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, which combines the work of the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, and Cor Unum. Due to the importance of this phenomenon, the pope is personally heading up, on a temporary basis, the section of this new Dicastery that deals with refugees and migrants (


Read more:
What does the Bible say about refugees?

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