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Saints who lived as refugees


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Meg Hunter-Kilmer - published on 08/24/21

Let us pray for all people who have to flee their home, though the intercession of these holy men and women.

The crisis in Afghanistan continues. Desperate Afghans have clung to planes as they take off in an attempt to leave the country. Others have passed their children forward, saying goodbye (possibly forever) in the hopes that their little ones will find a safe home somewhere else. As we pray for Afghanistan, let’s pray in a particular way for refugees, both those fleeing their homes today and those who resettled long ago but still live with the trauma and loss that comes of leaving one’s home and culture under such terrible circumstances. Saints who were themselves refugees can intercede for them (and for us as we seek to be generous in welcoming the stranger according to God’s command).

Mary and Joseph are the obvious examples of saints who were refugees. Though their flight into Egypt left them within the Roman empire (technically making them “internally displaced persons” rather than refugees), they found themselves in a land where their native language wasn’t spoken, their culture appreciated, or their religion understood. They had left behind home and community in their hasty journey through the night and may have been haunted by the memories of the babies Jesus had played with, now buried by their grieving parents. They would have experienced uncertainty and instability and grief and survivor’s guilt, all added to the trauma of fleeing from their home. If anyone can intercede for the refugees of Afghanistan, it’s the Holy Family.

St. Jeanne-Antide Thouret (1765-1826) was a French religious Sister when the Revolution broke out and authorities demanded that she leave religious life, beating her severely when she refused. Sr. Jeanne-Antide took months to recover, then returned home as ordered. But not long ofter, she fled the country, preferring to live religious life as a refugee rather than live as a secular in France. She moved between Germany and Switzerland for four years (often driven away from a town because of anti-Catholic prejudice) before returning covertly to France. There she founded a new religious community that continues to this day.

St. Eugene de Mazenod (1782-1861) was born to a wealthy French family, but the Revolution forced them to flee as refugees to Italy, where they wandered from one city to another as Eugene’s once-wealthy father sought work. The advancing French army drove the exiles from Venice to Naples, then Palermo. Their marriage strained by financial difficulty, Eugene’s parents divorced, a very unusual occurrence at the time. Eugene’s mother took the divorce as an opportunity to taunt her ex-husband, taking back her dowry and writing to him, “Now you have nothing.” Eugene was able to return to France (and to wealth) at 20, but found that his life of pleasure and privilege was empty. He became a priest, founded the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and was eventually consecrated a bishop.

Venerable Egidio Bullesi (1905-1929) was an Italian man born in modern-day Croatia. World War I made his hometown a war zone and 9-year-old Egidio fled to Austro-Hungary with his mother and his siblings. The family moved from place to place, with little opportunity for Egidio to attend school. They returned home after the war, where Egidio became a dock worker, got involved in Catholic Action, and eventually became a catechist. Though he was drafted into the Italian navy and served for two years, Egidio spent most of his life as a shipyard draftsman before dying of tuberculosis at 23.

St. Rafael Guízar y Valencia (1878-1938) was a Mexican priest (and later bishop) who spent much of his priesthood in exile. When the Mexican Revolution broke out, Fr. Guízar attempted at first to remain with his people, disguising himself as a peddler, a doctor, and a musician in order to bring them the Sacraments. But after he was arrested and nearly shot, Fr. Guízar fled the country. He lived as a refugee in the United States, Guatemala, and Cuba, always serving the people wherever he lived. Eventually he was named bishop and felt he had to return to Mexico, whatever the cost. The Revolution ended soon after, but the Cristero Wars followed. Bishop Guízar spent another few years in exile before finally facing down the governor who had put a price on his head. The governor was so impressed with Bishop Guízar’s courage that he tolerated the bishop’s presence in the diocese and Bishop Guízar eventually died of natural causes.

Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1928-2002) was consecrated archbishop of Saigon at age 47—a week before the fall of Saigon to communist forces. A few months later, he was arrested and placed in a communist internment camp for 13 years, nine of which he spent in solitary confinement. During that time, Archbishop Văn Thuận evangelized his guards, celebrated Mass with his hand as a chalice, and smuggled messages of hope to his people. He was finally freed but sent into exile for his last 11 years. Though his many connections eased his transition into life in exile, Archbishop Văn Thuận was never able to return to his homeland.

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