February 13, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

We are an immigrant Church called to welcome strangers

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinWe are an immigrant Church, a pilgrim people on a journey of faith. We are fellow travelers on the way to our heavenly home. As members of Christ’s body, we are a diverse group of people called to unity in Christ (Jn 11:52).

Unity in diversity is the vision that the bishops of the United States proclaimed in “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” which was published in 2000 during the Great Jubilee year.

In early 2007, the bishops of Indiana applied this vision to the particular situation of the Church in the Hoosier state in their pastoral letter, “I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me: Meeting Christ in New Neighbors.”

In this letter, the Indiana bishops remind us all of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”), saying, “there is an intimate and unbreakable connection between love of God and love of neighbor. In loving our neighbor, we meet the person of Christ.”

The Indiana bishops define a neighbor “not simply as someone who is familiar and close at hand, [nor] someone who shares my ethnic, social or racial characteristics.” Rather, as the Gospels define neighbor, “Our neighbor is anyone who is in need—including those who are homeless, hungry, sick or in prison. A neighbor may well be a complete stranger whose background, experience or social standing is very different from ours,” the bishops say.

Looking back on the history of Catholicism in our country, the U.S. bishops call attention to the waves of immigration that shaped the character of our nation and of our local Churches. They also observe that the immigrant experience, which is deeply rooted in our country’s religious, social and political history, is changing.

Whereas previous immigrants came to the United States, “predominately from Europe or as slaves from Africa, the new immigrants come from Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific islands, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.”

During the past half century, these new waves of immigration have challenged our society and our Church to remember where we came from as the descendants of immigrants, and where we are headed as people who are on the way to a better life, a more secure world characterized by unity, peace and prosperity for all. As Catholic Christians, “the presence of so many people of so many different cultures and religions in so many different parts of the United States has challenged us as a Church to a profound conversion so that we can become truly a sacrament of unity.”

As the Indiana bishops stress in their 2007 pastoral letter, we Catholics support our nation’s right and responsibility to provide secure boundaries for the protection of our people and an orderly process for entry into our country that respects the human rights and dignity of all—especially families and children.

At the same time, we reject all approaches that are anti-immigrant, nativist, ethnocentric or racist. Such narrow and destructive views are profoundly anti-American. They oppose the principles of human dignity and freedom that are the foundation for our American way of life—a way that has historically been extended to all who have come to our shores seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in a just and prosperous society.

These divisive and exclusionary attitudes are also profoundly anti-Catholic. They deny the dignity of human persons who are made in God’s image, and they contradict the essential unity and catholicity to which we are called as members of the one family of God.

I was not a bishop when these two pastoral letters were written, but I endorse them both wholeheartedly. Every person, regardless of his or her place of origin, ethnic or cultural heritage, economic or social position and legal status, should be welcomed as Christ and should be encouraged to feel a genuine sense of membership and belonging in our country and our Church.

It is regrettable that in the years since these letters were written, comprehensive immigration reform has become so politicized. As expressed by Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chair of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Migration, all of us should “strongly urge Congress and the president to work together to enact permanent reforms to the nation’s immigration system.”

May we always extend to others the same welcome that Christ extended to strangers. May the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, inspire us to meet Christ in our neighbors, so that we all may be united in our diversity, as members of the one family of God. †

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