My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
As we approached Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to prepare by attending a conference on migration in Rome and by visiting a refugee reception center in Sicily. I came away truly thankful for the gifts of our American society.
The conference held in Rome had the theme of “Cooperation and Development of the Pastoral Care of Migrants,” and over 300 people attended, representing 90 countries. About 30 bishops were present.
This World Congress takes place every five years. It assists the Holy See in developing its policy positions and its concern for the pastoral care of migrants and refugees and all itinerant people. The meeting focused on those who are economic migrants, that is, those who migrate because they are looking for a better life for themselves and their families.
The Church’s position on migration has been clear. People have a right to migrate and countries have a right to choose who enters their lands. If economic life cannot be satisfied in their home country, people can seek it elsewhere.
Some of the other themes that emerged were the welcome necessary for migrants and the pastoral care of people, especially the migrant family itself which needs to be kept intact. Also, there was discussion of feminization of migration. In the past, males were the predominant migration; today females seem to be more prominent in various forms of migration.
Another theme was the cooperation of migrants in lands of reception with their home countries, given the diaspora assistance to their home countries. This is a growing phenomenon that always has existed, but today it seems to have reached new levels of cooperation.
At the end of the conference, we had an audience with our Holy Father, Pope Francis, during which he gave an address to the migrants. It was significant, given the fact that he is the child of migrants himself. He said, “Every human being is a child of God! He or she bears the image of Christ! Migrants, therefore, by virtue of their very humanity, even prior to their cultural values, widen the sense of human fraternity. At the same time, their presence is a reminder of the need to eradicate inequality, injustice and abuses. In that way migrants will be able to become partners in constructing a richer identity for the communities which provide them hospitality, as well as the people who welcome them, prompting the development of a society which is inclusive, creative and respectful of the dignity of all.”
This issue of welcome is particularly of concern in Italy where the prior program of Mare Nostrum has recently been terminated. That was the Italian government’s response, especially after the tragedy of Lampedusa where 366 refugees died very close to the shore itself. During the last year, over 120,000 migrants have been rescued from the sea, through Mare Nostrum that was conducted by the Italian Navy. In the last month, it was terminated, and a new program supported by the European Union (EU) called Trithron has taken its place. It remains to be seen if the search and rescue mission of Mare Nostrum will be continued in this new program, which only is meant to protect the EU from the arrival of migrants.
The USCCB Migration and Refugee Services asked Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City and myself to travel to Sicily to see firsthand how the issue of forced migration differs from that of economic migration. Joining us was Kevin Appleby, policy director for Migration and Refugee Services. Over and over again, we heard from the bishops and lay people that these migrants are not coming to be tourists. They are coming out of necessity, by force of economic problems or, in the majority of cases, because of life-threatening situations.
One of the other themes of thanksgiving that I heard were from the Sicilians themselves who recounted time and time again that they also were constrained to leave their homeland in the past. Now it is their opportunity to welcome other people. The migrants are called guests, ospiti in Italian – a very interesting way of seeing the people who come.
We had an opportunity to visit with the Archbishop of Catania, Salvatore Gristina, at his cathedral where I celebrated Mass at the altar of St. Agatha with the Bishop of Ragusa, Paolo Urso, and the Archbishop of Agrigento, Francesco Montenegro, who flew to Sicily with us. These three prelates were very supportive of the work of their people and the associations in their dioceses who make sure that these asylum seekers are treated properly and are given the opportunity to seek asylum in Italy or move on to another country in the EU, which seems to be rather difficult.
Refugee flows into Italy have been happening for several years, but the large numbers have drawn attention to the situation, especially with the visit of Pope Francis to Lampedusa as well as the tragic situation of the many drownings there. It seems now that many people wish to be engaged in this rescue operation, which, from my comparative analysis to other refugee situations I have seen in the past, is really being conducted with great skill and human compassion.
The refugees are coming from Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria and even Syria and other countries. Among them are families, individual men but also unaccompanied minors. The situation is critical because the migrants have a credible fear of persecution and cannot return to their home countries. In every refugee situation, that is the first thing that needs to be ascertained. Can the person return, and is their fear credible?
Certainly, I am proud of the Italian government and the people of Sicily for the wonderful welcome they were giving to these people even though it represented some hardship.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, there are many things for which we individually are thankful. As I spoke to these asylum seekers, they certainly were thankful that they had made it to safe ground and that they were not among the over 3,000 deaths that have been certified in the last year.
Clearly, these refugees really put out into the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea in the hope that safe harbor is available to them. This Thanksgiving, let us pray for the many people around the world who need to migrate to find a safe harbor and a secure future.