Put Out into the Deep

Welcoming the Immigrants

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The week of Jan. 8-14 has been designated by the U.S. Bishops as National Migration Week. The theme is “Welcoming Christ in the Migrant.” It takes a Scriptural base in remembering the encounter with the Disciples on the road to Emmaus in that post-resurrection account.

As said by Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, Chairman of the Migration Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Just as on the road to Emmaus, Christ’s disciples met him in the guise of a stranger, this year’s theme helps remind us that Christ makes himself present to each of us in the lonesome traveler, the newcomer, and the migrant. We are called to open our hearts and provide hospitality to those in need, especially for migrants who find themselves far away from him and in vulnerable situations.”

The scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 also reminds us that welcoming the stranger is part of our Christian responsibility and something by which we will be judged on the last day. How we develop our theology of welcome and the practice of welcome are challenges before us. The Diocese of Brooklyn is fortunate to have established the first migration office in the U.S. as part of a diocesan structure. Under the direction of the then-Msgr. Anthony Bevilaqua, an office for both the pastoral care and social service needs for immigrants was established in 1971. That office continues today under the direction of Father Patrick J. Keating, with the assistance of the Vicar for Migrant and Ethnic Apostolates, Msgr. Ronald Marino, who was also a former director. The office makes practical the welcome offered by the diocese and is supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal, so that every person who assists the Appeal directly assists in the welcoming the migrant.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2012, has tied the issue of migration to the New Evangelization. He states “Christian communities are to pay special attention to migrant workers and their families by accompanying them with prayer, solidarity and Christian charity, by enhancing what is reciprocally enriching, as well as by fostering new political, economic and social planning that promotes respect for the dignity of every human person, the safe guarding of the family, access to dignified housing, and to work.”

Catholic Migration Services of the Diocese of Brooklyn offers legal services for migrants seeking to regularize their status or reunite with family members, and has gained widespread recognition for comprehensive immigration legal services including representation of asylum seekers, human trafficking victims, and victims of domestic violence.

In the area of housing litigation, the work of the Catholic Migration Services to protect the rights of immigrant tenants and preserve affordable housing has resulted in notable legal and community organizing victories. The immigrant workers’ rights project focuses on wage and overtime violations and unsafe working conditions for immigrants. Linea Laboral, a toll-free bilingual workers’ rights hotline (1-877-52 Labor or 1-877-525-2267), is operated by Catholic Migration Services in collaboration with the Mexican Consulate General in New York, the U.S. Department of Labor and the N.Y.S. Department of Labor. Catholic Migration Services assists the many foreign-born priests and religious working in Brooklyn and Queens. There are job training opportunities in the Resources corporation which offers cleaning and other services to our diocesan offices and parishes. This concrete manifestation of welcome is something of which we can truly be proud.

This year in the Catholic Church we are preparing for the Bishops’ Synod on the New Evangelization to be held at the Vatican in October. One of the themes for its draft document is migration and its relevancy and opportunities for the New Evangelization. Migrants find themselves in new circumstances. From my own experiences, I recognize that either migrants will embrace their faith and practice it more deeply or abandon their faith all together. They are at a crossroads in their lives and a welcome from the Church can make a major difference in the course of their religious lives. As our Holy Father states, “the Church is faced with the challenge of helping migrants keep their faith firm even when deprived of cultural support that existed in their country of origin, and of identifying new pastoral approaches, as well as methods and expressions, for an ever vital reception of the Word of God.”

The Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens is certainly a unique laboratory for the multiplicity of welcoming opportunities. In our recent ad limina visit with the Holy Father, I mentioned to him that the diocese had 29 different language Masses celebrated each Sunday. The various ethnic apostolates working with Catholic Migration Services provide a unique opportunity for our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray and worship God in their native languages and cultures. Before the week-long ad limina visit was completed, I learned that the Holy Father repeated this fact to someone in the Roman Curia. Certainly it is a startling fact that we can accommodate and welcome so many different language groups. Over half of our parishes offer Mass in Spanish, while other major groups have a multiplicity of choices and some of the small groups are becoming more organized with weekly celebration of the liturgy — namely, the Indonesian and Bangladeshi communities who have recently asked for a weekly liturgy. Thank God for the presence of many bilingual priests who are able to celebrate Mass in these different languages. Clearly in our diocese the institutional welcome is well organized.

What about our personal outreach and welcome? I believe that this must begin with attitudinal changes, which, unfortunately, have been formed by the culture, and, in particular, the media reports regarding the situation of migrants in our country. We have seen a rash of restrictive legislation coming from states such as Arizona and Alabama which have taken immigration matters into their own hands when in fact the regulation of immigration is a federal responsibility.

The frustrations of people, however, have pushed them to take draconian measures to protect “their way of life.” This year’s political debates have also shown a variety of approaches to migration from building a wall along the border to the deportation of millions of people. The Church’s teaching on migration has always been one that upholds that the right of a nation to protect its population and establish its own borders, but always based on the common good. That common good extends not only to the people of our nation (which prides itself on welcoming immigrants), but also the common good of migrants who also have a right to leave their homeland to search for a better life for themselves and their families. This is a difficult balancing act, but it is one which must be managed by the rule of law that is reasonable and clearly reflective of the current situation.

Unfortunately, our current immigration system is in need of major reform. The presence of over 12 million undocumented migrants in our country shows that there is a need for their labor, but we are not willing to give them a way to gain legal status. This permanent subclass of persons of that magnitude certainly is not a worthy reflection of our democracy, nor is it healthy for our social institutions. Experience tells us that workplace enforcement is the ultimate control that a nation can have on its immigration policy. The problem is not at the border, but rather in the workplace where people should document their right and ability to work. However, this cannot be implemented until there is a broad legalization program to assist those who are already here, working and well integrated into our society.
Each time I touch on the subject of migration policy in these Putting Out Into the Deep columns, we receive many comments, usually negative, regarding a misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching on this issue. In the words of our Holy Father in his annual migration message (which incidentally is the 98th message on migration issued by the Roman Pontiff, and shows the Church’s commitment to migration which is long standing), Benedict XVI states clearly, “The phenomenon of migration today is also a providential opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel in the contemporary world.”

The New Evangelization is putting out into the deep and the new waves of migrants in our midst give us a golden opportunity to engage in the New Evangelization. Please join me this week in praying for migrants in our midst and for our policy makers that reasonable laws can be enacted to make the welcome of our country more concrete. Let us never forget that our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, and the Christ-Child were migrants in the land of Egypt. So the next time that we see an immigrant, let us remember the Holy Family, and our own families who too were migrants at one time.

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