Our primary concern as Catholics is people, not policy


At the meetings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last fall, Angel Studios offered a screening of their upcoming film, “Cabrini.” The film relates the remarkable legacy of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. A native of Italy, Mother Cabrini’s ministry took her to the United States where she and her sisters cared for orphans and the sick, particularly among immigrants. The film captures the ferocity and tenderness of the woman and shows us what it means to live as a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. I urge you to see the film.
I first became aware of Saint Mother Cabrini’s amazing work as a newly ordained priest, working with immigrant families from Central America. I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the process of learning to understand and communicate in the Spanish language. My spiritual director recommended that I seek the intercession of Mother Cabrini. As my language skills improved, I experienced the grace of human connections. I began to hear the stories of people’s lives, about their great faith and their arduous life journeys.
Questions of immigrants and immigration are emotionally volatile and the source of much political division and manipulation. Please bear with me if I enter these “treacherous waters” with some observations from Catholic Social teaching and from Holy Scripture.
Catholic social teaching permits and even encourages governments to regulate their borders and the flow of migrants. This stance is not merely about the good order of the nation in question, but also has a concern for the well-being of migrants. You need only look at the terrible effects of human trafficking and the dangers to migrants as they travel north to conclude that the current dysfunction is dangerous for the migrants themselves. Most scandalous, the current state of affairs appears to result from decades of failed leadership and the temptation to use immigration law as a political weapon.
While acknowledging the role of government and borders, Catholic teaching also holds that refugees who fear or experience persecution and those who have migrated out of desperation to care for children and family have a right to migrate in search of safety. This element of Church social teaching emerged from the biblical witness. Israel was never the wealthiest or most powerful nation in the Middle East, and yet she was charged by the law and the prophets to welcome the alien and the stranger. In fact, the stranger along with the widow, the orphan and the poor, are described as being under the special protection of the Lord Himself. In the ancient world, peoples and tribes contended violently against one another. They feared the stranger and frequently killed or enslaved foreigners. This biblical stance for solidarity and compassion was revolutionary. It remains so in our own setting.
All human beings have an inherent dignity given by God. Governments have a duty to maintain the order and prosperity of their people. At the same time, there is a moral obligation to assist those in need even if they may come from another culture and nation.
The Catholic Church, universal by nature, has an ancient tradition of assisting migrants. In times of war, famine and natural disasters, the Church’s clergy, religious, and laity have accompanied and assisted migrants. Here in Rhode Island we continue this ancient legacy. We have no control over who enters our communities nor the process by which they arrive. That responsibility lies with the U.S. government. Our responsibility as Catholics is to treat each and every human person before us with compassion and dignity.
When migrants seek support from the Diocese of Providence they receive it in the form of legal guidance, translation services, and help with the very basics of life such as nutrition and clothing. The dedicated staff of our Social Ministry help people through the difficult processes of seeking government aid and help them with their search for housing and work.
These actions are not meant to validate or challenge the partisans on either side of the contemporary debates. I hope and pray that men and women of good faith will indeed find the proper and human response to these debates. But whatever the outcome of those debates, the concern of the Catholic faith is not first about policy. Our primary concern is for persons. We will continue this mission of mercy for every person, including the stranger among us.
Mother Cabrini was an Italian immigrant in a period when Italian immigrants faced hatred and discrimination. She exercised leadership in a culture that limited women in authority. Her faith and her compassion drove her to battle prejudice and cruelty, to live compassion and to build an “empire of love” that endures until this day. Mother Cabrini, pray for us!