Refugees: “A Shameful Wound of Our Time”?


One doesn’t have to travel far to find a divergent opinion on the so called “Syrian refugee crisis”. The world is struggling to come up with a response. Our instinct is to love and show compassion for the refugee. This instinct is then sifted through religious perspectives and our national interests. The result of that sifting is a most obvious struggle for the Christian to understand and apply what our faith has to say about addressing the refugee. The Church groans under the weight of this pivotal moment in time. Refugees are, after all, fleeing Syria and other swaths of the Middle East right now, even as I write this, not later. So if a response is due, it is necessarily due now, and not later. What is the faithful Catholic to make of this “refugee crisis?”

First Things First

Christians, at the heart of their faith, are motivated by undeserved and unrestrained love. This selfless love is what led our Savior into the heart of a hostile people, to deliver up his life for that hostile people and at once display the ultimate manifestation of the greatest love that the world will ever know. This is the Christ that we follow and look to as our example. Christians are a people of love. Because the Christian understands their own former alienation from the cross of Christ, in which they were  “hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (Colossians 1:21) and their subsequent reconciliation, motivated by the loving act of the Cross, they are inspired to look at every other soul with the same kind of hope that they themselves have found. Of course for a humanity that is plagued by sin and only sees things “imperfectly, as puzzling reflections in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12), living out this Christian ethic of love is not always so easy to do – things are not always so cut and dry, it seems. It is easy to understand that as Catholics we must love, because Christ first loved us, but what is not so easy is knowing how to love. When we talk about refugees, it is often this how to love them and care for them that muddies up the water.

International Refugees and a Pastoral Call

Shortly after the attacks in Paris, France, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration issued a statement to the American faithful, which you can read in it’s entirety, here. The encouragement of the statement was to not halt the allowance of refugees into the United States. The statement was also aimed at encouraging able nations to work tirelessly to resolve the conflicts abroad and strive for peace. The statement does, however, lack a full treatment of what it means to be a refugee and how the Christian ought to think about the refugee. To understand this question more fully, we have to turn to other sources. My primary source for this reflection will be “Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity“, produced in 1992 by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.

We will discover what the Church has to say on the matter together, as we unpack and summarize her pastoral call in this article. But at the onset, we will note the challenge that Catholics face: We know, because our faith clearly teaches, that we must love and care for the poor and needy – this most certainly encompasses the refugee. And Catholic’s have a strong tradition of doing just that; look no further than Mother Teresa or Elizabeth of Hungary for examples par excellence. What Catholics seek today is not only the wisdom of how to respond to the refugees worldwide, but also how to talk about them. It is evident that this is a crisis of attitude and tone as much as it is a crisis of action and practicality.

The Sincerity Behind the Divide

The world suffered a terrible blow on September 11, 2001. This tragic event changed the scope of our struggle against evil in this world. It ushered in an era of wide-spread, world-wide terrorist activity. This terrorism, meant to instill fear and incite further violence, has affected every part of the world and these public attacks are still a daily occurrence. Terrible, vicious attacks occur in the heart of the Middle East, against Muslims, in Israel, against Jews and in the city centers of Europe, against Christians. There is seemingly no nationality or religious tradition that remains unaffected by the hatred that drives terrorists to kill innocent people. A natural, basic instinct is to protect those whom we love. It is no crime to want to keep the bad guys out of our communities. The desire to defend our families, our churches, our nation against the onslaught of terrorist violence is a good thing. (CCC 2263-2267)

But we must remember the goal of terrorism: to instill fear. To instill a fear that casts a dark pall over any goodness, any graces, any intrinsic love in our humanity.

As I have talked about before, fear is the antithesis of hope. Where fear anticipates some future evil, hope anticipates some future good. Catholics are a people of hope. We have hope because Christ rose up from the dead. And if there was no resurrection, no Easter hope, then our faith is in vain. It is because of this fact that we must examine our hearts, look the evil of terrorism in the eye and ask the question: what is this wicked reality instilling at the core of my heart and my view of the world? If the answer is fear, we must re-examine our conscience and let it be once again informed by our Christian hope.

Refugees and the Counsel of the Church

Thus, we have established three things thus far, we recognize: 1) The call of the Christian is to love and care for the “least of those among us”, which includes the refugee; 2) It is right and good to protect the ones we love, our families, our country men and even those who are vulnerable beyond our shores from the threat of terrorism and violence; 3) there is great tension between these two realities. We are tasked with walking that line of tension and with developing an attitude and practice that upholds the inherent dignity of every human being, without consideration of race, nationality or religion, while at once remaining faithful stewards of our state in life.

In the 1992 document, “Refugees: A Challenge to Solidarity”, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (hereafter referred to as “the Pontifical Council”) outlines primary areas of concern with regards to refugees worldwide. I will highlight but a few:

Protection of refugees is a duty and responsibility for the Christian:

Protection is not a simple concession made to the refugee: he is not an object of assistance, but rather a subject of rights and duties. Each country has the responsibility to respect the rights of refugees and assure that they are respected as much as the rights of its own citizens.

The immediate needs of the refugee transcends the interests of the State and even national security in deference to the dignity of the refugee as a human person:

The problem of refugees must be confronted at its roots, that is, at the level of the very causes of exile. The first point of reference should not be the interests of the State, or national security but the human person, so that the need to live in community, a basic requirement of the very nature of human beings, will be safeguarded.

Refugee camps may be necessary, but they are not ideal:

Refugee camps, necessary though not ideal structures for initial reception, should be located in places as far away as possible from armed conflict, secure from possible attacks. They should also be organized in such a way as to allow refugees to enjoy a minimum of privacy and medical, educational and religious services. The inhabitants should also be protected from the various forms of moral and physical violence, and have the possibility of participating in decisions that affect their daily living. Security provisions should be strengthened where single women are housed to avoid those forms of violence to which they are often subjected.

Protection of refugees must extend beyond physical protection of the displaced:

Conventional refugees” already have been offered some measure of protection; however, such protection must not be limited to a guarantee of physical integrity but must be extended to all the conditions necessary for a fully human existence. Thus they must be assured not only food, clothing, housing and protection from violence, but also access to education and medical assistance, and the possibility of assuming responsibility for their own lives, cultivating their own cultures and traditions, and freely expressing their own faith.

The fact that most of these present refugees are Muslim does not distract us from our mission, for we remember:

Cooperation among the various Christian Churches and the various non- Christian religions in this charitable work will lead to new advances in the search for and the implementation of a deeper unity of the human family. The experience of exile can become a particular time of grace, just as it was for the People, who, when exiled in the desert and came to know the name of God and experience his liberating power.

Stay focused

We are not called to bring the refugees into our very homes, necessarily. To say that this is the standard creates a false dichotomy wherein we must either move the refugee into our bedroom, or keep them as far away as possible. We are called, however, by the Holy Father himself, to open up our parishes to these refugees in exile. Our hearts should be open to this, going as far as possible to help, even if it is risky, for the sake of love. Pope St. John Paul the Great once asked, “Are you capable of risking your life for another? Do it for Christ.”

John Paul II also called the reality of any refugee in exile a “Shameful wound of our time”. The most poignant call of the Pontifical Council gets to the heart of our Catholic faith:

The Christian community must overcome fear and suspicion toward refugees, and be able to see in them the Savior’s face.

We are all refugees to the heart of Christ. This is the transformative idea that redeems mankind, transcends nationalities and even differences in religion.