Sunday, September 20, 2015

Column: Inconvenient Truths

Refugee tents at Budapest Station
Victor was in Hungary a couple of weeks ago, while the refugee crisis at the train station in Budapest was at its peak.  He felt he needed to respond in some way to those bereft of home.  I'm proud of how he stretched to do so.

In writing this, I read many of the recent Catholic Church documents on migrants and refugees. They speak powerfully of how we ought to respond.  The line that I'm still thinking about comes from Pope John Paul II at 3rd World Congress on the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees:   "It will be necessary to abandon a mentality in which the poor – as individuals and as peoples – are considered a burden, as irksome intruders..."

Given the news from our own country and from abroad, this is a line worth contemplating.

A version of this column appeared at CatholicPhilly on 18 September 2015.

When they were few in number, a handful, and strangers there,
Wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people,
He let no one oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings:
“Do not touch my anointed ones, to my prophets do no harm.” — Psalm 105:12-15

“Be prepared to walk three to four miles to your event,” advises one brochure on the papal visit. There are lists of things not to bring: no coolers, no shelters, no large signs. “Grounds open at 6 am.” For an event that will not begin until after noon.

Refugee children at coloring station in
Budapest station
I am immeasurably grateful; I have a ticket to hear Pope Francis talk about immigration on Saturday, and one that lets me stand on the parkway for Mass on Sunday. Yet the more I read about the events, the more challenging the weekend sounds. How long can I stand? How far can I walk? Will I be able to bring an umbrella in case of rain?

While I began to make plans for the World Meeting of Families and the Pope’s visit last week, my husband, Victor, was in Budapest to give a series of talks on mathematics. His pictures of the small dome tents housing Syrian refugees in the train station square made me pause. So, too, did Facebook posts from friends in California, watching worriedly as fires envelope nearby communities. I’m planning for a weekend of wandering about Philadelphia with my oldest son, I’m not fleeing a war or wildfires, young children, pets and my elderly father in tow.

In 2013, under Pope Benedict XVI, the Church offered a reflection on our pastoral and spiritual response to refugees, those driven from their homes by forces beyond their control.

We are reminded that migrants and refugees are first and foremost not inconvenient company, but are a way God points to both our own status as pilgrims in this world and to Christ: “The ‘foreigner’ is God’s messenger who surprises us and interrupts the regularity and logic of daily life, bringing near those who are far away. In ‘foreigners’ the Church sees Christ who ‘pitches His tent among us’.”

The document goes on to remind us that everyone is called to respond personally to the needs of those who have been displaced by disasters. Victor visited with the refugees at the station, joining a group of students helping parents entertain their children, sitting on the ground as they colored, blowing huge bubbles for them to chase. He bought small toys for these children — carefully chosen to be easy to carry and not noisy so as not to add to their parents’ burdens!

It’s harder to see what I am called to do from this side of the ocean, but I can pray. I can allow my own wanderings to sharpen my eyes for the displaced. I can offer up long lines and long walks for those who stand at the borders, hoping for a place of safety.

The pope’s visit will interrupt the regularity of our daily lives in so many ways, even if we are not able to go to any of the events. For a brief moment our lives will manifest aspects of the uncertainty and anxiety of those fleeing catastrophes.Can this temporary disruption remind us of the Gospel’s demand to be ever attentive to the needs of those driven from their homes? Welcome, the Church tells us, is not just a task, but a way of living.

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