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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 39-46

Pastoral Challenges in the World

of Migrants and Refugees

Card. Theodore E. MCCarrick

Archbishop of Washington

The present world situation has shown us the sad reality of many millions of people who have lost the right or who have lost the opportunity to exercise the right to stay at home. Millions of people all over the world are refugees, people who have been driven from the borders of their own lands into other, sometimes more hostile, environments across a political frontier. Others are displaced persons who have had to leave their own native village or city or province and, even though they may find themselves still within the national borders of their own land, they had to move away from the place where they lived not of their own volition but because of other external causes. These statistics are overwhelming and they are greater today than they have ever been in the history of the world. We are living at a time of enormous pressures on populations. We face a world in which millions of people have been forced from their homes and we face a world in which the threat of being forced from one's home faces more millions even as we speak. This is a concern for the whole human race and because of its pastoral role in society, it is a concern for the Church. This is a subject of my talk this morning.

As I treat the complex subject of the pastoral care of migrants and refugees in our world today, I would like to organize my presentation along three lines. First, I want to establish a philosophic and theological basis on which all our pastoral care is based. Secondly, I would like to enumerate the causes in our current society which seem to me to give rise to the enormous problems of the displacement of peoples. Thirdly, I will try to outline the principles, the concrete roles and the overall strategies that can ultimately be the tools which the Church should use to make a difference in the lives of those who are forced to leave their homelands and strive to find a new life in a different place.

The Foundations of Pastoral Care

There is probably no theme so engaging or so motivating in the teaching of Pope John Paul II as his foundational insistence on the dignity of the human person. Even in the stirring words of his first papal encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, this point is already made with power and clarity. It is the dignity of the human person from which all rights flow, the dignity of the human person which gives each individual that special ability to be the subject of rights, responsibilities, actions, reactions, and relationships. The patristic teaching so well annunciated in the writing of St. Irenaeus "Gloria Dei, Vivens Homo" is very similar to the teaching of Pope John Paul Il. It is man, redeemed and ennobled by grace which is the masterwork of God's creation and it is this individual by which the world in all its complexity ultimately must be measured and judged.

This teaching is very important for our consideration of the pastoral care of people on the move. It is central to how we treat each other and therefore at the same time central to the way that the rights of individuals must be determined. In our world life has become very cheap. We are the inheritors of the pattern bombing of World War 11. We have seen the horrible results of the atom bombs; we have seen terrible wars in Africa where children have maimed and killed each other, where massacres of different tribes have taken place. We have seen these things also in the Balkans where the specter of Srebenica continues to haunt all of us and those who will place their faith in the United Nations protection. Terrorism, both from the terrible scale of 9/11 to the daily fears of suicide bombings on the streets of Israel has become more and more the coin of this terrible game of life. All of this has had a tremendous effect on the dignity of the human person and on what it basically must mean.

This has been the common teaching of the Church through her history. In our own time and in the twentieth century we have seen this verified in the writings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

The last four or five Roman Pontiffs have also spoken to this issue and Pope John Paul Il in almost every one of his encyclicals has underlined and stressed the value of human dignity and the rights of the human person. This Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of People on the Move has constantly spoken of human rights and the dignity of the human person.

Of all the human rights which have been defended over the years of our history, there is perhaps one which is always understood but rarely articulated. I would like to talk about it now because it is the basis of our concern for pastoral care in this complex world of today. It is the right for an individual to remain at home. By this I mean the right "To grow where you are planted," as the English proverb has it. It is the right to find security within the circumstances of your own birth, where you grow to maturity, to be able to live in an atmosphere and a context that is familiar to you. This obviously implies the right to grow up surrounded by family, surrounded by a community of neighbors, surrounded by a cultural milieu of common understanding of life and of values. There are other derived rights of course; there is the right to have a family, to marry and raise children, to be educated and to educate those children God may give you, the right to pursue opportunities for health and even, ultimately, to earn a decent living in keeping with your own talent, energy and dedication.

These are the rights which our teaching recognizes. They are the rights which ultimately make up that package of opportunities that every human being should have. Each of them to a certain extent is factored by the right to stay with tranquility at home and to do and enjoy all these things in the context of your own native place. Of course, it is always possible for someone to decide that he or she does not want to stay at home, that he or she might desire to move to another area for reasons, good or bad, but which are personal to the individual. This also should be a right that an individual should enjoy.

The Causes of Migration

There are of course different reasons that force people to leave their homes, that force them to become migrants or refugees or displaced persons. Let us speak of them for a moment and see how these reasons are verified in different parts of our world.

Some people are forced to leave their land because of wars. The fact that we have gone through actual world wars and that some of the local conflicts have almost reached the proportion of world wars, predicts how many people have been forced to flee the hostilities of war in our time. If we would just focus on Africa, we can see the tremendous displacement of people across borders that took place in the great lakes region after the terrible warfare in Rwanda and the Congo. 

A second cause of tremendous refugee migration can come from religious discrimination and the disputes which accompany it. I think of the turmoil in India more than a half century ago when Muslim and Hindu fought with each other to reach homelands where they felt they would be at peace. How many millions of people crossed borders to find a new beginning in what would be a different and unfamiliar location.

A third reason for the large movement of people in our time has been famine. At the root of all, it is poverty which causes so much displacement and migration in our world. The globalization of the world's economy which seeks to find more efficiency and profit in the marketing of agriculture and the preparation of food products so often ends up in causing tragedy for the very poor. Some speak of economic migration as if this was a shameful or less than honest motivation. Truly it is not. Economic migrants who seek to find work so that they can support their families and have a better life are to be found everywhere. In the United States this has been one of the great causes of immigration into our country, an immigration which has brought so much good to the United States over the centuries. As the global trends of economy disrupt and reconfigure the patterns of farming and agriculture and industry of our society, they bring into the world so many new and more difficult challenges for the poor and those who find themselves in places where they can no longer survive.

Civil disturbances can also be the cause of displacement and refugees. We have seen that in Colombia where different rebel groups take over huge sections of the country, forcing many of the inhabitants to seek a different place to live in order to find peace and tranquility and to escape the violence that is endemic to these areas. Political decisions can also be the cause of disruption. Even today, decisions made in the Horn of Africa along the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea are said by some to have cut a whole community apart by an artificially imposed frontier. People will then move from one place to another in order not to lose family ties or the opportunity of cultural education in their own community or their own culture.

As a final cause for the disruption of people through human mobility I mention another one that is not chosen, namely the trafficking of human beings. Although this perhaps does not involve the huge numbers that affect the people who were mentioned in our earlier examples, we are still talking of hundreds of human beings, women and children, who are transported over national boundaries for purposes of prostitution and other terrible demeaning actions which so clearly violate the human dignity on which their rights are based. This is a cause which must affect the stability of our world and must indeed cry out for some strong and consistent programs on the part of the Church.

The Church's Response

In the face of all these situations, wherever the rights of an individual who would stay in the boundaries of his or her own home are violated, the Church must be involved if it is going to be faithful to its own teaching. It seems to me that there are different responses for the different situations that we have described but there are certain very clear pastoral actions that must take place no matter what the situation specifically involves. To that extent, there is what we might call the ABC of pastoral care. A is for advocacy. B is for brotherhood. C is for caring.

The Church must be an advocate in these situations. Advocacy can take many forms because it will involve relations with different groups. There must be advocacy with governments. By this I mean not only the individual governments of our respective nations but governmental agencies such at the United Nations and regional organizations of states. In some cases it is only through support, guidance and changing the policies of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that the plight of many thousands of people can even be recognized let alone be solved. The Church must be an advocate on this international level in a very active way. The Church must also advocate on national levels by making sure that national governments are aware of the concerns of the refugees within their borders or of refugees that are clamoring to find a place to escape from war or violence or any kind of economic or other cultural pressure. The voice of the Church must be raised in these instances. We must never be accused of being silent when refugees seek a place of haven.

Advocacy must also involve our relations with the non‑governmental agencies and organizations. NGOs have been historically the ones most involved in the care of refugees and displaced persons. Our advocacy with them consists not just in calling their attention to the problem but in the Church assisting them, cooperating with them and working with them in trying to solve the problems of a threatened group of migrants who are such, not because of their own willingness, but because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

The second way in which our pastoral response must be made is through an even more organized attempt to make the newcomer feel at home. Bearing witness to our common brotherhood is essential, whether or not all are members of our Church. They are members of the same common family, brothers and sisters in God's one human family as the servant of God, Terrence Cardinal Cooke, would always teach us years ago. It is that sense of brotherhood, the ability to empathize with the concerns of others that is a gift which the Church must give and a way in which the Church must find itself able to have a pastoral response to displaced persons and the stranger.

Finally, it is through charity, through the willingness to share in the benefits which we have, that we must also reach out to the neighbor and to the ones who are in need. The Church in so many lands, especially in those parts of the world which are financially more developed and more abundant in resources, must see to their obligation and their glorious opportunity of reaching out to the needs of others. This is an essential role which they must play as Christians, as neighbors and as friends. What are the ways in which the Church can help and reach out in charity to others? I believe that here there are three areas. One is material, one is spiritual and the other is relating to special needs. Let us consider each of these and try to give an example.

First of all, there is the question of material need. I spoke of Goma in the Congo and how agencies of the Church and the local Church itself were able to open their hearts and limited facilities and resources to share with those who came with nothing. During those days the refugee camps were filled with hundreds of thousands of people who truly overwhelmed the possibilities of the local area. Thank God, the United Nations and the International Relief Agencies such as our own American Catholic Relief Services quickly came to help. The need was so acute because the people had come carrying little with them and what they had was so quickly used up. There was no drinking water available and so this caused a major crisis. It took the combined resources of agencies from all over central Africa to try to keep these poor people alive. The fact that thousands and thousands did not die is a tribute to the rapid response and the extraordinary generosity of a world which suddenly woke up to a tragedy on its doorstep.

The second material need is often security. A group of refugees is fleeing from something. Those who have driven them out are often anxious to make sure that they will not settle comfortably and peacefully in another area. Here the Church must be the advocate of peace and demand that the civil authorities provide protection for the newcomer. If security does not exist, then their struggle to flee from a land in turmoil may be all in vain as their enemies are able to pursue and overwhelm them. If that happens, then the tragedy becomes all the more grave and the responsibility of those who allow these desperate acts to occur becomes a national and international horror. Something of this nature occurred in Bosnia at Srebenica when the United Nations forces found themselves unable to protect the people, and hundreds were slaughtered in a massacre the world would never forget.

Besides food and security, the need for shelter can also be grave. I remember the refugee camps built in Croatia, mostly for Muslim refugees from Bosnia at the time of the Bosnian wars. Through them, many escaped the attacks of Serbian forces striving to achieve ethnic cleansing of areas where so many Muslims‑and Catholic Croatians‑had been living. With the help of international agencies the Church was able to prevent many deaths as the winter drew on by providing simple housing to give shelter to the people. Another need in a refugee camp situation is for education, giving young people an opportunity to develop their own talents and intellects. I remember being in refugee camps in Palestine and seeing the heroic attempts of families to educate their children so that they might have a better life in future years. Unfortunately, going back to those camps years later, one could appreciate that some of the refugee families were still here after three generations. It is easy to predict the awful anger and spirit of hopelessness which such a lifetime in those surroundings must engender. Here too, the Church must be present with its proclamation of the Gospel.

Finally, the Church must be present to refugees and displaced persons on the spiritual level and here there are three specific things which the Church can do. It must encourage the refugee and the displaced person; if they are Catholic, it must seek to catechize them and finally to confirm them in their self worth so they can become able to function in society. If they have despaired of making their life better or become so hardened that they become a danger to themselves and to their neighbors, then their plight becomes intolerable. The Church is equipped for this type of service since it is an agency of grace and of goodness and since it preaches the Gospel values. The Church is uniquely able to remind the individual of his or her own human dignity and their own place in the plan of God. This is a lesson which is essential for every human being, and even if it must be learned in the difficulties of life in a refugee camp, it is still a lesson which humanizes as well as makes one conscience of God's presence.

For this reason it is so important that there be some attempt to give catechetical instruction to any Catholic groups among the migrants and refugees. This is a great challenge the Church even though it too is faced with a lack of resources and other difficulties. The Church can never forget how important it is to make sure that the faithful know of God's love for them. Otherwise they can become hardened and filled with despair. When all is said and done, the Church must confirm its brothers and sisters in the faith and assure them that they are loved and cared for and respected as human beings, indeed as Saint Anselm taught, as the glory of God and the full flower of the redemption.

As the Church looks out in pastoral care for migrants and refugees two groups call in a very special way for support. The first are the children and the second are the handicapped. 

The children of the migrants and refugees are often among the most loving of God's creatures. I have seen them on every continent of the world and wherever I see them I am touched by their need to be loved, by their sense of hope, and by their concern for each other. So often tragedy turns people inside but more often than not with children it turns them to seek to help and to care for each other. Because this is true we must strive to make their lives as bearable as possible. The Church must organize day care centers and opportunities for children to be truly children and not to carry constantly the weight of responsibilities. It is certain that sometimes in refugee groups there is the awful situation of children having to care for children, when parents are dead or lost and children find themselves all alone. An older brother or sister often becomes a surrogate parent. When this happens we must do two things. On the one hand we must affirm and support the child who has taken responsibility but on the other we must make sure that that young person also has a chance at a real childhood. Children are the key to the future and to the Church and we must never forget the Lord's specific command to us to make sure that we treat them well. In a special way when we find children who have been involved in human trafficking or have been brought to another country for improper purposes of sex or exploitation in any way, we must make sure that we can protect them from those who seek to use them and that we find an opportunity to help them either to return to their homes or to find families who might care for them as they grow up. This today is a special challenge for the Church.

Among the refugees and displaced persons there are always some who are handicapped. We find those who have been hurt on the journey or those who have become physically challenged. Since these are the most vulnerable of all the people, they are ones for whom the Lord is most concerned and who need us the most. For that reason, we who are the Lord's servants must become their servants too. I appreciate how difficult this is when you are dealing with huge numbers, but we must find people who because of their faith and love can reach out to these handicapped ones. This will be a double blessing both for those who are challenged and those who are called to exercise so beautiful and rewarding an apostolate of care. What a marvelous work this would be for a religious Congregation!

Pastoral care of people on the move means many things to many people in different circumstances. For tourists of course it means one thing. But for those who are forced by the circumstances of these times to flee their own lands or to strive to find other lands because of the problems they meet at home, the Church has many opportunities and many responsibilities.

Of course the Church must be present in the lives of its own faithful as a source of sacramental help, a source of gospel teaching and a source of comfort and concern. It must be an advocate. It must a source of encouragement. It must be the one strong voice which calls for opportunities for better work, better education, better health care for all these people. The Church indeed must do this whether the strangers are Catholic or not because of the demand that their own human dignity makes on all of us who are their brothers and sisters.

The Church must be an advocate with local authorities‑national and international. It must make its voice heard on behalf of the stranger, the migrant, the refugee, and especially the one who is trapped in the horror of human trafficking. The Church's role is to be in the forefront wherever there is concern and trouble and difficulty and pain. Our world is filled with those situations today and the Church is already hard pressed to take care of its own. The challenge for us all in the Church is that there is no one who is not our own.

Years ago when I was visiting India for some meeting on relief for refugee programs I met a number of Indian bishops. Interested in their work and their responsibilities, I asked one archbishop what his diocese was like. He proceeded to describe it to me. Then I asked him: "How many people do you have?" I was counting on his reply being framed in terms of how many Catholics he had. He said to me, "About fifteen million." I smiled and said, "Oh, no, Your Grace. I only meant those who are Catholic." He looked at me and responded, "I have maybe twenty thousand of them, but aren't we called to take care of everybody?" That is a lesson that 1 will never forget. It applies to those we find living in the area that we serve and just as clearly it applies to strangers who come through circumstances beyond their control. But however they come, they come as our brothers and sisters in God's one human family and they come guided by the Hands of God.

Thank you very much.