Father Gus Puleo

Following the example of Pope Francis during his first official trip outside the Vatican to the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa in July 2013, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and a group of American bishops placed a wreath at the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, April 1 to honor the thousands of desperate people who have died trying to cross the border to find a better life in the United States.

At Lampedusa the pope, with a “thorn in his heart,” threw a wreath into the Mediterranean Sea to remember the thousands of migrants who died attempting to make the trip from North Africa to Italy by boat. He said he came to Lampedusa “to pray, to make a gesture of closeness, but also to reawaken our consciences so that what happened would not be repeated.” The pope also warned of a world of “indifference.”

In the desert in Arizona Cardinal O’Malley said that “the border is lined with unmarked graves of thousands who die alone and nameless.” He described how we as a nation of immigrants “have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters … and the culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people living in a soap bubble, indifferent to others.”

The highlight of the pope’s day-long visit to Lampedusa was a Mass celebrated in the island’s sports stadium, which served as a reception center for the thousands of refugees from Africa. He greeted the crowd by affirming that “the church is near to you in the search for a more dignified life for yourselves and your families.”

Cardinal O’Malley celebrated Mass just a few feet from the fence that separates the United States from Mexico, a notorious section of the border that is a popular crossing point for many near the brutal desert terrain. The cardinal cited how every year “400 bodies are found here at the border, bodies of men, women and children seeking to enter the United States.”

Using the story of the Good Samaritan, Cardinal O’Malley described Christ’s model for the proper treatment of a neighbor and underscored the parable’s moral tenet. “We come here today to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor,” the cardinal said.

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle, reiterated that as a “moral matter, our nation can no longer employ an immigration system that divides families and denies basic due process protections to our fellow human beings.”  Members of this religious delegation have urged Congress to move quickly to fix this broken system and to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

In addition, the bishops also called for the Obama administration to stop deportations of immigrants who are not a threat to the nation and have families living in the United States.

There are approximately 11 million undocumented persons living in the United States. Since 2008 almost 8 million people have been deported, and more than a half million are in immigration detention centers.

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles described how “these are not just numbers, these are real people. One in every four persons who is being arrested or deported is being ripped out of their homes — taken away from their children, their wives and husbands. We need to keep reminding our leaders, our neighbors, about these human facts.”

Most of the 11 million immigrants have been living in the United States for more than five years. Two-thirds have been here for at least a decade. The vast majority are not a danger to the community, but go to church and work alongside us, paying taxes and making the United States stronger. Cardinal O’Malley commented that “our immigrant population contributes mightily to the economy and well-being of the United States.”

Perhaps the most pressing problem that the bishops are trying to solve is the plight of the “dreamers.” Last year about 25,000 children crossed the border unaccompanied by an adult. Due to current immigration policies thousands of families are separated. Most undocumented immigrants living in the United States are exploited and lack access to basic human services. They live in the shadows. It is cruel to deny these children any legal status.

They have been here for almost their entire lives. They are essentially Americans in every way. We have to welcome them as citizens and give them the opportunities to be successful in this country. A just and compassionate society cannot punish innocent children.

Several hundred people attended the Mass at the border concelebrated by a delegation of bishops from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and even bishops from Mexico. During the liturgy a few dozen migrants peered through the border fence from Mexico to participate in the Mass.

Cardinal O’Malley and Bishop Kicanas of Tucson offered holy Communion through holes in the fence to those in Mexico, who broke down in tears. With this Mass on the border the bishops have demonstrated a dramatic effort to call attention to the dignity and needs of the poorest among us and have called us to advocate for immigration reform.

On the island of Lampedusa Pope Francis asked for grace from God and forgiveness for the “indifference toward so many brothers and sisters … but especially for those who with their decisions have created situations that lead to these tragedies. Forgive us, Lord!”

This issue is not just a human right, but a moral duty and a truly Christian act of love of God and neighbor. So, we ask La Virgen de Guadalupe to lead us all to Jesus, her Son, in order to learn how to love God and neighbor more, and not be indifferent to the needs of our brothers and sisters.

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Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Norristown.