From his early papacy, Pope Francis has urged compassion for immigrants. His first official trip outside of Rome after his election was to Lampedusa, an island in the southern Mediterranean near Sicily, which has become a safe haven for African migrants seeking passage to Europe. The struggles of the migrants, many of whom were killed attempting to cross the sea, has been a “thorn in his heart,” the pope said.
The question posed by the pope and his answer point us to the issue of immigration: “Am I really my brother’s keeper? Yes you are your brother’s keeper. To be human means to care for one another.” The immigration issue is an all-encompassing and personal one for Francis, whose grandparents had emigrated from Italy to Argentina. At the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis explained how “we, the people of this continent known as America, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”
From the moment he stepped on American soil, Pope Francis has placed himself firmly in the immigration debate as a champion of immigrants. On a Constitution Avenue sidewalk in Washington, D.C., 5-year old Sophie Cruz with her mother and father waited for a glimpse of the Holy Father. In a split second the pontiff made eye contact with Sophie and waved her over to his white Jeep Wrangler. She handed a letter over to him in Spanish that expressed how sad she felt about the discrimination of immigrants in this country. In this encounter the pope read her note pleading him to help “stop deporting our parents because we need them to grow and be happy.”
At the White House Pope Francis raised the issue of immigration, pointing out that the U.S. historically is a nation of immigrants. Later, at a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, the pope specifically described how thousands are led to travel north in the western hemisphere in search of opportunities, asking that they be viewed as people within a family.
He said we should not be “taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.” Being quite blunt, the pope pleaded before the U.S. Congress for Americans to end “hostility” toward immigrants. He urged more human treatment of them by asking legislators, “Is this not what we want for our own children?”
In the afternoon at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the pope declared how the Catholic Church “knows like few others the hopes present in the hearts of these ‘pilgrims,’ these immigrants.” To Catholic bishops the pope detailed how today Latin American immigration affects many dioceses. Speaking as a pastor from the South, he encouraged bishops “not to be afraid to welcome the migrants.” During the canonization Mass of St. Junípero Serra, held at Catholic University of America and celebrated mostly in Spanish and with a reading in Chochenyo, a Native American language, the Holy Father sent a strong message of hope and love to immigrants.
The pope’s goal is to teach all Americans how to understand better their history, because the founding and settling of this country came about with pilgrims in the Northeast and Latinos coming from Florida and the Southwest.
Pope Francis shows us that Latinos have always been here in the United States. They have not just arrived a few years ago. “The Apostle of California,” Junípero Serra, was in the first place an immigrant who among many others has enriched America and the Catholic Church.
In the New York leg of his trip Pope Francis went to Queen of Angels Elementary School in East Harlem and became the loving “abuelito” (dear grandfather) to mostly Latino and immigrant children. He told them a tale about immigration and how communities are strengthened by embracing change without fear. He insisted that newcomers make the society stronger and more vibrant. The children were told that “we meet people who open doors for us, who are kind to us. They offer us friendship and understanding and they try to help us not to feel like strangers, like foreigners. To feel at home.”
However, the culmination of his work on immigration was a powerful and historical speech at Independence Hall, the birthplace of the founding of the United States of America. Speaking from the podium used by Abraham Lincoln to pronounce his Gettysburg Address, Pope Francis acknowledged the presence of many Latino immigrants there. He advised them not “to be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships that you face” such as discrimination, adapting to a new language and culture.
He stressed that the immigrants should “never be ashamed of their traditions and the lesson learned from your elders,” because one can bring these ideas and customs to enrich the life of America. He extolled them to be responsible citizens contributing to the fruitfulness of the communities in the U.S.
As seen by his gestures and heard in his words, Pope Francis is striving to change the tone of the immigration debate — making it more personal, more human, more compassionate. His hope is that people seeing and listening to him will have a change of heart and mind and reach out to their congressional elected officials and ask them to address the issue of immigration in this country.
Throughout this trip to the United States, the pope has called all of us to a universal message of mercy and forgiveness with migrants. With the demographic shift from the southern hemisphere to the North in the global church, Hispanics now account for 40 percent of all Catholics in the United States.
The influential Archbishop Charles Chaput, the pope’s host in Philadelphia, has been a strong voice in favor of immigration. Like the Pope, Archbishop Chaput has urged us to encounter and listen to the undocumented. But you cannot encounter them if you are deporting them.
The pope ended his speech on immigration with an admonition to avoid a common temptation to discard whatever is troublesome. He then added, “Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The Vatican clearly has insisted that the pope is merely restating church social teachings on the issue of immigration and the inherent dignity of all people, and not making political statements. The challenge for all of us — both the clergy and the people we shepherd — is to heed the Gospel of love and compassion presented by the pope in his words, but mostly importantly in his gestures, and live out what he has taught us.
This trip of mercy is one of reconciliation and a time of hope. Now is the time for dialogue about this important issue. The new St. Junípero Serra put it very simply: “Vayan adelante!” (Go forward!)
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.