Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Justice for Immigrants Prayer Service, Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia, Saturday, March 19, 2017
My dear brother bishops, dear deacons, seminarians, fellow religious, brothers and sisters in Christ,
I was hoping that we would have a Cathedral today full of people who disagreed with the Church’s teaching about immigration. But I don’t think that’s the case. I suspect that most of us here today stand with the Church’s stance. Nonetheless, I am going to preach about where the Church stands. And we together need to pray that we can move the conversation about immigration along in that direction.
Perhaps you know that the Bishops and Priests and Deacons of the Church have a responsibility every day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. This morning when I got up I faithfully entered into that prayer and read what is referred to as the Office of Readings.
These readings were set for today a long time ago. But God has given us a gift because of the occasion of this prayer service. The first reading was from the book of Exodus where Moses gave God’s plan, God’s law, to the Jewish people. In today’s Gospel you heard Jesus tell us that salvation comes from the Jews. So what Moses said to them, God is also saying to us.
Here are two quotes from the Office of Readings, “You shall not molest or oppress an alien. For you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” And at the end of that reading from Exodus, these words, “You shall not oppress an alien. You well know how it feels to be an alien since you were once an alien yourself in the land of Egypt.”
So what the Church teaches us about aliens and immigration is a command from God, which is an obligation on the shoulders of those of us who want to be Christians. Most of us in the United States, if not all of us really, have an ancestral heritage that’s descendants of immigrants. We are a country of immigrants, we are a Church of immigrants, from the beginning to this day.
Just this week, this last week, we celebrated the feast of Saint Patrick, which was celebrated with great enthusiasm by the Irish immigrants to the United States. And today and tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Saint Joseph who is very close to the Italian immigrants in our Church.
So today we gather together as a Church to pray and reflect about this issue which is a source of great division and polarization in our country today. And since we are Christians we have an obligation, a serious obligation, a vocation, to be concerned about justice, and charity, and mercy.
The conversation about immigration concerns many people, first and foremost, the immigrants themselves. Immigrants and refugees, even those here legally and for a long time, have had a steady diet of anxiety and confusion in these last months. And that fear and anxiety rests in the great degree in the lives of the families. Parents are afraid of being separated from one another and their children, and children are afraid when they come home from school their parents will be gone.
On the other hand, there are some of us in the country and also in the Church who want tighter immigration restrictions. They talk about the damage done to our country by immigration in terms of work and national security. And others of us in the Church and in the country, and I’d imagine this is true about most of us in this Church today, have been part of demonstrations in support of immigrants. And some of you, some of us, work full time in support of immigrants and to make better the immigration system.
And in the midst of this polarization, this confusion, and sometimes great anger, it’s important for those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ, who are to be called peacemakers, to do all that we can to be a source of understanding and peace in the lives of all these people.
Good people exist on both sides of this debate and following the example of Jesus we need to resist the temptation to demonize those with whom we disagree. Unfortunately those who oppose immigration have weaponized this issue against others – especially against the immigrants. It’s important for those of us who are Christians to be the source of justice and a source of peace in the Church and in the world.
We are not just Americans, we are the Catholic Church and we hear these words of Pope Francis: “The Church is without borders, Mother to all, spreads throughout the world a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place or disposable.”
We are the Church but nonetheless we are a Church in the borders of this country, the United States of America. So we live our faith surrounded by people who do not share our faith. It’s important for us to be faithful and important for us to evangelize so that they come to understand this issue as it is understood in the mind and heart of God.
The Bishops of the United States have reflected on the issue of immigration very deeply for a very long time. And we’ve developed principles for reflection that are based on the understanding of God’s word and the dignity of human beings. And I would like to remind you and the Church of Philadelphia the basic principles of immigration.
We believe that good government should welcome foreigners out of charity and respect for the human person. We believe people have a right to immigrate when they need to find work and finding ways to make their families’ lives better. So this is not a neutral issue, it’s a matter of basic human rights.
At the same time, the Bishops of our country believe that a country has a right to an ordered immigration process. The concerns about a secure border and the concern about the enforcement of the laws of the country are significant, they are important, they are not something we can just put away.
So how do we put these two basic principles together? Well the American Bishops oppose, strenuously oppose, an “enforcement only” immigration policy and we believe that it’s important from the beginning to support comprehensive immigration reform. So not just enforcement of laws but also at the same time the change of the laws to make them just and comprehensibly faithful to the teachings of Christ.
We believe as Bishops, and I think everyone of you would believe the same thing, that when it comes to enforcement, it ought to be targeted: drug dealers, smugglers, terrorists, human traffickers. All of these people should be deported. No one disagrees with this. But not families. When it comes to the enforcement of immigration laws, the family needs to be respected. We cannot separate spouses from one another, we cannot separate children from parents. We believe that enforcement should be humane and proportional. We believe that respect ought to be shown to what we refer to as “due process” in the United States where people’s human rights are protected and respected.
You might remember, those of us who are older remember, that 20 years ago immigration conflict was not experienced. And many of the immigrants who live here now without papers came at that time. And they were welcomed by the country because they provided cheap labor and worked in situations where there were no laborers and people weren’t available to work.
And so in some sense, we ignored the enforcement and welcomed the immigrants. And their lack of enforcement in the past makes us co-responsible together for the present. Responsible with the immigrants as well as responsible for what we did in the past.
I am very proud of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and all that we have done and all that we will continue to do for immigrants. We have a history we can be proud of. Many good priests, many good women and men religious, many good lay faithful have served the immigrants generously and well. And we can be very proud of our Catholic Social Services. For a very long time we’ve had an immigration department which is staffed by lawyers, paralegals and others to make assistance available to those in need. And we have many case managers in various locations in the Archdiocese to help people. And we even have a house for unaccompanied refugee minors — for boys — young refugees from Central America especially, and from Africa.
And many communities of religious women especially have been very active in immigration work. We’ve also had a refugee settlement office in the history of the Archdiocese. Several months ago we decided to begin again. But then after the election, this effort was put on hold until we see what’s going to happen in the next several months and the next several years.
But more importantly than what is done at the level of the Archdiocese, is what is done in your local parishes. This is a place where people are truly welcomed, where they are made to know they are truly our brothers and sisters and part of our family. So it’s very important for our pastors and our parish councils, those are responsible for the life of our individual parishes, to reflect on their approach to and embrace the Church’s understanding of immigration.
Today’s Gospel is an interesting gospel from the perspective of immigration. We see the encounter of Jesus himself with a stranger. This woman, this Samaritan woman, is a symbol of the Church. Saint Augustine writing about this story in the Gospel tells us we should see ourselves in her, four characteristics, five characteristics of this woman.
First of all, we have to ask the question, why did she come to the well at noon? This work is ordinarily done in the morning. Perhaps it was because she had five husbands and the man she was living with was not her husband. So she didn’t want to show up when the other women were there, as they can talk about her. And she was surprised when Jesus spoke to her for several reasons. She was a woman and unaccompanied women did not speak to men. This is still true in Muslim communities today. She was a Samaritan, the enemies of the Jews. She had a different religion than Jesus.
So she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, she was of the wrong religion, she was the wrong gender, and she was not a Jew. And despite all of this, the Gospel tells us that Jesus longed for her love. Jesus saw himself as the true answer to her being thirsty, in need. And Saint Augustine once again said that Jesus thirsted for her love as much as she thirsted for the love of God. For some reason God is enchanted with us and desires us. And he invites us to see the other, people who are different from us in all kinds of ways, as being our brothers and our sisters for we should desire to have a relationship with them.
Before the season of Lent began, we heard Jesus preach the sermon on the mountain. And Jesus used the same word we find in today’s gospel, “thirst,” in that sermon. The notion of thirst symbolizes the deepest longings of the human person. And Jesus says to you and to me, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice.” It is a characteristic of a disciple of Jesus to have passion about things that are important and necessary in life.
So it’s not enough for us to accept the teachings of the Church about immigration. It’s important for us also to embrace those teachings in a passionate kind of way. It’s important for us to not be afraid because this is a difficult, complex, and controversial issue.
When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman, it changed her. The Gospel tells us that she left her water jar, she left her old way of life, and she ran to announce the good news of Jesus to the people of her village. She was a true apostle. And we are called to be the same, to let the Word of God change our way of life.
Perhaps that change is to move from hostility to acceptance of the Church’s teaching or to move from acceptance of the Church’s teaching to be apostles of the Church’s teachings in our communities. Always with love and mercy and understanding, it goes both ways to immigrants and to those we think who have a wrong opinion, but nonetheless to be apostles for change.
So we ask the dear Lord to allow us in our gathering today to leave our water jars behind and to go from here to announce His good news to the Church, to the broader community, to members of our family, to all others. So we ask the Lord in our prayer today to protect and care for the immigrants who are fearful. We can’t do very much about them. We can do much more about ourselves.
What we can do is commit ourselves today to become apostles of the good news of Jesus Christ. May God bring to completion the good things he begins to move in our hearts today.