PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — God crossed the border from divinity to humanity, sparking a divine imperative that we stand in solidarity with those migrating in the world, a theologian said in a couple of talks he delivered in Portland.

Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, associate professor of theology and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, visited the Portland Archdiocese in early October as part of an effort by Catholic Charities of Oregon to change society’s thinking on immigration.

“God migrated into our existence and was nailed to a cross so we could make our long migration back into our homeland,” Father Groody told a large crowd at the University of Portland, which was founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross. “Communion and reconciliation are our destiny.”

Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon, realizes that the agency’s work with immigrants is controversial. “How do we change hearts and minds in a very divided church?” he asked, setting the stage for Father Groody’s Oct. 3 talk.

“Jesus was born outside the law,” the priest said the next day at a workshop at Catholic Charities offices in Portland, explaining that Mary’s pregnancy seemed to be a serious legal violation among the Jews. “That opened things up for everyone who was outside the law. Think about it. That’s the kind of God we have.”

Father Groody, who has served migrant communities along the California-Mexico border but also has met with Border Patrol agents and ranchers, is seen as the leading voice in the theology of migration. An author and filmmaker, he has been summoned for consultations by the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Congress and the United Nations.

Father Groody said that most people in the U.S. immigration debate have legitimate concerns. Ranchers suffer property damage. Many worry about cultural shifts. Businesses want workers. Activists fight for human rights.

“This is not a battle between bad people and good people,” Father Groody said. “It’s not a battle of right and wrong, but rights conflicting with each other. We need to move toward a unified understanding.”

In introducing Father Groody to the University of Portland audience, Holy Cross Father Charlie Gordon noted that Americans now tend to go to political allegiances first and then translate that into religious beliefs. Father Gordon suggested that our view of social issues should instead be grounded in “our deepest faith commitments and convictions.”

Father Groody concurred, explaining that Scripture begins with Abraham’s migration and ends with the apostle John as an immigrant on the isle of Patmos, writing that life is a journey back to our spiritual home.

“Migration goes to the core of who we are,” Father Groody said at the university. “Migration is in our genes.” He showed a map of a route winding from Africa, through Asia into Europe and Ireland, the path his ancestors took over millennia before crossing the Atlantic.

The Catholic Church accepts the necessity of national borders, but argues that borders are not absolute, Father Groody said. According to Judeo-Christian teaching, he reminded listeners, we are not owners of our countries, but stewards of God’s land.

St. Paul said we all are aliens, added Father Groody. “That should inform how we see borders.”

A formative moment for Father Groody’s theology was Pope Francis’ 2013 trip to the island of Lampedusa, near where many African migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean en route to Europe. The pope celebrated Mass on an altar in the shape of a boat and used a chalice carved of wood from a scrapped vessel that had carried refugees.

That led Father Groody to wonder about the links between the Eucharist and immigration. The first Eucharist was at Passover, marking God’s great work of liberation for the Jewish people. The Exodus, Father Groody said, was a migration to create a renewed people.

“God is trying to restore us to unity,” he said of the Eucharist. “The big message of the Gospel is moving over into communion.”

The Italian carpenter who made the Lampedusa chalices gave one to Father Groody, who used it Oct. 4 during a Mass at Catholic Charities headquarters.

Father Groody lauded the U.S. Catholic bishops for welcoming migrants and speaking up for them. Catholic Charities in the United States has settled more refugees than anyone in the nation and is the second leading resettlement agency in the world.

Father Groody has seen the bishops’ hate mail. Angry writers usually emphasize nationalism, which he said “has nothing to do with the kingdom of God.”

People often ask the priest, “Which part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” He replies that there are different kinds of law. St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between civil law and natural law. A family crossing a border for work and food may violate civil law, but is in keeping with natural law, he said. The Catholic Church supports migration, even the unauthorized variety, when human life is at stake.

“The church says you can talk about a border wall after you’ve made sure everyone outside your borders has enough,” Father Groody said.

***

Langlois is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.