It is probably safe to say that everyday life has changed more in the last 100 years than it had in the previous 1,000. The whole rhythm of life and human interaction is vastly different today because of the mode of living created by technology, transportation, communications and modern economics. No doubt something has been gained and something lost in our way of life compared with the past.
There is one human interaction that in modern society is not what it used to be; that is, hospitality, as practiced almost universally throughout history and the Bible in particular. I don’t mean the advertised hospitality of a hotel chain to its guests or the hospitality a family shows to visiting relatives, but rather the ancient rules and customs of hospitality toward strangers, even enemies.
For the ancient Greeks, hospitality to the stranger was a sign of being civilized. For the Egyptians, it was a way of securing a favorable existence in the afterlife. For the Romans, it was not a courtesy but an obligation. For the Israelites, however, hospitality was sacred. By God’s design, the Jewish people came into being from patriarchs who had been wanderers, sojourners, strangers in the wilderness and in Egypt. In the Book of Deuteronomy (10:19) we read: “The Lord your God loves the stranger … you also shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The New Testament abounds in references to hospitality, not only in the life of Jesus and the Apostles who, after all, were itinerants much of the time, but also in the life of the early church. We can see the extent to which hospitality was key to all the missionary endeavors of the first Christians.
If hospitality is part of who we are and what God expects of us, then no matter how different life in 2014 may be from life in 1914 or even 1914 B.C., we are obliged to practice hospitality toward strangers.
This applies first to acts of hospitality in our homes, parishes and communities. It has been shown over and over again that it is the welcoming parish, the hospitable community, that attracts new members and brings back alienated members to the faith. We also should remember hospitality when it comes to those who are in need because of economic hardship, natural disasters or other woes. Hospitality is not impersonal charity at arm’s length, but personal care, personal welcome and engagement face to face. We can find a wonderful example in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Hospitality to the stranger also has a direct application in the life of our country. The ancestors of most African-Americans were brought here against their will in the terrible institution of slavery. Native Americans have inhabited this land from time immemorial. Most of us, however, are descendants of immigrants, of ancestors who not all that long ago came to America as strangers, hopefully not just in search of material prosperity, but also in pursuit of freedom and a more just and peaceful life for themselves and their families.
In our country today, there is much controversy about how to deal with immigration in the face of an urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform by the federal government. People can disagree about how to remedy the situation, but we can never forget the fundamental moral principles that flow from both faith and reason.
What are some of those principles? For one, people have a right to a decent life in their own homeland so that they don’t have to leave; but if that fails, people also have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families, just as so many of our ancestors did. Another principle is the rule of law and the right that sovereign nations like the United States have to control their own borders, but this does not abolish the duty every country has not only to grant asylum to the persecuted and to war refugees, but also to respect the basic human dignity and human rights of every immigrant.
Like the ancestors of most of us, today’s immigrants come to find work and support their families. Family is a special concern, and the U.S. bishops have been strong advocates of reform that protects the integrity of families. For a look at what the U.S. bishops are advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, I recommend that you visit www.usccb.org and look for “immigration” under “human life and dignity” in the “issues and action” heading.
As good Catholics and good citizens, let us make a positive, informed and morally principled contribution to the national debate.