It’s already February going on Lent, but I need to express my very belated appreciation to all of you who sent me greetings for Christmas and the New Year. Although it’s not possible to acknowledge them all in writing, I read them all and I am grateful for each and every one. Your good wishes and prayers are deeply appreciated.
In my December article, I wrote about the “corporal and spiritual works of mercy” as a central focus of the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. I said that we need to “go out of ourselves and our comfort zones, individually and as a church, to address the misery of others – those who are suffering spiritually, morally and materially.”
The exercise of mercy in our day cannot fail to ignore the millions of people who are refugees as a result of war and persecution. During his United States visit last fall, Pope Francis had this to say about refugees: “We must 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. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”
Welcoming refugees into safety, into the promise of a better life and hopeful future, has always been central to American values. Except for Native Americans and Africans who were forcibly brought here as slaves, either we personally or our families were immigrants to America.
Compassion, inclusion and social responsibility are imbued in our red, white and blue. There is literally no other place in the world that embraces such a diversity of people as the United States of America.
It is understandable that many people today are apprehensive about immigrants to our country from areas that have bred hatred and terrorism. Our government is obliged to take strict precautions to ensure national security through stringent immigration policies, screenings and background checks. However, when, out of fear, we or our leaders characterize the whole people of a country like Syria as dangerous and undesirable, then we are being unjust and even irrational. This is especially the case for us as Catholics, inasmuch as a significant number of the Syrian people are Christians whose plight is all the more bitter because of the very hatred and terrorism that we fear. But whether Christian or not, Syrian refugees ought not to be shunned and left to a horrible fate on the outside chance that some individual with evil intent may slip through the cracks. We need to remember that the perpetrators of terrorist acts in Europe are often European citizens who can freely travel to the United States, and that homegrown terrorism here and elsewhere is on the rise.
Refugee resettlement looms large in our consciousness today because we are witnessing the largest mass migration of people since World War II. However, for the last 60 years, Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Hartford (https://ccaoh.org) has administered a nationally recognized resettlement program. It is currently the largest resettlement program in Connecticut. Like all of Catholic Charities, it is nonpartisan and nonprofit. Funded principally by government grants, it employs 20 professionals who collectively are fluent in 27 languages. They are assigned about 280 cases per year involving individuals and families. In 2016, the number will likely rise to 360. Within recent years, refugees have been resettled into our local neighborhoods from Somalia, Uganda, Burma, Iraq, Russia, Tunisia, Sudan, Cuba, Syria, Nepal and Afghanistan.
Here’s how the refugee resettlement program works. All refugees to the United States are admitted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State. Entrants go through four mandatory security screenings prior to their arrival on American soil. The U.S. State Department, along with the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation and national intelligence agencies, are collectively responsible for carefully vetting refugees. This is a time-consuming and detailed process that can take up to two years. Once their admission has been approved by the U.S. State Department, refugees are referred to various resettlement agencies, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services. This organization assigns refugees to the more than 100 Catholic Charities nationwide, including Catholic Charities of Hartford.
The Catholic Charities resettlement program does not fund people’s migration, but only provides multicultural, multilingual humanitarian services to refugees once they are in this country. These services include housing, language instruction, school adjustment and tutorial assistance for children, job training and placement, as well as other essential services to help develop future citizens into committed members of our society.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph with Mary and the infant Jesus escape the murderous threat of King Herod by seeking refuge in Egypt. In a sinful world, people today continue to be compelled to flee their homelands as refugees because of violence, discrimination and natural disasters. What will our response be as Catholics in a year of mercy? As citizens of a country that has been a beacon to the world? When Abraham Lincoln gave his 1861 inaugural address at a time marked by fear and uncertainty, he made an appeal to the “better angels of our nature.” It was an appeal to do what is right and good, and we can do no less today, if for no other reason than what Jesus himself said: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).