by Matt Walker, Peace Day 2016 Participant
The mass migration of men, women, and children flowing into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East has quickly become a global issue. The numbers are staggering. Host nations are struggling to deal with the influx of people from divergent cultures. Pope Francis has acknowledged that “[t]he presence of migrants and refugees seriously challenges the various societies which accept them.”
It is heartbreaking to watch the seemingly endless line of men, women, and children making the arduous trek into Europe, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the few items they could grab in the minutes before leaving their homeland. It is also difficult for most of us here in the States to relate, even in a small way, to the difficulties these refugees and migrants are facing. Americans are far removed from the plight of these refugees both physically and spiritually. How can we, who have been blessed with so much, identify and empathize with our brothers and sisters who have so little and face such dire straits?
I wanted to know more about the plight of refugees and migrants. Fortunately, I learned that the Justice and Peace Ministry of the Joliet Diocese was hosting Peace Day 2016 which focused on the issues surrounding the refugee crisis, and how we as Catholics can better understand and empathize with the struggles these refugees are facing.
I listened to Deacon Greg Kandra of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association talk about helping persecuted Christians in Iraq. I heard from Congolese refugees who were forced to live in UN refugee camps, all the while praying that they would be allowed to re-settle in the United States. I watched videos of Catholic Relief Services providing food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to the refugees en route to Europe. I was provided a small glimpse of what it might be like to be a refugee through a simulation devised by Exodus World Service, which showed me just how quickly life can change for the worse when you live in a country that is politically unstable.
It was heartening to hear that among refugees en route to Europe, the words “Catholic Relief Services” are synonymous with help. Although these desperate men, women, and children may not know what those words mean, they do know that where they see the words “Catholic Relief Services” or the initials “CRS”, help is available to them, regardless of their religious background. This brought to mind the words of St. Francis of Assisi, who called upon the brothers of his order to “preach by their deeds.”
Peace Day 2016 drove home the fact that issues surrounding refugees and migrants are more challenging than any 30 second news story can convey. The United States has been blessed with almost boundless material wealth and resources. With great wealth comes great responsibility. As a Catholic and an American, I feel that each and every believer is called to do what he or she can to ease the burden these families are facing. This is the foundation of the gospel. To do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
The scriptures teach us “[r]eligion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The Church has been provided an opportunity to prove our devotion to God by assisting these refugees in their hour of need. As I was writing this blog post, our Holy Father Pope Francis visited the Greek island of Lesbos. When he left, he took 12 refugees with him to Italy. These families have described the experience of being taken to Italy as
“dreamlike”. One refugee named Hasan proclaimed “[t]he pope is an amazing, amazing person, an incredible person. Every religious person should be like the pope.” Another refugee named Osama said “Peace has no religion. If you think about it, we’re all human.”
Pope Francis was asked whether his taking in 12 refugees was insignificant in light of the scope of the crisis. Pope Francis replied with the words of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “It’s a drop in the ocean, but after this drop, the ocean won’t be the same. I’ll respond the same way. It’s a little gesture. But all of us, men and women, must make these little gestures in order to extend a hand to those in need.”
That is the same spirit I felt on Peace Day. We are all called to help. If every Catholic in the world were to perform a small act of charity in assisting the refugees and migrants, imagine how many of these families would be blessed to know that they are loved and cared for by the body of Christ. That is what the Church is, after all. We are the body of Christ, and the world is always watching to see whether or not we live up to our obligation.