Fr Kevin Hegarty
IT has been said that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the two-fold purpose of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Reflecting on the second part of the above sentence, I find his parable about Judgement Day, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, the most challenging text of the New Testament.
There, Jesus exhorts us to discern his presence in the downtrodden, the oppressed and those mired in poverty. His words, “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” are particularly relevant now as Europe is experiencing its most acute refugee crisis since the end of the second World War.
Thousands of refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and poverty in Africa are streaming into the continent.
Our Irish experience of ‘coffin ships’ in the years of the Great Famine is being gruesomely re-enacted off the shores of Italy.
In his talk at Knock Novena last week, Peter Sutherland, the former European Commissioner, posed the moral challenge. He asserted that there is “no room for ambiguity let alone opposition amongst Christians to the phenomenon of migration. Apart from our obligations under international law to grant asylum to the persecuted our responsibilities as members of the human family and the Catholic Church oblige us to offer sanctuary and welcome to those in need.” He expressed disappointment that in some places, “we hear a constant refrain for more border controls and for the alleged need for the erection of fences and walls.”
One woman who has helped devise a Christian response to the refugee crisis in the US is Sr Norma Pimentel. She is a 62 year-old nun of the ‘Missionaries of Jesus’ order who has administered the ‘Catholic Charities’ organisation in the Rio Grande district of Texas for the past 12 years.
Last summer a huge wave of mainly undocumented immigrants from South America began to surge into the area. They were hungry, tired and emotionally distraught after their difficult journey through Mexico.
She devised an effective programme to respond to their immediate needs. In June 2014, she asked the Sacred Heart parish to establish a way station for immigrant families in the parish hall. As she said, “they need a bath, they needed to eat, they needed to rest, they needed a doctor.”
On the first evening they hosted 200 immigrants. Through the Catholic parish network a request was sent out for volunteers to staff the centre. There was an enthusiastic response. Later that month she opened a second facility at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville.
The volunteers run an excellent service. In McAllen, where the vast majority of the refugees are released, the border patrol drops off the parents and their children at Central Station where Catholic charities personnel are there to meet them. Shuttle buses bring them to the refugee centres.
When they arrive they are greeted by a round of applause. As Sr Norma put it: “The volunteers will clap their hands and say, you’re welcome. Welcome, come in. It really hits home that they’re now in good hands and we’re here to take care of them.”
Every family is assigned a chaperone for the duration of their stay. They are provided with showers, new clothes, food and a place to sleep. They are given basic necessities for their onward journeys to meet up with relatives in other parts of the US.
Sr Norma’s work has won her plaudits from many sources, including Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats in the US. House of Representatives.
After a visit to the centres she commented: “What we just saw was so stunning. If you believe as we do that every child is worthy of respect and that every person has a spark in them, what we saw in those rooms was a dazzling array of God’s children.”
Thankfully, the refugee crisis has abated this year in the US. Sr Norma’s prophetic example can be an inspiration for us as we seek to deal with the situation on the doorstep of Europe.
It is a fundamental tenet of Christianity that faith must be actualised in active concern for the poor and the marginalised.