When we vacation or make a pilgrimage to another country, we find ourselves in a unique situation. On the one hand, we’re drawn to holy shrines and historic sites which belong to us as part of our heritage. On the other hand, the citizens of the country we’re visiting likely speak a language other than ours. We might think to ourselves, “These people speak a foreign language,” when in fact it is we who speak the foreign language.
Asking directions, finding a place to stay, bargaining for reduced prices, ordering lunch, reading signs and understanding answers to questions are a challenge to us. We’re grateful when someone comes along who can give voice to what we are trying desperately to say. We discover what it is like to feel “voiceless” and “foreign.” That can be an instructive, even life-changing, experience.
Popular wisdom holds, correctly or incorrectly, that citizens of certain countries are decidedly unhelpful when it comes to accommodating foreign visitors who do not speak their language. We might have experienced that reality ourselves at a moment of need in a strange place, and it gives us reason to ask whether we are welcoming and accommodating to visitors, immigrants and refugees — the voiceless among us — here at home. Do we go out of our way to welcome, to listen, to help, to put words to their needs?
There’s a subtle but powerful form of prejudice to which we can unwittingly fall prey: Out of awkwardness, fear, or embarrassment because of a language or cultural barrier, we might treat someone as if he or she were invisible. We may begin to consider those who speak a language other than ours as somehow foreign in a personal way — as if in the deepest sense they are unlike us, separated from us, and unrelated to us, or as if they are not even there. As Christians, we can never say that about any other human person.
In every country around the world, Catholics take seriously their responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless. Like all his predecessors, Pope Francis constantly speaks on behalf of the poor, victims of war, the sick, refugees, immigrants and the abandoned — in other words, he gives voice to the needs of those who cannot speak for themselves (or to whom no one will listen). He gives the example not so that we will follow out of a faulty notion of “charity,” as if lending our voice to those in need is an act of altruism, or worse, condescension. Rather, he gives the example because he knows who his brothers and sisters are. No one is invisible to Christ, nor should they be to us.
Being part of the Church teaches us what God has always intended for the world: one people, splendid in its diversity, on a common pilgrimage to eternal life. God intends the Church to be the vehicle through which the world is restored to its original destiny, renewed for us in Jesus.
A priest friend often says that God is sending such a large number of immigrants and refugees to us because he trusts us. He is sending his beloved children — our sisters and brothers — because he trusts we will welcome them as family, help them build a good life, and share in the gifts they bring. After all, we share an eternal destiny with them.
On Sept. 27, Pope Francis launched “Share the Journey,” a two-year program of Caritas Internationalis to promote encounters between “people on the move” — immigrants, refugees, migrant workers — and people living in “receiving” countries. Cultivating sensitive awareness of the presence of migrants and refugees, welcoming them and listening to their stories, we break down barriers of fear. Pope Francis knows that when we truly encounter others, they can no longer be invisible to us. When we truly listen to them, they no longer feel voiceless.
“You may be afraid of migrants as a large group of people coming in, but when you meet a migrant, then you have a different vision,” Pope Francis has said. Listening to their stories makes clear that “they are human beings who have suffered much; they’ve left a situation where they could not live anymore because of violence, conflict or just because of misery. … Once you understand the story of the person, then you will have a different attitude.”
Western Washington has deep immigrant roots, and still today we are blessed with the continuous arrival of people from every corner of the globe, who come to build a better life for their families. May we create such an environment of welcome that everyone feels at home here, no matter the language they speak or the culture that formed them. And may we say “No” to racism and bigotry in every form, especially within ourselves.
St. Edith Stein was a brilliant philosopher, Jewish convert to Catholicism, and Carmelite nun who was killed with her sister Rosa in Auschwitz in 1942. Thoroughly Catholic, she never abandoned her Jewishness and said to Rosa as they were being taken from their convent by the Nazis, “Come, we are going for our people.” Horrified at the treatment of people by the Nazis, she felt God calling her to be his love in a dark world.
She once wrote, “Our love of neighbor is the measure of our love of God. For Christians — and not only for them — no one is a ‘stranger.’ The love of Christ knows no borders.”
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - October 2017