Even as immigration reform stalls, Catholics champion welcoming message

IMAGE: CNS/Alex Brandon

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — On the Aug. 6 feast of the
Transfiguration of the Lord, Auxiliary Bishop Mario
E. Dorsonville of Washington addressed a crowd of largely Salvadoran immigrants at the Basilica
of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

They were there to mark
the feast that is the main national holiday in the predominantly Catholic
country of El Salvador, whose name in Spanish means “the savior,” referring to
Jesus Christ. Many of them arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s during the country’s
civil war and some more recently because of the violent situation in the

Bishop Dorsonville told the crowd that when he was censing
the image depicting the transfiguration of Christ, an image revered by Catholic
Salvadorans, he noticed the statue’s arms spread out in a welcoming pose. He
used the image to address immigration.

“It gave me joy to see the open arms,” Bishop Dorsonville
said of the statue. “A person who closes his arms is not a Christian. A person
who closes doors cannot be a Christian. A person who is indifferent to the
tragedies of the world is not a Christian.”

Like many in the church, as well as the pope and other U.S.
bishops, Bishop Dorsonville called for “welcoming the stranger.” In the
document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S.
bishops say that the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger “requires Catholics
to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including
unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those
unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking.”

With weeks to go before the end of election season that has
seen politicians and others bring out critical and unfavorable language toward immigrants
and migrants, Catholics report some of the highest percentages of churchgoers
hearing about immigration from the pulpit and hearing about the need to welcome
and support them.

An Aug. 8 Pew Research Center survey showed that 41 percent
of Catholics say they have heard about immigration at Mass, the highest of
percentage of churchgoers who said they heard about immigration in the survey
conducted in June and July. And of those, 32 percent said they heard about the
need to welcome and support immigrants, also the highest percent of
churchgoers (higher than Protestants, evangelicals and other Christians) reporting
that they heard at church the message of being more welcoming toward immigrants.

Christopher G. Kerr, executive director of Ignatian
Solidarity Network, a national social justice education and advocacy
organization based in Ohio, said the pope’s 2015 apostolic visit to the U.S. “raised
the profile of immigrants and the immigration issue in the U.S. by bringing
greater attention to the plight of the immigrant/migrant.”

The pope called “attention to the truths of marginalization
that exist in our world. He seeks to engage us in the realities of our brothers
and sisters who are marginalized, to remind us of the presence of Christ within
them,” Kerr said in an email interview with Catholic News Service.

He did so, Kerr said, when he stopped his car along a
motorcade route to accept the note of a 5-year-old telling him she didn’t want
her parents deported.

“The story of her parents’ undocumented status captured the
country’s attention,” said Sara Benitez, director of the Latino outreach program for Washington’s
Faith in Public Life. “When Pope Francis visited the United States, his words
and actions shifted the debate on immigration from policy to people.”

It changed the conversation, Benitez said.

“As Americans, we are a lot like Thomas — we have to touch
the wounds to believe — as a nation we don’t usually trust someone until we
come to know them,” Kerr said. “Pope Francis’ emphasis on the immigrant story
is one way that people were invited into knowing immigrants and coming to see
their struggles as our own and our country’s.”

And how did Catholics respond?

“I think we saw a strong Catholic voice in support of
refugees and immigrants over the course of the past year — both clerical and
lay,” Kerr said. “I think this was particularly true around the Syrian refugee
crisis, but also in terms of outreach and concern for immigrants in the U.S,
including people who are undocumented. 

“We have seen lots of examples of
parishes working to organize legal assistance and direct service assistance to
migrants, migrant communities, unaccompanied children migrants, etc. We also
saw a significant interest by young people in engaging in the immigration issue
on Catholic campuses.”

But Congress and policy is another story.

“In terms of Congress and the election — one could say that
there was no impact because comprehensive legislation has not been passed,”
Kerr said.

Benitez, whose organization advocates for immigration
policy, said he has seen people respond by wanting to know more about immigrants,
“by seeing their faces, listening to their stories.” And this, in turn, has strengthened
the resolve of immigration advocates to keep pushing for reform, she said.

“At Faith in Public Life, we were inspired and challenged by
Pope Francis’ visit to continue lifting up his example and message of Catholic
teaching to welcome immigrants,” she said.

Bishop Dorsonville, in his homily during the feast of the
Transfiguration, reminded those gathered of the contribution of the many
immigrants to the country. He went on to invoke Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero,
who was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out against violence and standing up
for the poor — and anyone who was “voiceless.”

“I’m sure if our dear Blessed Romero lived in the United
States today, his gaze would turn to the immigrant in this precise moment, a very
complicated and difficult moment in the history of a nation that has been built
by immigrants,” Bishop Dorsonville said. “Our voice has to join the voice of
the voiceless” and the faces of those no one wants to see.

The worst human tragedy that can befall on a person is to
become invisible to society, said Bishop Dorsonville.

“Let’s ask our Blessed Romero today, that by his
intercession, he place at the feet of the transfigured Christ our intentions
for the millions and millions of ‘invisible’ people who work and build the
economy of our nation,” he said.

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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