On 27 August the Catholic Church in Australia and the Diocese of Parramatta celebrated Migrant and Refugee Sunday. At Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Hall, Seven Hills, Bishop of Parramatta and Bishops Delegate for Migrants and Refugees, Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv delivered the following address launching the Diocesan campaign, Walking with Refugees and People Seeking Protection.
I am pleased to welcome you all to this Launch of the Diocesan Strategy called “Walking with Refugees and People Seeking Protection”. This is an initiative that has been developed in partnership with several agencies working in the field: Jesuit Refugee Services, SVDP, Sydney Alliance, Refugee Council of Australia, House of Welcome and Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Protection. We aim to galvanise a faith-filled response from the Catholic people of Parramatta and hopefully from the rest of Australia also, in order to do what Pope Francis says, namely, to replace a culture of fear and indifference with a culture of encounter and acceptance.
I think it is fitting that this Diocese takes a lead on this issue. We are the most ethnically diverse Diocese and region in Australia. Migrants and refugees bring energy, drive and dynamism to Western Sydney. They also contribute hugely to the renewal and revitalisation of the Catholic Church. So much so that our Diocese boasts the highest participation rate in Australia. Where would we be without the vibrant faith and strong community spirit of migrants and refugees? One of them happens to be speaking to you. You can blame Pope Francis for putting a ‘queue jumper’ in charge of the Diocese of Parramatta; but I suspect there might be a Jesuistic craftiness in the appointment of a former boat person to a region of Australia which is politically sensitive to the issue of maritime arrivals. In Vietnamese we say, “fight venom with venom”.
To many of us who care about the direction of our country, this question would be asked of us with regularity and intensity: Where has the decent, fair-dinkum batting-for-the battlers gone? In a generation, we have gone from the universally admired, generous, hospitable, daring, courageous country to one of the most pilloried nation in terms of our policy towards asylum seekers. The New York Times wrote a scathing criticism against Australia’s asylum seekers policy. The newspaper said the “ruthlessly effective” policy was “inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war”. It said it would be “unconscionable” for European leaders to consider adopting similar policies.
The New York Times isn’t the only institution that thinks there is something inherently unconscionable and inhumane about the politics of asylum seekers in this country. The international community with many human rights organisations and no less than 60 countries criticises Australia’s asylum seekers policies. Can you believe that? This once model country for generous welcome of migrants and refugees is now criticised for its harshness and inhumanity towards them.
We are here to also say it loud and clear: not in our name. Not in our name as Australians and not in our name as Catholic Australians. It’s in our DNA to reach out to fellow human beings in need. It’s in our DNA to treat the stranger with dignity and hospitality, to welcome the outcast, the marginalised, and the stranger. It’s part of who we are. It’s the texture of Christianity.
Let us be under no illusions about the change we seek in our nation’s response to the asylum seekers. It is not primarily the change in government and politics. Rather it is the change in attitude on the part of ordinary Australians. I would say to those of you who are concerned about the racist xenophobia against refugees, a circuit breaker rarely comes through appealing to a “progressive” sections of the ruling class – whatever political party they belong to. It will come, I believe, with a movement from below that challenges the anti-refugee racism from above. Renewal and creativity often comes from the grassroots and the margins.
Australia – often galvanised by popular pressure – rose to the challenge in the past with its generous embrace of migrants and refugees. It proved itself especially courageous during the Indochinese exodus and accepted an unprecedented number of Asian refugees for the first time in its history. Australia changed for the better as it always has with each successive wave of new arrivals. Australia is what it is today because of their love of freedom and fundamental human values. Australia is what it is today because of their determination and drive for a better future. We honour the legacy of this great nation not by excessive protectionism, isolation and defence of our privilege at all costs. Rather, we make it greater by our concern and care for asylum seekers in the spirit of compassion and solidarity that has marked the history of our country from its beginning.
Christians are countercultural and prophetic and insofar as we dare to name and to critique the anti-Gospel attitudes of the world around us. More importantly, we seek to reframe the harsh, unjust and inhumane realities that many experience into an alternative vision of hope and promote those values that will lead to the fulfilment of that vision. We show the way to a culture of encounter and acceptance by a radical discipleship of love and compassion, solidarity and service. We accompany the victims of injustice in the journey to freedom with a sense of total commitment and fidelity, even when the fight in favour of God’s justice for them necessitates a witness of courage and hope. As disciples of Jesus, we are committed to building a better, a more humane, welcoming and inclusive society not by giving in to fear and suspicion but by fostering a culture of encounter, respect and acceptance.
Pope Francis exhorts us to see refugees and asylum seekers as our brothers and sisters who like us are in search of justice, freedom, dignity and opportunity for development. Affirming our Christian duty of care for them in the face of rising intolerance, the Pope writes “Today, more than in the past, the Gospel of mercy troubles our consciences, prevents us from taking the suffering of others for granted, and points out way of responding which, grounded in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, find practical expression in works of spiritual and corporal mercy”.
Through this initiative, I encourage you to enact the culture of encounter, welcome and acceptance in practical, personal and communal ways. Many parishes and organisations are actively assisting refugees and asylum seekers. It is a great opportunity for us to make a difference and to influence government policies in relation to refugees and asylum seekers.
As Christians, we cannot remain content with the status quo, especially when that status quo is less than what God wants for us as individuals and as a community. Australia is a wonderful country, but where it is in terms of its treatment of asylum seekers, the homeless, the indigenous etc… should galvernise us into action. We cannot be His disciples if we ignore the plight of the marginalised and the vulnerable. We cannot be salt and leaven, if we allow our Christian conscience to be desensitised by the inequality, injustice and inhumanity in our society and in the world.
With the men and women of goodwill, let us build a better Australia and a better world. May our endeavour to replace the culture of fear and indifference with that of encounter and acceptance be brought to fulfillment in accordance with God’s vision of the fullness of life for all humanity.