At least since Pope John XXIII addressed Pacem in Terris, his encyclical on peace written in the midst of the Cold War, not just to Catholics but to “all people of good will,” the Catholic Church has made a regular practice of speaking, from its own religious perspective, to a broad public about matters of universal concern. Although numerous examples of this kind of official discourse can be found in the speeches of Church leaders and the documents of Bishops’ Conferences over the past six decades, it is perhaps the current pontiff, Pope Francis, who serves as the best example of how a transnational public religion can carve out a path toward the resolution of our global crises that is not readily available to other institutions.
It seems apt to consider the migration crisis both because so many others – the environment, democratic backsliding, longstanding economic inequity – serve to catalyze it, and because of how the pandemic has exacerbated the problems migrants and refugees are now facing.
While international aid organizations like the Red Cross and the UNHCR continue to do heroic work in the face of the migration crisis, a Catholic organization has proven particularly effective in helping to construct a significant transnational response. This group is not, however, a service organization but a group of friends (an “ecclesial movement,” in Catholic parlance) who attempt to live their religious lives close to one another and to the vulnerable. They are the Community of Sant’Egidio, and the program that they constructed in partnership with other religious organizations is known as the Humanitarian Corridor Initiative.
Founded just over fifty years ago by a group of then-high school students, the Community of Sant’Egidio did not originate with ambitions of helping to solve even local Roman social issues, much less global ones. Instead, this was a group of Catholic friends who wanted to live their religion within the plural space of the modern world as envisioned by the Fathers of the second Vatican Council. And yet it was this ambition of forming a religiously-serious community of lay people capable of acting in the plural public sphere without any nostalgia for a bygone Christendom, that came to play a major role in international peacemaking in places as varied as Mozambique, the Balkans, and South Sudan. Unplanned as their involvement was, however, this transnational peacemaking experience left their organization well-prepared to respond when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghanis, and Iraqis began to be displaced in the mid-2010s. It was this displacement crisis that spurred them to advocate for the construction of what have become known as “humanitarian corridors.”
Existing in practice since 2016, the idea of humanitarian corridors arose in response to the deaths of thousands of asylum seekers in the waves of the Mediterranean. Members of Sant’Egidio were struck by how these women and men, fleeing violence and political instability in their homelands, were met not only with suspicion but mountains of red tape. Rather than turning away or allowing another international organization to respond, Sant’Egidio organized themselves and other religious institutions when the conventional pathways that national governments had established for refugee resettlement were quickly overwhelmed and ground to a halt. Rather than resign themselves to such gridlock, the community of Sant’Egidio imagined and constructed a transnational response.
What we see in this example, then, is a mid-scale response to one of the manifestations of the specter that haunts our age. Although it does not “solve” the global refugee crisis, it is concrete evidence that global public religions, acting within civil society and motivated by their own religious ideals, do indeed have the capacity to respond to these crises in ways other institutions struggle to replicate both because, being itself a transnational religious institutions, it can imagine a transnational response, and because it can motivate its members to do the hard work required to realize what has been imagined.
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Fr. Patrick Gilger, SJ, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Loyola University, Chicago.
With thanks to The Democracy Seminar, based in the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School for Social Research in New York, where this article originally appeared.