Fr Frank’s Homily – 27 September 2020

By Fr Frank Brennan SJ, 26 September 2020
Flight to Egypt-Holy Family from Notre-Dame in Paris Image: Shutterstock


Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

27 September 2020

106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees


Today is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.  Pope Francis has published a message entitled, ‘Like Jesus Christ, Forced to Flee’.  Even during this time of the COVID pandemic with closed borders he has urged us to do more to welcome, protect, promote and integrate people who are displaced.  His message is not some soft left political manifesto.  It is a spiritual challenge to us as Catholics, no matter what our nationality or political perspective.  Why are we as Catholics called to show grace and compassion towards migrants and refugees? What is it in Catholic Social Teaching and our theology that underpins this orientation?

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I have given many homilies and talks over the years, urging a more compassionate policy towards asylum seekers, a more generous policy towards refugees, and a more expansive migration policy.  I sense that most Catholics give notional assent to all that I say when urging such courses of action, but I suspect many then leave expressing reservations to themselves that such prescriptions are not quite the whole story, or are politically slanted, unreal and unachievable.  And that’s even before we confront the new reality of the COVID pandemic which would appear to justify even greater national concern to secure borders, restrict immigration and confine refugees and asylum seekers to countries of first asylum, dissuading them from engaging in secondary movement seeking a more benign migration outcome.

In our Catholic tradition, there has long been an acknowledgement of the person’s right to reside in their own country, their right to leave (emigrate) and their right to return.  The right to enter and migrate to another country, not one’s own, has been a more vexed moral question.

After World War II, Pope Pius XII delivered a series of addresses urging the path to peace.  Addressing the Diplomatic Corps early in 1946, he urged governments ‘to allow exiles and refugees to return finally to their homes and to allow those in need, whose own lands lack the necessities of life, to emigrate to other countries’. He repeated this plea often, culminating in his 1952 apostolic constitution Exsul Familia while the international community was finalising the Refugee Convention which was far more restrictive.

In his great human rights encyclical Pacem in Terris published in 1963, Pope John XXIII spoke of the right to emigrate and immigrate. Harking back to Pius XII’s 1952 Christmas message, John said:

[E]very human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. When there are just reasons in favour of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.

John went on to give his ‘public approval and commendation to every undertaking, founded on the principles of human solidarity or of Christian charity, which aims at relieving the distress of those who are compelled to emigrate from their own country to another’.

The United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was open for ratification just three years after Pacem in Terris was published.  The UN Covenant made no mention of a right to emigrate.  It confined its attention to the right to leave any country and the right to enter one’s own country. The Covenant added nothing of substance to the 1951 Refugee Convention which did not accord asylum seekers the right to enter any country other than their own.  The Refugee Convention simply ensured that any asylum seeker in direct flight from persecution was not to be disadvantaged for their illegal entry to a country were they successfully to gain entry, and that they were not to be refouled or sent back to their country of persecution prior to the determination of their refugee claim once they had gained entry, even if that entry be illegal.

Recent popes have wrestled with what constitutes a just reason for emigrating to another country not one’s own and taking up residence there. While focusing on the individual and their human rights, the popes also give attention to the family, the community and the nation which are the privileged loci within which the individual enjoying their human rights is able to achieve their full human flourishing. Thus the national interest is important to evaluate, especially when considering culture, religious freedom and economic prosperity. Though affirming the universal destination of goods and the universal fraternity of humanity, the popes have tended to espouse national borders as necessary, contingent preconditions for full human flourishing. In recent years, they have drawn attention to the particular responsibility which those behind secure national borders owe to those presenting at their borders seeking asylum in direct flight from persecution.

Pope Francis has broken through some of the intellectual argument and uncertainty with symbolic actions which speak to those on both sides of national borders, calling all to give an account of themselves.  As Pope, his first pastoral visit outside Rome was to the Mediterranean island Lampedusa where those fleeing difficult circumstances in Africa reach landfall trying to reach Europe.  He then visited the US-Mexico border urging that we build bridges not walls.  When Syria imploded with people fleeing through Turkey hoping to settle in Europe, he visited Lesbos in company with the two patriarchs, His Holiness Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and His Beatitude Ieronymos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece.

In Lesbos, Pope Francis commenced with this concession: ‘The worries expressed by institutions and people, both in Greece and in other European countries, are understandable and legitimate’.  He, like his predecessors, takes seriously the nation state’s entitlement to maintain secure borders so as to enhance the prospects of full human flourishing for citizens seeking a full cultural, religious and economic life in harmony with their fellow citizens.  But in a world with 70 million people displaced and seeking asylum, that is not the full picture, and thus not the entirety of Catholic Social Teaching on the right to migrate.

Francis had already demonstrated in his address to the European Parliament that he understands the pressures on the modern nation state when dealing with migration flows. Thus his considered decision to go to Lesbos in company with the two patriarchs, not on a political mission but with a humanitarian purpose, drawing attention to the plight of those on the borders of life. Having acknowledged the understandable and legitimate concerns of those wanting to maintain secure borders, Francis went on to say:

We must never forget, however, that migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have faces, names and individual stories. Europe is the homeland of human rights, and whoever sets foot on European soil ought to sense this, and thus become more aware of the duty to respect and defend those rights. Unfortunately, some, including many infants, could not even make it to these shores: they died at sea, victims of unsafe and inhumane means of transport, prey to unscrupulous thugs.

Francis, like his predecessors, is not proposing a borderless world but he is challenging his fellow Christians to display mercy and compassion across borders, and in dimensions they have dared not contemplate or attempt in the past.

Professor John Finnis, the Oxford don and long-time previous member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and of the International Theological Commission, thinks Pope Francis has fallen into the trap of trying to produce a world in the image and likeness of the ideal Church.  Finnis laments the clerical overreach which produces ‘a rhetorical drift towards equating the borderless, cosmopolitan Church – in which there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek’ but all are equally and everywhere at home – with political community envisaged as if it likewise ought to be substantially borderless even if that resulted (but such consequences are not articulated even for consideration) in the annulling of national cultures, constitutions, and peoples’.[1]

Professor Finnis has become increasingly disillusioned with papal statements on Catholic Social Teaching and hostile to what he regards as loose talk by recent pontiffs on the issue of migration.  I quote him because I know he is not alone in our Church.  And he still exercises considerable intellectual influence in some quarters of our Church.  Finnis gives Pope Benedict XVI credit for attempting ‘to rearticulate one or two fundamentals’ in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s ‘unfocused statements on migration’.  Benedict urged individuals to be generous in opening their doors to the stranger and to the poor and oppressed, while acknowledging the role of the state in maintaining secure borders and a measured migration program.  In his 2006 address to the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Benedict said:

“Single (i.e. individual) believers are called to open their arms and their hearts to every person, from whatever nation they come, allowing the Authorities responsible for public life to enforce the relevant laws held to be appropriate for a healthy co-existence.”

No doubt we would all agree, no matter what our religious conviction, or whatever our view of papal declarations on complex social moral and political issues, that the world would be a better place, and ours would be a better country, if we could design a generous migration program enjoying broad public support ensuring dignified treatment of all those persons who present at our borders seeking asylum, while also finding a place for an appropriate number of sponsored migrants seeking family reunion, education or business opportunity.  But what are we to do when there is no community consensus on these matters?

In his Message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees Pope Francis says:

During the flight into Egypt, the child Jesus experienced with his parents the tragic fate of the displaced and refugees, “which is marked by fear, uncertainty and unease (cf. Mt 2:13-15, 19-23). Unfortunately, in our own times, millions of families can identify with this sad reality. Almost every day the television and papers carry news of refugees fleeing from hunger, war and other grave dangers, in search of security and a dignified life for themselves and for their families” (Angelus, 29 December 2013). In each of these people, forced to flee to safety, Jesus is present as he was at the time of Herod. In the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, strangers and prisoners, we are called to see the face of Christ who pleads with us to help (cf. Mt 25:31-46). If we can recognize him in those faces, we will be the ones to thank him for having been able to meet, love and serve him in them.

Catholics like Finnis are very critical of Francis’s all but exclusive focus on the individual migrant, asylum seeker or refugee.  Hopefully, Finnis can also see the face of Jesus in every person, particularly the one in need.  Any key decision-maker in a pluralistic democratic country needing to be elected by popular vote has to make difficult decisions about which person with the face of Jesus will be admitted, and which person with the face of Jesus will be denied a visa and even turned away at the border.

Pope Francis insists: ‘the principle of the centrality of the human person…obliges us always to prioritise personal safety over national security’.  For his part, Professor Finnis insists: ‘These injunctions all need limitation and interpretation to be made compatible with Christian moral teaching and common sense, and need to be supplemented by teaching…about the responsibilities of would-be fleers from poverty toward their own people and toward the law and the common good of the countries they plan to live in or off by stealth or fait accompli.’[2]  Even putting to one side Finnis’s jaundiced view of many asylum seekers, we need to consider the common good and the rights of others, not just of those who present at our borders.

When our governments are tougher and less generous, and when we are enjoying the financial and other benefits of secure borders and tightly regulated migration, we need to be more generous personally to those beyond our borders who are deprived the opportunities which are ours in abundance.  We can be helped to do that by seeing those on the other side of our secured borders as ones with the face of Jesus, ones like the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt.

Pope Francis concludes his message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees with a prayer which we can make our own:

Father, you entrusted to Saint Joseph what you held most precious: the child Jesus and his Mother, in order to protect them from the dangers and threats of the wicked.

 Grant that we may experience his protection and help. May he, who shared in the sufferings of those who flee from the hatred of the powerful, console and protect all our brothers and sisters driven by war, poverty and necessity to leave their homes and their lands to set out as refugees for safer places.

 Help them, through the intercession of Saint Joseph, to find the strength to persevere, give them comfort in sorrows and courage amid their trials.

 Grant to those who welcome them some of the tender love of this just and wise father, who loved Jesus as a true son and sustained Mary at every step of the way.

 May he, who earned his bread by the work of his hands, watch over those who have seen everything in life taken away and obtain for them the dignity of a job and the serenity of a home.

 We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Son, whom Saint Joseph saved by fleeing to Egypt, and trusting in the intercession of the Virgin Mary, whom he loved as a faithful husband in accordance with your will. Amen.

Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).

[1] John Finnis, ‘Introduction’, Religion and Public Reasons, Collected Essays, Volume V. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 12.

[2] John Finnis, ‘A Radical Critique of Catholic Social Teaching’, in Gerard Bradley and E Christian Brugger, Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays, Cambridge University Press, 2020, p. 571

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