Signs of the Time: The Call to Holiness in a World Uprooted

By Scott Wright
Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Earlier this year, Pope Francis released a new “Apostolic Exhortation” entitled, “Rejoice and Be Glad.” The heart of his message might be summarized as “the call to holiness in a world uprooted.”

Pope Francis’ latest “pastoral letter” to the world develops a theme that has defined his papacy – urging the church to welcome migrants and refugees across the globe – and reminding all of us that mercy and justice are at the heart of the Gospel call to discipleship. He bases his plea on the Beatitudes and the Last Judgment passage in Scripture: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt 25).

His plea could not have come at a more urgent time, as our national leaders call for militarizing the U.S. – Mexico border, separating migrant and refugee families, detaining immigrant children and criminally prosecuting their parents. These are families fleeing decades of violence in Mexico and Central America, a violence rooted in U.S. support for military dictatorships and post-war trade policies that created even higher levels of poverty, inequality and violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, and “pushed” hundreds of thousands of families to migrate to the United States over the years.

In the letter, he speaks of “the call to holiness” and “the great cloud of witnesses,” those holy saints and martyrs whom we revere and to whom generations of Christians pray with prayers of intercession. But his letter is not for them, it is for us, both as an invitation and a challenge to deepen our identification with Christ, and to respond to the challenges of our world today: “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty" (Gaudete et Exsultate 101).

Migration, for Pope Francis, is not “a secondary issue,” and he invites us “to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.” I think especially of the caravan of refugee families from Central America held up at the US-Mexican border, unfairly cast as a threat to our security when in fact they are the face of desperate mothers, fathers and children fleeing violence.

Pope Francis’ message offers “comfort to the afflicted,” certainly, but he does not fail “to afflict the comfortable” and take a firm stand on the side of migrants and refugees world-wide. It is a message of light in dark times, but also “joy and gladness” in the midst of persecution. This is the message from the outset: “Rejoice and be glad when they persecute you for my name’s sake” (Mt. 5:12). He wants us to be bold in our Gospel witness, to stand in the shoes of migrant and refugee families, to take sides with the vulnerable, and to accept the consequences.

Celebrating 100 Years of Columban Mission

This past April, the U.S. Region of the Columbans celebrated its 100th anniversary at the annual meeting of Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a gathering of 800 faith-based promoters of justice and peace from across the nation. The theme of this year’s advocacy weekend was “A World Uprooted: Responding to Migrants, Refugees and Displaced Peoples,” and included an evening Mass presided over by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico to mark the 100 Year anniversary of the Columbans.

The theme of the weekend could not have been more appropriate for the anniversary celebration and the world we live in, a world in which we are witnessing the dramatic displacement of persons and families, the largest number since the end of the Second World War. It is certainly “a sign of the time,” something that marks our age, and something which has drawn the attention of Pope Francis since the beginning of his papacy. Recall his visit to the Island of Lampedusa to welcome the dramatic exodus of migrants and refugees risking their lives in makeshift boats on the Mediterranean Sea to flee from the horrors of war and conflict in Syria and North Africa.

At our anniversary celebration here in Washington DC, we were moved to hear the testimonies of those most impacted by migration, and by climate change.

One moving panel featured people from countries around the world affected by climate change, including Columban Justice and Peace promoter John Din, from the Philippines. He shared stories of the devastation caused by extreme weather events like typhoons devastating entire communities and displacing thousands of people.

Another panelist from the Pacific island of Tuvalo was equally eloquent in his plea to the audience and to the world, that island nations like his are facing extinction over the next few decades, due to rising sea levels. “It’s one thing,” he said, “to have to leave your home and to migrate, but you always have a home to refer to, even if you never return. It’s another thing altogether to migrate and to have no home, because your island nation has disappeared.”

Another panel of four young people, all of them undocumented and all of them “Dreamers,” beneficiaries of DACA, a program providing a measure of legal protection to immigrant youth who crossed the border as children. But the clock is ticking for them, and they have been able to remain in the U.S. only because the federal courts have delayed their deportation. All four were truly inspiring, with amazing stories of defending and protecting each another, and offering valuable contributions to their communities.

One of the four, a young woman from South India, who had advocated and organized on behalf of her fellow dreamers in the state of Maryland, even said: “It’s a blessing to be undocumented,” by which she meant, because of her vulnerable status, she discovered a deep sense of her calling to serve others and to work for justice.

But the administration believes otherwise. Nearly 400,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Haiti who have been living in the United States for many years, working and paying taxes, raising families and contributing to their communities, have been ordered to leave by the end of next year. They were offered Temporary Protective Status (TPS) twenty years ago, due to the devastating impact of earthquakes and hurricanes in their home countries, and now they are being ordered to return to an even more uncertain future where poverty and gang and drug-related violence reign.

"What must one do to be a good Christian?" For Francis, the answer is clear: "We have to do, each in our own way, what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount" (63). "We must learn to see Christ in the faces of those with whom he himself wished to be identified" (96). We might begin by recalling the image of Pope Francis welcoming migrant families on the Island of Lampedusa. We must respond with compassion, remember that we were once immigrants, “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). We must also address the root causes of migration, the deeper structural issues, including climate change, and respond to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (Laudato Si 49). Migrants, refugees and displaced people are the consequences of violence and war, of poverty and climate change, both of which have human causes; which means they also have, with God’s grace, human solutions.

 “The Beatitudes are like a Christian’s identity card” (63), Pope Francis says in his recent letter. “Whatever weariness and pain we may experience in living the commandment of love and following the way of justice, the cross remains the source of our growth and sanctification ... We have to endure suffering for the Gospel’s sake” (92). In doing so, however, we discover the joy of the Gospel, for “in this call to recognize Christ in the poor and suffering, we see revealed the very heart of Christ, his deepest feelings and choices" (96). "Christianity is meant above all to be put into practice" (108). In his words and in his deeds, Pope Francis offers us a view of our common home and our global family from the perspective of the poor and with the heart of a pastor. His message: “Go forth and do likewise.”