Synod's call for bishops' personal accompaniment of migrants resonates with US bishops
(OSV News) -- Throughout the Synod on Synodality's meetings in Rome, concern for migrants and refugees has repeatedly emerged as a central theme -- with an emphasis on the importance of bishops themselves being personally engaged in ministering to them.
Pope Francis led the synod's participants in an Oct. 19 evening prayer service to pray for migrants around a sculpture called "Angels Unawares" -- a reference to the teaching in Hebrews 13:2 to not neglect hospitality to strangers -- that depicts a bronze boat filled with 140 migrating people from different nations and periods of history with an angel in their midst.
"Like the Good Samaritan, we are called to be neighbors to all the wayfarers of our time, to save their lives, to heal their wounds and to soothe their pain," Pope Francis said, calling for everyone to be involved in making the road safer for migrants, addressing both critical issues and also opportunities to grow "more inclusive, more beautiful and more peaceful societies."
"Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating: this is the work we must carry out," he said.
The pope's remarks also built on the synod's discussion og the importance of the church's voice on migration. As early as Oct. 6, a Vatican press briefing on the work of the synod's small groups relayed the personal involvement of bishops in the accompaniment of migrants was emphasized as "fundamental."
That description rang true for some American bishops of dioceses that have been immigration "hotspots" and who shared their experiences with OSV News.
"Actually, previous 'job descriptions' that outline the responsibilities of a bishop have always emphasized the particular care that bishops should give migrants and other people on the move," Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski. He noted that his Florida archdiocese "since its very beginning -- October 1958 -- has accompanied successive waves of immigrants: Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and, most recently Venezuelans, among others, from almost every country in Latin America and the Caribbean."
Miami-Dade County, which is 72% Hispanic, is home to more than 1.45 million immigrants, which make up more than 53% of its population.
In March, the Associated Press reported an estimated 250,000 migrants and asylum-seekers had arrived in the Miami area within the previous 18 months, granted a legal status the AP described as both "precarious" and lacking permission to work.
"The archdiocese's 'Catholic Legal Services' offers free or low-cost immigration assistance to 2,500-plus [immigrants] each month," Archbishop Wenski told OSV News, "with a staff including 35 attorneys working full time."
Their volume of work is due, at least in part, to what Archbishop Wenski views as an American paradox: a country that needs workers but whose immigration system often seems to function against them.
"A rational and functioning immigration system would match willing immigrants to available jobs -- both unskilled and skilled jobs presently going wanting," Archbishop Wenski said. "At the same time, a rational and functioning system would allow timely adjudication for asylum seekers ... and a rational, functioning and compassionate system would help family reunification."
An added complication came with new, immigration-focused Florida laws that took place in July. A previous version of that bill floated a direct challenge to the church's religious liberty by threatening third-degree felony charges for those who transported or harbored migrants -- a broad net that Catholic and other Christian leaders were concerned would have ensnared not only the church's established ministries and charitable services to migrants, but also its ordinary pastoral and sacramental ministries.
"To some extent the harsher elements of the SB 1716/HB 1617 were eliminated before passage," Archbishop Wenski said. "For example the criminalization of someone giving an 'illegal' migrant a ride home from school or church was dropped."
Employment verification requirements, however, were expanded. Overall, the new law has fostered fear among many immigrant populations.
"Several parish priests have told me of parishioners that moved out of state because of the fear generated by this piece of legislation," the archbishop said. "Our legal services are doing 'know your rights' presentations in several of our parishes."
In fiscal year 2023, the U.S. Border Patrol encountered 2 million people unlawfully attempting to cross into the United States -- just slightly down from 2.2 million the previous year.
El Paso, Texas, is routinely the busiest of the U.S. Border Patrol's nine sectors. The city government reports migrants arriving mainly from Venezuela, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba. In some months, daily arrivals average more than 1,000; almost 70% are Venezuelans.
While the synod has emphasized the bishop's vital role as pastor in accompanying migrants, Bishop Mark J. Seitz, who has led the El Paso diocese since 2013, noted the pushback.
"We have heard from many quarters that the bishops and the church should not be involved in questions of migration or caring for migrants," Bishop Seitz said. "I am accustomed to such complaints. Similar complaints have been made regarding our involvement in the effort to protect the life of the unborn."
"The refrain is always the same -- we should stay in our churches; we should pray and bless and baptize; but we shouldn't be involved in what they characterize as politics. It strikes me that Jesus faced the same complaints," Bishop Seitz said. "He was crucified through the complicity of both the secular and religious authorities because his teachings and actions threatened them both."
Bishop Seitz's accompaniment of migrants cuts through secular partisan politics; he's taken issue with the policies of both Republican and Democratic administrations.
In January 2023, Bishop Seitz met with President Joe Biden during his visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. Just two days prior, the bishop -- in his role as chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration -- had urged the administration "to reverse its present course" with respect to immigration policies.
The president's visit, however, was brief.
"I would have loved to have had the opportunity to bring home to him that immigration is not fundamentally a border issue," Bishop Seitz said. "Catholic teaching clearly recognizes a country's right to uphold its borders, consistent with the common good, and the border is the place where the symptoms of a broken system can be most clearly seen. But the brokenness of the situation cannot be resolved at the border. All we can do there is treat the symptoms."
On Oct. 5, the Biden administration reversed its policy on the U.S.-Mexico border wall, fast-tracking new construction and nixing a 2020 campaign pledge to not build "another foot" of the border wall expanded by his predecessor, President Donald Trump.
While building a wall "may make some people feel better," Bishop Seitz remarked upon both its expense and environmental consequences. He further noted it "does little to resolve the issues" compared to other proposed solutions, such as improved ports of entry and expanded processing capacity.
Meanwhile, the flow of migrants and refugees continues.
"Although there are challenges when the numbers increase, El Paso has always found itself up to the challenge," said Bishop Seitz. "We are a place of welcome. It is the way we live out our faith."
Bishop Seitz's words are echoed by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, whose Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, also experiences the reality of immigration.
In September 2022, 48 migrants from Venezuela unexpectedly arrived in Martha's Vineyard, located in Bishop da Cunha's diocese. The office of Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Catholic, had arranged their relocation from San Antonio -- with a Florida stop in-between -- on two chartered airplanes.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Fall River mobilized to assist their unannounced guests, responding with Gospel hospitality in obedience to Jesus Christ's words in Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me."
"I am convinced that these people would rather stay in their own countries -- if they had a way to live their life; feed their family; have a job; have a roof over their head; put food on the table," Bishop da Cunha said. "Imagine leaving Venezuela -- and walking, or getting who knows what means of transportation, all the way across Central America to the United States. That's an incredibly long and dangerous journey. And some people leave in the sense that, 'I don't know if I will ever make it there, or if I will survive.'"
Bishop da Cunha is convinced the situation won't improve without combined governmental cooperation. He underscored the point Pope Francis also made at the "Angels Unawares" evening prayer service: the necessity of "a common and co-responsible approach."
"No one can resolve it individually or isolated," he said. "It has to be a common effort; a joint effort of the governments. But in the meantime, you have to recognize the human dignity in their plight, and be sensitive to that."
- - - Kimberley Heatherington writes for OSV News from Virginia. OSV News national news and features editor Peter Jesserer Smith contributed to this report.