If all things were equal in the world, most people would decide to stay in their country of their origin.
At the height of the great migration from Europe 109 years ago, the church universally established a Sunday on which we can celebrate the phenomenon of migration. But is migration something to celebrate or is it something to understand and commemorate?
The theme for this year's World Day of Migrants and Refugees, chosen by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, is "Free to Choose Whether to Migrate or to Stay." This theme shines a light on the root causes that drive migration and that need to be understood by conscientious Christians. Hopefully, this year's celebration can help us understand why people migrate and how we can help them.
This year, Sept. 24 is the Sunday chosen for this celebration as it ends National Migration Week. It is a time when we are asked to reflect not only on the spiritual, but also on the sociological phenomenon of migration.
There are many theories on why people migrate. Perhaps the most simple one to understand is what is known as the "push and pull" theory of migration, which describes the forces that encourage people to migrate in the sending countries, as well as certain forces that attract in the receiving countries.
While these factors do interface with one another, we cannot forget the human factor. People migrate not because they are pushed and pulled as magnets might be from one source of attraction to another. Rather, they have to weigh the risks of migrating against remaining in their home country, where they may face poverty and violence. There also are torturous human decisions that are made during every migrant journey. Seldom is it a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one that demands much soul searching and prayer.
Key to our understanding of migration is the freedom that is necessary for good human decisions. Hopefully, people will not be forced to leave their country of origin because of persecution, but rather that they are able to make a free decision to leave for better living conditions or for family reunification. If all things were equal in the world, most people would decide to stay in their country of their origin. Unfortunately, it is inequality that sometimes forces people to make difficult decisions.
This year, we also commemorate the 20th anniversary of a joint pastoral letter between the bishops of the United States and Mexico titled, "Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope." I was chairman of the USCCB Migration Committee when we issued this statement, for which we had to obtain the permission of the Holy See, since it is rather rare that two bishops' conferences would join in a pastoral letter.
Certainly, it was clear in 2003 the majority of migration to the United States was coming from Mexico, with much of that migration being irregular, or undocumented. It was necessary for the bishops of both countries to join in solidarity to give a pastoral letter to our people. The letter is still very pertinent and accurate, since the migration between our nations has changed very little.
Why celebrate migration? We do so because it is one of the ultimate free choices that a human being can make. If Abraham had not migrated from Ur of the Chaldeans, a new faith in the one God would not have been established. If Jesus had not migrated to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, there would have been no redemption to be celebrated.
When we look to Matthew's Gospel in Chapter 25, we find the Lord clearly giving definite criteria on which someday we will all be judged, especially when He asks us, Have you welcomed the stranger?
Every migrant is a stranger in a new land, and the degree of welcome we offer will be the degree on which we may be judged. We are encouraged to use this National Migration Week and the World Day of Migrants and Refugees as an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the complex issues that drive forced migration, and to renew our commitment to building a more just and inclusive world.
- Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio is retired bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the column "Walking With Migrants" for Catholic News Service and The Tablet.
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