Refugees and Christian Responsibility

September 11, 2015

The shocking refugee crisis in the Mediterranean evokes compassion in every Christian heart. One is put in mind of an oft-repeated commandment in the Bible: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:34) Those desperate humans fleeing their homelands cry out for help. The current crisis is frequently labeled the worst since World War II. Millions of Syrians have fled their own country. Many hundreds of thousands more have fled countries in Africa, seeking relief from poverty and strife. The numbers boggle the mind and test the capabilities of the European countries to which many flee. Pope Francis, in various ways, prophetically brought the crisis to the world’s attention before it reached its current fever pitch. His first pastoral visit outside Rome, in July 2013, was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a stopping point for many African refugees to Europe. In his homily there he decried “the culture of comfort, which… makes us insensitive to the cries of other people…”

Dominique Pire
Fr. Dominique Pire, O.P.

This current disaster evokes the memory of a great twentieth century Dominican, too little known, who indeed heeded the cry of the poor. Fr. Dominique Pire, a Belgian moral theologian, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958 for his work with refugees after World War II. He was an apostle, providing material aid but also advancing long term solutions that bore the rational mark of his Thomistic mind. Marshaling the good will of thousands across Europe, he supported those living in the “Displaced Persons” camps. He then founded “European Villages”, communities on the outskirts of cities that allowed the refugees both to preserve their culture and gently integrate into their new countries. Later he would expand his work of development globally. His legacy beautifully combined the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, summarized by the simple principle “help for self-help.”

Now the world needs to deal with the problem of a new wave of refugees. The Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, challenges us to resist the “globalization of indifference.” Fr. Pire, himself a refugee of World War I during his childhood, knew too well the Biblical injunction to treat strangers the way we ourselves would wish to be treated. Charity and human dignity demand that these strangers be welcomed. Complex problems require organization, thought, an attitude of service and diplomacy. Love of neighbor, in regard to the displaced, and peace-making, in regard to the countries they flee, are the relevant principles from Catholic Social Teaching. “You too were once aliens…” This reminder is addressed to all believers. For we have all been rescued by God. Refugees thus are a reflection of our human condition; and too they are Christ’s presence, for they are the least of His brothers. In serving them, we worship Him. We in the U.S.A. are far away from this crisis but we can help by our prayers, our voices in the public square, and our donations. (One option is provided by Catholic Relief Services.) And we have so many migrants in our own land, who should always be treated with love, “no differently than the natives born among you.”

Image: Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece, 1423.

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