Is it time for a dramatic flourish from U.S. bishops on immigration?

Is it time for a dramatic flourish from U.S. bishops on immigration?

Is it time for a dramatic flourish from U.S. bishops on immigration?

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley blessed a family Tuesday along a border wall separating Arizona and Mexico. The visit was part of a bid to bring awareness to immigration reform. (Credit: Matt York/Associated Press.)

Gestures often speak louder than words, and in 2014 Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston and eight other bishops delivered a powerful one by celebrating Mass at the U.S./Mexico border - a statement that registered even in far-away Rome. Given the way things are going today, it may be time for an even more dramatic flourish.

A few days ago, I found myself in Rome sitting with Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and thus in some ways Pope Francis’s point man on peace-and-justice issues.

Inevitably, I asked Turkson what he makes of Donald Trump so far. He answered, saying he worries that what he sees as Trump’s “insular” approach to keeping America safe may imperil global security. However, Turkson, like the good Vatican diplomat he is, was also careful to stress that Rome will defer to the U.S. bishops to set the tone.

In terms of what that tone is, Turkson might have cited any number of things – statements of late from a wide cross-section of American prelates, reflecting a strikingly compact position in defending immigrants; various press releases and documents issued over the years; or, for instance, a recent meeting between a senior bishop and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Instead, what stood out for Turkson was a gesture.

“We know that the U.S. bishops in the past, even under Obama, went all the way to the border with Mexico to celebrate Mass and pray for [immigration reform], in recognition of the very many needy brothers and sisters who were trying to cross the border,” he said.

He was referring to an event that took place in April 2014, when Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley and eight other bishops travelled to Nogales, Arizona, to say Mass before the 20-foot-high security wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. The high point, both liturgically and symbolically, came when the bishops walked up to the fence and distributed Communion through the slats to would-be immigrants on the other side.

“The desert is lined with the unmarked graves of thousands,’’ O’Malley said during the service. Summoning the memory of the estimated 6,000 people who have perished trying to make the crossing during the last 15 years, he called it long past time for comprehensive immigration reform.

Earlier in the week, the bishops had visited a soup kitchen and center for recently deported migrants called the “Kino Border Initiative,” located in Mexico just across the border from Nogales. Named for a 17th-century Jesuit saint who was a missionary in the area, it’s jointly run by members of the Jesuit order in the United States and Mexico, as well as a Mexican community of nuns called the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist.

During an afternoon meal, bishops served plates of rice, beans, and salad to roughly 60 migrants, including a mix of Mexicans and Central Americans, and then sat at tables to hear their stories.

Obviously, all that registered with Turkson in far-away Rome, where it came across as a powerful statement transcending anything that can be put into words.

It’s a lesson popes learned a long time ago. Ask most people today why they regard Francis as such a friend of migrants and refugees, and they won’t start citing lines from his speeches to diplomats – they’ll tell you he want to Lampedusa to see the situation with his own eyes, and later he want to Lesbos and brought several refugees with him back to Rome.

All of which raises this question: Given that the Vatican is waiting for the U.S. bishops to take charge, and given that we all know gestures usually speak louder than words, is it time for a dramatic gesture from the U.S. bishops to demonstrate how serious they are about resisting the deteriorating climate for immigrants and refugees under the Trump administration?

In terms of what that might be, one can imagine multiple possibilities. I’m going to float one idea, however, which is just on the outer cusp of plausibility.

Suppose it wasn’t just one cardinal who led brother bishops in celebrating a Mass at the border. Suppose it was all six residential cardinals in the United States – Timothy Dolan of New York, O’Malley of Boston, Donald Wuerl of Washington, Joseph Tobin of Newark, Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and Blase Cupich of Chicago?

Suppose, too, the cardinals were joined by a good chunk of the archbishops who lead the other 30 dioceses in the United States – Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, for instance, and William Lori of Baltimore, not to mention the indispensable voice in American Catholicism on this issue, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles?

If each of those prelates brought their local media along, combined with the national attention such a gesture would attract, the bishops would have a good 24-to-48 hour period in which they could shape both the news cycle and the public conversation.

Whether that would be enough to effect policy is anyone’s guess, but it certainly would leave no doubt as to where the leaders of a church that represents 20 percent of America’s adult population stand.

As an added benefit, for Catholic insiders the visual of Cupich and Chaput, for example, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, given their obvious differences on other matters, would be an arresting statement about unity indeed.

Of course, the logistical challenge of coordinating the schedules of all those prelates would be daunting (although they manage to pull it off twice a year for the bishops’ conference meetings, so it’s not impossible.) Further, deciding who gets pride of place among those alpha males wouldn’t be a walk in the park either.

Yet it’s precisely in facing such challenges that priorities are born, and if the American bishops want the fight for immigrant rights to be a priority in the Trump era – as they truly seem to – then something like this might be just what the doctor ordered.

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