INDIANAPOLIS — Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody stood before the U.S. bishops June 14 and held up a chalice. It was not special in appearance, but rather in the story it told.
The chalice was handcrafted primarily with wood from a refugee boat that landed upon the beaches of Lampedusa, the Mediterranean island from which Pope Francis cast a wreath into the waters to remember the thousands of refugees who lost their lives there, attempting to flee persecution.
The base of the chalice was formed from mesquite, a common wood along the U.S.-Mexico border crossed by immigrants seeking better lives in America.
Together, he said, the materials of the chalice speak to the plight of immigrants, a topic addressed during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ spring assembly in Indianapolis.
“Migration is an incredibly, incredibly complex issue, and those who don’t realize its complexity either aren’t listening, or they don’t understand,” said Groody, an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and director of immigration initiatives at the university’s Institute for Latino Studies.
“And second, migration is an incredibly, incredibly simple issue, and those who don’t realize its simplicity either aren’t listening, or they don’t understand,” he said.
Along those lines of duality, Groody noted the need to “move people beyond binary language: legal or illegal, citizen or alien, native or foreigner, and to try to go to the deeper river of these issues.”
He spoke of the tensions in the topic of immigration, the tension between sovereign rights and human rights, between civil law and natural law, and between national security and human security.
Groody’s reflection preceded a review by the working group on migrants and refugees created out of the bishops’ general assembly last November.
The group was to complete its work by this spring meeting, but “recognizing the continued urgency” so many migration and refugee issues present, Cardinal Daniel N. Dinardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, announced June 15 he was extending the group.
Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president and the group’s chairman, and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration, addressed the working group’s origins, activities and next steps on issues.
“Some of the desires that were expressed (at the November meeting regarding the working group) were in tension with each other and required a certain balance,” said Gomez.
For example, he said, “There was a desire for pastoral concern for those at risk, but there was also a desire to avoid encouraging accelerated fears. These tensions were not a problem, but were instead constructive, reminding us always of the full range of consideration at stake.”
Gomez noted that part of the reason the group was created last November was the bishops’ “desire for a strong response to the anticipated policies of the incoming administration regarding refugees and immigrants.”
That motive proved prophetic. Some of the group’s first actions involved issuing official statements opposing three executive orders involving immigration and immigrants the Trump administration issued in its first week. The travel ban executive order and a revision of it is being held up in the courts; the order temporarily bans entry into the U.S. by people from six Muslim-majority countries.
“These statements, combined with many local statements by bishops across the country along the same lines, helped to make a positive impact on the public conversation regarding the orders,” said Gomez.
On the legislative front, Bishop Vasquez and Dominican Sister Donna Markham, director of Catholic Charities USA, wrote a joint letter in support of the BRIDGE Act, which stands for Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream and Grow Our Economy. The bipartisan bill would provide temporary protection from deportation for three years as well as work authorization for young people eligible for former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
Gomez said that while the letter and statements were more high profile, “the greatest fortune of the work was to provide each one of you with resources to support your local episcopal ministry in this area (of helping migrants and refugees).”
Such resources include information to provide to families fearing separation from deportation, action alerts, and information and analysis “to keep each of you well informed in a fast-paced environment, where even basic information is so often tainted by political polarization and partisanship,” the archbishop said.
Vasquez also pointed to the ongoing collaborative effort of Catholic groups through Justice for Immigrants. The website of coalition, created in 2004 and coordinated by the USCCB, offers backgrounders, webinars and action alerts that the working group developed and disseminated.
Such collaborative efforts and information are meant “to convey a comprehensive vision for immigration reform, to paint a fuller picture of what justice and mercy mean with respect to migrants and refugees in our country today,” Gomez explained.
“We must take the initiative to provide a more complete and positive account on our views,” he added.
He pointed to “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey to Hope,” a 2003 joint pastoral letter by the bishops of the U.S. and Mexico, for laying out the bishops’ principles on immigration. In it the bishops challenged their governments to change immigration policies and promised to do more themselves to educate Catholics and political leaders about the social justice issues involved in migration and address migrants’ needs.
To bring such perspective “into the public square (is) for the benefit of all, not just for migrants and refugees, or for the faithful, or for the institutional church, but for the common good,” he said.
During the open discussion, a dozen bishops stepped forward to praise the group’s work, make comments and suggestions, and even express caution.
“I have a reservation on (a) symbolic level,” said Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego. “I think we have to keep signaling (that) we as a conference are on a level of heightened alert because our people are on a level of heightened alert because of the fears among them. (The fears) are not imaginary, and they have been stoked by particular actions and words and legislative orders.”
The concept of sanctuary arose twice. While one bishop desired more guidance on the topic, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, cautioned that sanctuary “will not provide what the immigrant community needs long term, and that is to be incorporated as fellow citizens, brothers and sisters of this one society. Offering a more positive vision and to continue to hold for sensible, reasonable immigration reform is just key.”
Bishop Donald J. Kettler of St. Cloud, Minnesota, encouraged helping immigrants through local ecumenical efforts.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee noted that officials in “the current administration are economic pragmatists.” Since the loss of labor in small businesses and farms would be disastrous if so many are deported, he said, that angle on immigration should be pursued with such an economic-minded administration. It would be “a wonderful way to move the issue forward,” he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle called the committee’s work prophetic.
“Not all of us are on the same page supporting immigration. But at the same time we have to be countercultural,” he said. “We all as Christians and Catholics have to be — that’s our mission, especially for the vulnerable people.”