NEW YORK — Reflecting on Pope Francis’s recent Mass on the 6th anniversary of his visit to Lampedusa — the small Italian island where he remembered the estimated 20,000 migrants who have died crossing the Mediterranean — Miami’s archbishop says “Lampedusa has been happening off the coast of Florida for the past 50 years.”
“It merely ebbs and flows from our consciousness,” he sighed.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski was recently in Rome for a conference sponsored by the Vatican’s department for Migrants and Refugees on Internally Displaced Persons, where he was able to concelebrate the Mass for Migrants with Francis.
In an interview with Crux upon his return, Wenski said one of the local Florida papers recently published the numbers of individuals interdicted off the Florida coast where “several thousand” Cubans and Haitians had been picked up on the high seas in recent months.
He lamented that this has been an “ongoing crisis” that only gets periodic attention.
Wenski recalled the pope’s Mass with recently arrived refugees as “very impressive” and “less formal” than most Vatican liturgies — and he noted that at one point he observed a refugee woman nursing a child during the liturgy, which “was something Pope Francis has encouraged before,” adding that it enhanced the welcoming environment.
At the Mass, Francis defended migrants by saying: “They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues,” adding that “this is not just about migrants,” but rather a human issue.
Wenski said the pope’s words were “right on target.”
In Rome, Wenski was joined by Bill Canny, the executive director of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), where he said the conference’s focus on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) was necessary to spotlight an under-covered area of the Church’s work with vulnerable populations.
“The only thing different from them [IDPs] than the classic definition of refugees is that they didn’t cross a border,” said Wenski of the plight of IDPs. “Even though he’s a citizen of the country he’s living in, but he doesn’t have the rights of citizenship, otherwise he wouldn’t be an IDP.”
Wenski said he’s had direct experience with the issue before, having spent time in Colombia, as well as in Rwanda and the Congo where IDPs are, unfortunately, a common reality.
He said that for many it’s a “difficult concept” because these individuals are on the run at home, but even so, “we have to explore the nuances of their situations.”
He said the Vatican consultation focused on “how international communities, churches, and the United Nations protect vulnerable populations without the legal framework that exists for refugees.”
He also said that the situation in each region is different as some IDPs are the result of ethnic conflict, while in other cases in may be due to war or religion.
Wenski specifically pointed to the situation of Iraqi Christians who have been displaced in their own homeland after being driven out of the very cradle of Christianity by ISIS in recent years.
“There was no magic formula discovered,” he said, but it “reminded us that we cannot forget about their pastoral care.”
“These are God’s children, so we have to take care of them,” he insisted.
Wenski’s return home to his archdiocese comes just days before the Trump administration has promised a major crackdown on undocumented immigrants vowing to deport thousands of individuals.
While Wenski says he faults both political parties — noting that President Obama deported some 400,000 individuals — he said the Trump administration’s “rhetoric has raised fear for these affected populations.”
As an outspoken immigrant advocate, Wenski has not been shy about raising his voice to defend immigrants telling Crux that “statements are important because we have to interpret the signs of the times in light of the Gospel,” but also noting that there’s real work Catholic leaders must be doing on the ground.
He pointed to the work of Catholic Legal Services in the archdiocese of Miami, where they employ 28 lawyers working full-time devoted solely to immigration and seeing some two to three thousand individuals a month.
Wenski also said that there are Miami priests regularly present at the Homestead migrant detention facility in South Florida where the recent surge of child detainees has led to a greater demand for spiritual support.
He added that he’s been impressed by the children who “know all of the songs, and know all of the responses” at Mass.
“These children come from religious parents who care about the spiritual care, and they’re now here [in the United States] because they care about the physical safety,” he added.
While he admitted that the looming crackdown adds new pressure and demands, Wenski insists that “the drama is constant,” — repeating once more a refrain he’d previously used, this time with added emphasis: “What ebbs and flows is the attention we decide to pay to it.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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