DEPERE, Wisconsin — The parable of the good Samaritan is never far from top-of-mind for Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas.
His diocese and his see city are on the front lines of the immigration issue.
“I think about that parable often,” Seitz said, “and the Gospel story of Lazarus and the rich man and chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel. On the border, those parables are unavoidable, inescapable.”
How Seitz has led his diocese in responding with mercy and compassion to those seeking refuge in the United States, and how he has become a voice for migrants, brought him to Wisconsin Oct. 11 to receive the 2021 St. Norbert Ambassador of Peace Award.
The honor is given annually by the Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice & Public Understanding at St. Norbert College.
Angel Saavedra Cisneros, assistant professor of political science, said he nominated Seitz “because of his commitment to those who are often forgotten, those who might seem least familiar.”
“Bishop Seitz believes that migrants add inestimable value to the communities where they chose to live, and that parishes and community members should welcome them with compassion, love and solidarity,” he said.
Robert Pyne, Norman Miller Center director, said the committee that approved the nomination was eager to honor Seitz. “It was a timeless opportunity to recognize someone who is a champion of caring for the stranger and of hospitality,” Pyne said.
He noted that Pope Francis had telephoned Seitz to thank him for his work on behalf of those seeking asylum, and that this year the pope also had recognized the Norbertine order on the 900th anniversary of its founding by St. Norbert of Xanten.
The saint was known for his efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation among warring states in 12th-century Europe.
“We have a tendency to limit the number of those for whom we feel responsible and obliged to love and care for,” Seitz told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay. “We don’t feel it’s possible to care for many people. We find ways to draw lines to limit our circle of concern.
“If we examine the teaching of Jesus, the essence of his teaching is that the love of God is expansive. Love those close to you, of course, but don’t let that limit your love,” he said. Being open to the mystery of God’s grace “allows us to help people beyond who we thought possible.”
The bishop also said he sees his role as that of a “doctor of souls.”
“And my diagnosis is that our people are suffering a severe condition of the hardening of the heart. The sense is that we don’t need to care, we don’t have to have compassion,” he said.
People are dying for our lack of care, he added, and that concerns him as a priest.
“If we are suffering from hardening of the heart,” Seitz said, “we are putting on the line our own salvation.”
During a formal presentation seen both by an in-person audience on the St. Norbert campus and online via Zoom Oct. 11, Seitz tied the need for Catholics to reach out to the strangers in their midst to a better understanding of the Eucharist.
Like those of the Jewish traditions upon which the Mass finds its foundation, the values of “love, mercy, forgiveness, hospitality, inclusion, the defense of the poor and downtrodden … are not just values which are intended to remain abstract or walled off in individualistic spirituality,” Seitz said. “We are meant to translate them into history so that they become public and shape our common life.
“And this revelation turns upside down the worldly values of competitiveness, self-interest, indifference, thirst for domination, the cult of celebrity and wealth.”
As part of his talk, the bishop showed a video of the annual border Mass at which people on the El Paso side of the Rio Grande join with those across the river in its sister city, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to jointly celebrate the Eucharist.
“Those north and south are nourished at one altar,” he said.
“Our being gathered into one people by the Holy Spirit is a divine event that cannot but call into question ongoing structures of division, separation and injustice; the racism and hyper-nationalism upon which much of our immigration policy is based, the guns, the walls, the drones, the policies. What is more real, the border wall or the body of Christ?
“On which should we place our most central commitments? On which should we bet our lives? Our hope?” he asked. “For the Christian, there can be only one response.”
Zyskowski writes for The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.