About one week after the April 8 release of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, it could be said that he offered a sequel to that document – not in words, but in actions, by visiting Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos, and then bringing 12 of them with him on the papal flight back to Rome.
In the exhortation, the pope wrote that “Jesus himself was born into a modest family that soon had to flee to a foreign land,” and the pontiff called on every family to “look to the icon of the Holy Family of Nazareth.”
On April 16, Pope Francis did just that, meeting with hundreds of Syrian refugees at Lesbos who had fled war in their homeland. Leaders of two U.S. Catholic agencies playing leading roles in refugee resettlement hope that the pope’s gestures will change people’s hearts toward refugees, and spur more compassionate government policies.
William Canny, the executive director of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the pope’s actions on Lesbos “a good example for all of us,” for individual Americans and for policy makers.
“He’s getting up close to people and children, hugging and touching them, and showing us these are human beings, each one,” Canny said.
“When he does those things, it helps us cut through our privileged veneer, and helps us realize we are all children of God, we are all equal, and we are all made in the image and likeness of God,” said Canny, whose agency assisted in the resettlement of 22,000 refugees in the United States last year, more than 25 percent of all refugees who came into the country.
Dominican Sister Donna Markham, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, also praised the “powerful witness” of Pope Francis in visiting the refugees and then offering a safe haven to some of them.
“Hopefully, his actions will move the hearts of people of good will, including our legislators, to do more than we currently are to help these suffering people,” she said.
Catholic Charities has been serving immigrants and refugees in the United States for more than 100 years. Markham noted that 66 Catholic Charities agencies across the country are involved in initial refugee resettlement services and another 78 agencies have post-settlement programs. Those programs help with housing, legal services, language proficiency, trauma counseling, and employment training.
“Our Catholic Charities agencies do their best to help them, regardless of nationality or religion,” she said. According to Catholic Charities USA, its network of agencies served 69,045 refugees in initial and post-resettlement aid in 2014, and helped 17,424 refugees achieve self-sufficiency.
Canny said he hoped that the pope’s gestures would impact how citizens and government officials regard refugees.
“I would hope it would reverse the current trend of Europe not opening its doors to refugees,” he said. “For our part in the U.S., I hope it will help us realize how we should be acting vis-à-vis taking them into our country and our communities.”
Both leaders noted how the issue of resettling refugees from the Middle East has become a presidential campaign issue, as a result of people’s fears following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels.
Markham, noting that “for understandable reasons, the U.S. government’s rules for allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the country have become more stringent than for many other nationalities seeking asylum,” said she hopes some balance can be restored.
“My hope is that our government can implement procedures that are both diligent but also more efficient in screening persons who are at imminent risk,” she said, adding, “fear of refugees cannot eclipse our compassion.”
Canny said people’s fears are legitimate, but it’s important to educate them about the plight of refugees and about steps being taken to block the entry of potential terrorists.
“You have to help people understand what’s going on, so they can deal with their fears,” he said.
The numbers of Syrian refugees entering the United States are relatively small. Canny noted the United States had committed to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year, but halfway through the year, less than 2,000 have entered the country.
He also pointed out that the United Nations estimates that more than 4 million Syrians have fled their country in recent years, and about 10 percent of them, 400,000 people who have escaped the violence and devastation there, are refugees in urgent need of resettlement.
The United States can do a better job of welcoming those refugees into the country at a faster rate, “and I expect in the next few months, we will,” Canny said.
“I think we’re caught up in the presidential election cycle,” he said. “I’m hoping that when we get through [it], and the political situation settles down, and when people and leadership are more educated on the situation, we’ll take in more Syrian refugees.”
Markham, who has traveled to Iraq on two occasions and visited displaced Christians there, and who has also been to refugee camps in Lebanon, spoke about the agonizing wait that some refugees and displaced persons face.
“Recently, an Iraqi Catholic family fleeing from Qaraqosh, Iraq, was told it would take at least two years before their case would be heard. Meanwhile, they live in camps in Lebanon and in Kurdistan,” she said.
“Clearly, when lives are endangered, it is profoundly upsetting to learn that it will take that long even to be considered.”
Canny said that personal encounters with refugees, like Pope Francis had in Lesbos, help others understand and empathize with their experience.
While some might regard refugees as helpless and suffering, Canny said the refugees he has met are hard-working, motivated people, who are concerned about their children’s future, especially in helping them get a good education, something that is especially lacking in refugee camps.
Like earlier waves of immigrants to the United States, Canny said, refugees bring a strong work ethic and contribute to the ongoing evolution of the United States as a country enriched by its diverse peoples from many ethnic backgrounds.
“They come to work and participate,” he said.
While the 24-hour news cycle of images of the pope’s visit to Lesbos may be fading, Canny said he’s confident that Pope Francis will continue spotlighting refugees and our need to welcome them.
“The Holy Father keeps going back and providing us with reminders,” Canny said. “His intent is to keep this issue, and the plight of people, in front of us. He’s putting mercy and compassion in front of us.”
(Zimmermann writes for Crux out of Washington, where he also serves as editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper and website of the Archdiocese of Washington.)