Speaking at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall this past September, Archbishop Charles Chaput turned to the life of Alexander Hamilton—who until recently was one of America’s overlooked founding fathers—to set the stage for Pope Francis’ address on immigration and religious liberty.
“The lesson in his life is simple,” Chaput declared. “This is a nation that no single ethnic group or privileged economic class ‘owns.’ It’s a country where a person who comes from nowhere can still make a difference … He reminds us that immigrants from around the world renew this country in every generation.”
In comparison to Madison, Jefferson, Washington, and other luminaries of the American founding, the life of Hamilton has historically received marginal popular attention.
But, that’s all changed since Lin-Manual Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton premiered on Broadway last summer, going on to win a Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize as of this past week, and, most probably, a slew of Tony awards come June.
The show has arguably become the hottest ticket in theatre history, and its surrounding craze led the United States Treasury to reverse its previously-announced decision to remove Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill.
Despite all of its pop culture hype, this story of “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor [who grew] up to be a hero and a scholar” offers particular resonance in light of Pope Francis’ call for us to recognize that “migrants are our brothers and sisters in search of a better life.”
While the tale of Hamilton may be a story from generations past, it offers new significance in considering the plight of migrants—as Pope Francis recently put on display to the world in Greece.
In a refugee camp on the tiny island of Lesbos during his day-long visit, Francis declared, “We all know from experience how easy it is for some to ignore other people’s suffering and even to exploit their vulnerability. But we also know that these crises can bring out the very best in us.”
Perhaps those that have been so quick to embrace the story of the “ten-dollar founding father without a father,” might also lend an ear to the message that Francis has been preaching in hopes of igniting a moral awakening for the rest of the world.
By age 14 Hamilton was an orphan child in charge of a trading charter and, when a hurricane wrecked his native island of St. Croix, he wrote a detailed essay chronicling the crisis. In recognition of his talents and abilities, his fellow neighbors collected funds to send him to the United States to continue his education and the rest, as they say, is history.
In his newly released apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Francis urges the world to recognize that migrants “serve as a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities.”
While Hamilton’s path was not an easy one, it too illustrates the act of responsibility of a community that recognized someone in need, acknowledged a capacity to act, and in return, changed the life of not just one individual but an entire nation.
Today Europe faces a crisis on a scale never before seen—and thelatest numbers reveal the situation to be getting worse. The month before Pope Francis traveled to Lesbos, almost 9,600 migrants attempted to cross the Mediterranean into Italy, more than four times as many as March of 2015.
Over the past year, over one million refugees have flooded into Europe. These displaced families are fleeing war-torn countries, persecution, and seeking greater opportunities on a continent that has been hesitant to accept them.
Moments before leaving Rome for to Greece, Pope Francis tweeted: “Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such.”
Hence the reason for his trip—not merely to provide a photo-op, but to show the world the names and faces of those affected by this crisis. In a grand gesture of bringing 12 refugees back to Rome with him, he evidenced that this trip was more than just symbols, but real substance.
He acted — and he’s expecting the world to do the same.
In a prayer for migrants at the port of Lesbos, Francis pleaded: “Inspire us, as nations, communities and individuals, to see that those who come to our shores are our brothers and sisters. May we share with them the blessings we have received from your hand, and recognize that together, as one human family, we are all migrants, journeying in hope to you, our true home, where every tear will be wiped away, where we will be at peace and safe in your embrace.”
In an election season here in the Untied States where the predicament of individual persons is continually diminished by political rhetoric, the words of Chaput from this past September seem ever more necessary.
“The Church reminds us that in the end, all of us are children of the same loving God,” Chaput said. “That makes us brothers and sisters, despite the borders that separate us. And in arguing over borders to keep people out, we need to be vigilant against erecting those same borders in our hearts.”
The story of Hamilton, both in biography and on the Broadway stage, has softened the hearts of many to rediscover a life almost forgotten. By turning the attention of the world to the millions of migrants with similar stories, Francis is aiming for a related outcome.
“History has its eyes on you,” echoes one of the final refrains ofHamilton. This is not merely a statement about the show’s leading man; it’s one that turns us toward the present.
In drawing attention to the millions of those on lifeboats and refugee camps seeking safety on our shores, both Francis and Chaput are reminding us that the same refrain also applies to us now. The question is: will we listen?