Christian unity and immigration, The Anchor, June 01, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
June 01, 2012

This Sunday the Church celebrates in a special way the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Jesus during the Last Supper prayed repeatedly to the Father for the Church He was founding, that the communion among His disciples would be a profound reflection of, and participation in, the communion among the three persons in the One God: “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they may also be in Us, … [and] brought to perfection as one.” The reason was not just for their personal happiness and holiness — that “they might share My joy completely” — but also for the Church’s whole mission, so that “the world may know that You sent Me and that You loved them even as You loved Me” (Jn 17).

Our communion as believers is one of the most powerful evangelical testimonies of all, witnessing to God Who is a communion of persons in love and Who sent the Son to invite us into that loving communion. We saw the full powerful and attractiveness of this witness of communion in the early Church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” we read in the Acts of the Apostles. “They were of one heart and soul.” The early Christians sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to those who had need; they attended the temple together; they celebrated the Eucharist together; they ate together. The results of this mutual sacrificial love were immediate and impressive: “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-35). The ancient world had never beheld such love before. Few sacrificed even for family members; to do so joyously for those who had previously been total strangers was an irresistible witness to the type of love Jesus had been sent into the world to bring. People could not help but be drawn by the Christians’ loving communion to want to enter it.

In his fifth and last ad limina address to visiting U.S. bishops, Pope Benedict on May 18 highlighted that as the Church in our country takes up the task of the new evangelization of our culture, we must begin by examining and fostering our true loving communion with each other in God. A divided Church is in contradiction to the most basic Christian truths and message: the Communion of Persons Who is our Triune God and the “one” holy, Catholic and apostolic Church Christ established as His Bride and Body.

Speaking to the bishops of the various Eastern Churches in the United States, the pope said one of the biggest challenges to the Church in America historically has been to find a communion among the many Catholic ethnic groups present in the country. Despite the truth that in Christ there is no longer “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28), in the history of the Church in the United States in some places, ethnicity was treated as more important than catholicity. “The Church in America has struggled to recognize and incorporate this diversity,” the pope noted, but went on to say that with God’s help, the Church in America “succeeded, not without difficulty, in forging a communion in Christ and in the apostolic faith that mirrors the catholicity that is an indefectible mark of the Church.” This communion, he added, “finds its source and model in the mystery of the Triune God,” in Whom “unity and diversity are constantly reconciled and enhanced.” But “preserving, fostering and advancing this gift of Catholic unity as an essential condition for the fulfillment of the Church’s mission in your country,” the pope said, is a constant challenge.

He mentioned one context in which this gift of Catholic unity is certainly being threatened: immigration. He said that the Catholic community in the United States is called “with great generosity, to welcome waves of new immigrants, to provide them with pastoral care and charitable assistance, and to support ways of regularizing their situation, especially with regard to the unification of families.” He noted that immigration reform is “clearly a difficult and complex issue” from the civic, political, social, economic and human points of view, and he encouraged the bishops to stay involved in defense of the “just treatment and the defense of the human dignity of immigrants,” a dignity that is not dependent on legal status. But he also said that within the Church, there must be a special Christian hospitality to immigrants, something that goes beyond defending their human rights but brings them into loving communion. “The Church in America is called to embrace, incorporate and cultivate the rich patrimony of faith and culture present in America’s many immigrant groups, including … the swelling numbers of Hispanic, Asian and African Catholics.” Bringing about a “communion of cultures,” he declared, “entails more than simply respecting linguistic diversity, promoting sound traditions, and providing much-needed social programs and services. It also calls for a commitment to ongoing preaching, catechesis and pastoral activity aimed at inspiring in all the faithful a deeper sense of their communion in the apostolic faith and their responsibility for the Church’s mission in the United States.”

In some places, instead of Christian hospitality, immigrants face misunderstanding and even outright xenophobia from those who believe themselves to be Christians. And some state governments are trying, in total violation of religious freedom, to force the Church to reject undocumented immigrants rather than see in them an image of the Savior Who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed Me.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the State of Alabama where last year the state legislature passed the strictest and broadest immigration law in the nation, which prohibits nearly every possible assistance to illegal immigrants living in Alabama. The bishops of the state described the consequences of the law in a letter last August to the citizens of the state: “This new Alabama law makes it illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the Confession of, celebrate the Anointing of the Sick with, or preach the Word of God to, an undocumented immigrant. Nor can we encourage them to attend Mass or give them a ride to Mass. It is illegal to allow them to attend adult Scripture study groups, or attend CCD or Sunday school classes. It is illegal for the clergy to counsel them in times of difficulty or in preparation for marriage. It is illegal for them to come to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings or other recovery groups at our churches. The law prohibits almost every activity of our St. Vincent de Paul chapters or Catholic Social Services. If it involves an undocumented immigrant, it is illegal to give the disabled person a ride to the doctor; give food or clothing or financial assistance in an emergency; allow them to shop at our thrift stores or to learn English; it is illegal to counsel a mother who has a problem pregnancy, or to help her with baby food or diapers, thus making it far more likely that she will choose abortion. This law attacks our very understanding of what it means to be a Christian, [because] the love of Christ impels us to care for the needs of all our neighbors.”

The Alabama bishops have filed a suit against the law on religious freedom grounds and were successful in securing a temporary injunction against the enforcement of many of the laws’ provisions while the case proceeds. The whole fact that such a law was passed, however, demonstrates how important it is for the Church to evangelize members of our culture as well as some within our churches that immigrants are not demons to be exorcised, or germs to be extirpated, but fellow human beings seeking a good life for themselves and their families. We’re called to treat them as we would treat Christ, even if it means eventually for the stability of our society and respect for our laws that they would have to return to their countries of origin. The chaos of our immigration laws is not an excuse to dehumanize and mistreat others whose only crime is entering our country without proper documentation in order to try to live the American dream.

Pope Benedict reminded the American bishops of “the immense promise and the vibrant energies of a new generation of Catholics,” which he said “are waiting to be tapped for the renewal of the Church’s life and the rebuilding of the fabric of American society.” The history of our nation is one of immigrants who worked to forge a national unity that made us stronger than the sum of our parts. The welcoming of immigrants into the communion of the Church, rather than weakening our nation and our churches, will strengthen both. A culture of communion and a communion of cultures promotes the community good much more effectively than disgregation and division. A divided house cannot stand