By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Italian comedian talking about anew Pope Francis book was not joking when he said being a minister of God’smercy can have social and political implications.
The corporal works of mercy of feeding the hungry andclothing the naked might not be controversial, but they are socially relevantactions. None of the corporal works, though, is as politically charged in theWest today as "welcoming the stranger," particularly if that strangeris a Muslim.
"We are called to serve Christ the crucified throughevery marginalized person," Pope Francis said in the new book, "TheName of God Is Mercy."
"We touch the flesh of Christ in he who is outcast,hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, ill, unemployed, persecuted, in search ofrefuge," the pope continued. "That is where we find our God, that iswhere we touch our Lord."
The U.N. Refugee Agency reported last June that at the endof 2014, the number of people forcibly displaced because of persecution,conflict and violence reached the highest number ever recorded; it had grown to"a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and37.5 million a decade ago." The U.N. estimated the number had surpassed 60million by the end of 2015.
The chief cause of the increase was the conflict in Syria, aconflict that is ongoing and continues to send people fleeing.
In 2015, the U.N. reported, 244 million people, or 3.3 percent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of origin.
The plight of migrants and refugees has been at the heart ofPope Francis’ concern as pope. Soon after his election in 2013, he went to theItalian island of Lampedusa to pray for migrants who had drowned attempting toreach Europe and to meet those who made it safely and those who have welcomedthem.
Meeting Jan. 11 with ambassadors representing their nationsat the Vatican, the pope made his concern for migrants and migration the keyfocus of his speech.
While acknowledging the social and political challenges thatcome with welcoming migrants, Pope Francis insisted on the human and religiousobligation to care for those forced to flee in search of safety or a dignifiedlife.
The pope’s concern for refugees is not just talk.
In September, the Vatican’s St. Anne parish welcomed a familyof four from Damascus, Syria, providing an apartment, food and other assistancebecause under Italian law, asylum seekers are not allowed to work for the firstsix months they are in the country. The parish of St. Peter’s Basilica ishosting Eritrean refugees. A woman, whose husband is missing, gave birth to herfifth child shortly after arriving in Rome. She, the newborn and two of herother children are living in a Vatican apartment; she hopes soon to embrace herother two children, who are now in a refugee camp in awaiting the completion offamily reunification procedures. In the meantime, the woman is hosting anotherEritrean woman and her child in the apartment.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican observer at U.N.agencies in Geneva, said the corporal work of mercy of welcoming strangers is"very political" and people’s fears are natural. "It’s somethingunavoidable that when you come into contact with the unknown, you are frightened."
"When we are detached, when we don’t know them, we fearthem and they fear us. The first reaction is suspicion," he said. Toovercome fear and fulfill the Christian obligation of welcome and care,"the first step is to get to know each other."
Setting aside policies and procedures for determining howmany refugees to accept, from where and how to vet them, Archbishop Tomasi saidgovernments and politicians must pay greater attention to concrete steps forintegrating newcomers. "That is what determines how people willreact."
"We must say to migrants, ‘You are in need. You arewelcome here. We will give you housing, education, security. But there arevalues you must accept: the separation of religion and politics; respect andequality for women; respect for differences,’" he said.
In Europe and North America, integration is not adequatelyaddressed, the archbishop said, "so it leaves room for misunderstanding,fear and is a way of justifying the rejection of persons who have a right toprotection."
Speaking to the diplomats at the Vatican, Pope Francis saidan exaggerated concern for oneself leads to indifference toward others and,worse, to "fear and cynicism."
But those forced to flee their homelands are the ones whohave the most legitimate fears: Will they and their families survive? Whichborders will be open to them? Will they be accepted? Will someone reach out ahelping hand as they try to re-establish themselves?
Pope Francis insisted that people are the "paramountvalue to be cared for and respected." A lack of concern for migrants, hesaid, stems from the same sense of self-preoccupation and fear of change thatviews some human beings as "’not yet useful’ — like the unborn — or ‘nolonger needed’ — like the elderly."
Welcoming the stranger is not always easy, the pope said."The massive number of arrivals on the shores of Europe," forexample, "appears to be overburdening the system of receptionpainstakingly building on the ashes of the Second World War." In addition,large numbers of newcomers with a different culture and religious traditionleads to obvious questions about respecting differences while preserving anation’s traditional cultural and religious values.
"Equally significant," he said, "are fearsabout security, further exacerbated by the growing threat of internationalterrorism."
Politically, Pope Francis said, nations must "find theright balance" between two serious and binding obligations: protecting therights and safety of one’s citizens and ensuring assistance to and acceptanceof migrants.