BOARDMAN –When she chose the topic, “Catholic perspectives on immigration,” last July for her March 2 appearance at the First Friday Club, Sister Suzanne M. Susany had no idea that it would become such a “hot button issue.”
Yet with the election of President Donald Trump and his travel restrictions on those from some Middle East countries and his plans to build a wall on the Mexican border, the subject quickly became timely, said Sister Suzanne, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities.
Still, Sister Suzanne, an immigration lawyer who has ministered for years with immigrants even before becoming an attorney, sees this as an apt time to address the issue, she told about 150 gathered for the luncheon March 2, the day after Ash Wednesday.
“Lent is a time to change our hearts,” Sister Suzanne said.
Father Kevin Peters, pastor of St. Angela Merici Parish on Youngstown’s East Side, introduced Sister Suszanne. Father Peters noted that Sister Suzanne helped him launch a Hispanic ministry program while he was serving in Ashtabula. They worked together for six years before she left to attend Duquesne Law School.
“Immigrants are the archetype of the Church, its pilgrim people. They evoke our biblical heritage and are the means by which the Church was built and the measure by which we will be judged,” Sister Suzanne told the crowd.
Sister Suzanne said she sees her work as reflecting an important aspect of Catholic social teaching. The Catholic vision of immigration is grounded in Scripture and enriched by this social teaching, including the documents of the Second Vatican Council, she commented.
For example, the Book of Exodus tells of the Israelites being led to the “land of milk and honey,” and the Gospel of Luke relates Joseph and Mary’s travels to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
“These are stories of immigrants,” Sister Suzanne said.
She related the seven themes of Catholic social teaching to immigration: life and dignity of the human person; the call to family, community and participation; solidarity; dignity of work; rights and responsibilities; the option for the poor and vulnerable; and care for God’s creation.
“These themes touch the lives of us and the immigrants,” she said.
Catholic social teaching includes a call for Catholics to support immigrants and those who are oppressed, Sister Suzanne said. She cited such Vatican II documents as “Lumen Gentium” (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), which states:
“All men are called to belong to the new people of God. Wherefore this people, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and must exist in all ages, so that the decree of God’s will may be fulfilled.
“It follows that though there are many nations there is but one people of God, which takes its citizens from every race, making them citizens of a kingdom which is of a heavenly rather than of an earthly nature. All the faithful, scattered though they be throughout the world, are in communion with each other in the Holy Spirit.”
Another Vatican II document, “Gaudium Et Spes” (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), notes that “God intended the Earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples.”
“These are hard statements, but they came in the spirit of Vatican II,” Sister Suzanne said.
She noted that Pope John Paul II, on the World Day for Migrants in June 2000, said that, “in many regions of the world today, people live in tragic situations of instability and uncertainty,” yet everyone has a “right to be able to live peacefully in his own country,” and every country’s immigration laws should be “based on the recognition of fundamental human rights.”
Two years later, Pope John Paul II called for a halt to racism, xenophobia and ultra-nationalism.
On the World Day for Migrants in 2014, Pope Francis addressed the immigration issue:
“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.
“As the Church accompanies migrants and refugees on their journey, she seeks to understand the causes of migration, but she also works to overcome its negative effects, and to maximize its positive influence on the communities of origin, transit and destination,” Pope Francis said.
After President Trump was elected, in response to his call for “building a wall” on the southern border of the United States, Pope Francis addressed the immigration issue again.
“In God’s heart there are no enemies. God only has sons and daughters,” he said. “We are the ones who raise walls, build barriers and label people. We live at a time in which polarization and exclusion are burgeoning and considered the only way to resolve conflicts.
“We see, for example, how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant, or a refugee, become a threat, take on the status of an enemy,” he said.
Pope Francis’ message, Sister Suzanne said, is that the Church must become a model of acceptance for every person.
“The Catholic community is not determined by race or ethnicity, but by faith in Jesus,” she said. “Only Christ’s redeeming grace can turn us from tolerance to respect, from egoism to altruism, from fear to openness and from rejection to solidarity.”
In 2000, the U.S. bishops wrote a pastoral letter, “Welcoming the Stranger,” noting its basic message was that the Church hears the cry of the poor and disenfranchised and should do all it can to answer them.
Three years later, the U.S. bishops and the Mexican bishops produced a document called “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.”
Sister Suzanne talked about the roots of immigration, noting that immigrants usually are fleeing political persecution, war or economic devastation.
“How do we walk the tightrope between sovereignty vs. the good of the human community? How do we balance security vs. human dignity, human rights and the unity of the human family? How do we walk the tightrope between national interest vs. the needs of the international community?
“I don’t have the answer,” Sister Suzanne concluded, “but maybe it’s time for us to look deep within ourselves to find solutions.”