Book Review: A Stranger and You Welcomed Me: A Call to Mercy and Solidarity with Migrants and Refugees

Pope Francis, A stranger and You Welcomed Me: A Call to Mercy and Solidarity with Migrants and Refugees, Robert Ellsberg, ed., Orbis, Maryknoll, 2018

This book provides a valuable resource in gathering together homilies, addresses and commentaries by Pope Francis on the subject of migrants and refugees. Part 1 contains 24 entries under the heading Addresses, Homilies and Prayers, while Part 2 includes his messages for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees from 2014 to 2018, together with a final entry from the Message for the Second Holy See-Mexico Conference on International Migration.

As Pope Francis insists in his General Audience of 26 October 2016, ‘The story of humanity is the story of migrations’. It is not surprising therefore that modern Catholic social teaching has addressed the issue on numerous occasions, and the Church has celebrated the World Day of Migrants and Refugees since 1914. Pope Francis thus stands firmly in the tradition of earlier papal and conciliar teaching: what differentiates his approach is the extent to which he has made this a key issue of his papacy, dedicating his first trip outside Rome after his election to migrants and refugees by visiting the Italian island of Lampedusa, one of the nearest gateways to Europe for those fleeing poverty and conflict. Here he celebrated a penitential liturgy in which he begged ‘forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters’. He criticised a society which has forgotten how to weep with and for others, thanks to a ‘globalisation of indifference’.

The numbers of refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced persons has reached staggering proportions, but Pope Francs does not rely on statistics. Rather, he calls for a spirit of mercy and solidarity: migrants and refugees are human beings, ‘each with their own names, stories and families’, they are our brothers and sisters, worthy of respect.

Like his predecessors, he often bases the Church’s duty to have concern for migrants and refugees in Scripture: the many Old Testament injunctions to ‘welcome the stranger’, the reminder to Israel ‘that you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt’; Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, and particularly the fact that during their flight to Egypt the Holy Family shared the plight of contemporary refugees.

Another biblical text to which the pope often makes reference, and which may partly explain his insistence on Christians in particular affording a welcome to migrants and refugees, is the description of the Last Judgment in Matthew’s Gospel (25: 31-46). In loving acceptance and caring for their needs it is Christ we serve. As Cardinal Tobin notes in his Foreword to the book, if refugees and migrants risk losing their lives, for the rest of us it is a matter of our very salvation.

While Pope Francis refers to racial and religious discrimination as causes for migration, readers of this Bulletin will not find any reference to discrimination on grounds of sexuality. (UK government data suggests that around 7% of asylum claims in this counter were made on this basis). Such asylum-seekers are doubly marginalised, rejected by other asylum-seekers who bring with them the cultural values and prejudices of their countries of origin in this respect. Many will feel disappointed that the pope has not spoken out against such discrimination, particularly during his visits to countries where it is prevalent, and often enthusiastically supported by the hierarchy.

Despite this criticism, however, this volume is a valuable resource for individual reflection and prayer, as well as for use in a parish setting. It is to be hoped that it will encourage a greater awareness and appreciation of this developing body of papal teaching in support of some of the most marginalised in society.

Dr John Flannery is a trustee of Borderlands, a Bristol based charity supporting asylum-seekers and refugees.