June 2006 - Volume 10, Issue 11
A Stranger, And You Welcomed Me
Over a century ago, an immigrant from Sicily named Anthony Caradonna arrived at Ellis Island. Like millions of other Italian immigrants, he left his beloved home and came here in search of a better life. He arrived on these shores with few possessions and little formal education, but he had energy and a strong work ethic coupled with astute intelligence.
Eventually he made his way to Detroit, married, and settled in the Louisville area where he opened a small business and raised a family of five.
He was my grandfather.
Although my grandfather died when I was only 11 years old, I greatly respected and admired him. Even as I child, I sensed how much he loved his wife and family and how proud he was to be a grandpa. Even then, I sensed his capacity for friendship and his sense of justice and right.
I also knew his life had not always been easy. He came here not because he wanted to leave family and friends in Sicily, but because he wanted to avail himself of the opportunities the United States offered. In doing so, however, he encountered obstacles. This included the prejudice of Americans who resented the waves of immigrants from Ireland and Southern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was said of those immigrants that they were lazy, hard to understand, and a drain on the economy. They were also resented because they were Catholic and, in turn, the Church was resented because of the help it provided to immigrant families. More than a few people thought they should be deported and sent back home. I am thankful they didn't get their way!
My grandfather's story remains very special to me but I also know it is not unique. It is being repeated today. The new wave of immigration is not from Europe but rather from Mexico and Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Like earlier groups of immigrants, they are coming to the United States in search of the opportunities it offers for a better life. They are seeking to provide the necessities of life for their children. They are willing to work and to work hard. It is not uncommon for the newly-arrived to work two or even three low-paying jobs just to make ends meet. They work in restaurants, paint houses, mow lawns, and do other kinds of manual labor for which workers are in chronically short supply. Many of them send part of their earnings to impoverished family members still living in their native countries - and perhaps this is very best form of "foreign aid."
Like our forebears, they are trying to provide opportunities for education and advancement for their children. And like those who came before us, some fail and get into trouble. Of course, the same is true of people born in this country. Such is the human condition!
There are also differences from prior waves of immigration. While it is not the first time that our country has seen the need to tighten its borders, we are facing serious, even unprecedented threats to our security; our nation does have the right and the responsibility to secure its borders. It is also true that the sheer numbers of immigrants are larger than at any time in our history. While all immigrants are by no means illegal, many are here without a green card. So it is not unreasonable for our government to undertake immigration reform and it is also not surprising that there is disagreement about what policies should prevail.
I will not attempt to sketch what those policies should be, but I would make this observation: just on the face of it, it is bad policy suddenly to criminalize and/or deport millions of people. It is also bad policy to criminalize those in the community, including Church workers, who are offering them basic human services.
As noted earlier, the Catholic Church in the United States has always tried to assist the newly-arrived. In our own diocese, various parishes and schools were founded to serve immigrants and for many years our diocese has sought to reach out to Hispanics, Brazilians, Haitians, and many other immigrant groups. We do not approach this work as politicians or law enforcement officials but as pastors of souls. Our job is to represent Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who told us that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Him. Many parishes are doing wonderful work in serving immigrants and in inviting them to become leaders and participants in the faith community. Our Catholic schools and religious education programs, especially those in urban areas, provide opportunities for the children of immigrant families to be a part of the Lord's family, the Church, and there to discover their God-given dignity. Often it is a Catholic school teacher or religious educator who helps unlock the talents and goodness of these young people. And when families are decimated by unemployment, illness, or by events such as the recent unpublicized INS raids in Bridgeport, they often turn first to the Church for help.
Recently, Catholic Charities has increased its role in serving immigrants. It now does this through community partnerships in Bridgeport, Danbury, and Stamford. Catholic Charities does not encourage illegal immigration but it does seek to help those who are already here. Many are legal immigrants who are nonetheless exploited. Others could have their situation regularized but need help in dealing with the INS. Still others are not legal but they need food, emergency shelter, counseling, and other necessities. Some come to the New Covenant House of Hospitality in Stamford or the Thomas Merton Center in Bridgeport just to get a hot meal and perhaps a bit of medical attention. Like everyone else, they also appreciate a humane and respectful greeting.
All this is not "optional" Church activity. As Pope Benedict XVI recently reminded us, assistance to those in need is an essential part of the Church's mission.
The Spanish master of the spiritual life, Saint John of the Cross, tells us that "at the end of our lives we shall be judged according to love." One test of the quality of our love is whether or not we welcome Christ disguised as a stranger. May the Lord grant us the grace to pass this test!
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