Thursday, June 14, 2018
Jim Davis - Florida Catholic
FORT LAUDERDALE | The nation's bishops, meeting for the first time in South Florida, have been tackling a broad range of issues this week: worship, health care, priestly vocations, cultural diversity, protecting children, outreaches to Hispanics and young people.
But one batch of issues has kept bubbling to the top: migration, immigration and the rights of refugees.
The president of the 300-member United States Conference of Catholic Bishops mentioned it. So did the vice president. And the bishop of Newark. And Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, the host bishop for the weeklong gathering.
"It has to do with life and dignity, solidarity, the common good," said Archbishop Wenski in an interview on Wednesday during the USCCB's semiannual gathering. "Everything we do is in the light of that vision."
The conference, at the Marriott Harbor Beach Hotel, did present a full schedule to navigate. On Tuesday, a day before the first general session, committees focused on ministries as far flung as Africa, eastern Europe and the Asian-Pacific region. They huddled on pro-life and catechetical matters, religious liberty and many other issues.
But in the general sessions and public statements, they returned often to the worldwide plight of people fleeing violence, poverty and persecution in their homelands -- by one estimate, 65 million -- some of whom are turned away at U.S. borders, or sent back to face their fate.
On Wednesday, the bishops condemned the recent decision of U.S. Attorney General Richard Sessions to deny spousal abuse as a valid reason to seek asylum.
"At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life," they said in a statement. "We urge courts and policy makers to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life."
The statement was penned by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB. Then those at the general session joined in supporting it.
They also condemned the administration's new practice of prosecuting parents, removing their children and processing their requests separately. The U.S. separates 55-65 such children every day, a bishops' committee reported.
"While protecting our borders is important … separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral," the statement said.
Archbishop Joseph Gomez, USCCB vice president, said children suffer lasting emotional scars from the practice. "It's led to agonizing scenes of anguished parents and terrified children."
Archbishop Wenski himself has been part of several committees -- migration, the Church in Latin America, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. -- that often touch on the plight of masses of people seeking a better life. The urgency of the issues makes the USCCB conference weightier than many other conventions, he said.
"The bishops may seem dispassionate in their dealing, but it's because they’ve prepared for the meeting," Archbishop Wenski said. "They're working on a wide variety of issues on the witness of the gospel. These are intense days."
During a discussion in a general session, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark compared the government's attitude toward immigrants to "cardiosclerosis" -- in this case, a "hardening of the American heart." He recommended that bishop delegations visit detention centers where undocumented children are being held.
The bishops said the U.S. government needs to restore something like DACA, which the federal government ended last September. Archbishop Gomez said the bishops favor a bipartisan bill called the U.S.A. Act, which he said would protect so-called Dreamers -- undocumented aliens who grew up in America -- and put them on a path to citizenship.
The USCCB conference also heard an update from Bishop Joseph Vasquez on Share the Journey, a campaign to promote Pope Francis' ideal of a "culture of encounter" with the least fortunate. Launched in September, the campaign has been tied into National Migration Week and World Refugee Day.
Bishop Vasquez said the campaign was asking groups to share meals with migrants. Another plan is to organize Prayer Pilgrimages in order to show solidarity with the millions who are forced from their homes. The goal is for all participants to have walked a total of 24,900 miles -- the circumference of the Earth -- by Nov. 13.
Immigration, migration and the plight of refugees have become major issues for USCCB since drastic policy changes under the administration of President Donald Trump. However, leading bishops said many of the problems stretch back over previous presidencies, including those of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Archbishop Wenski has long been in the thick of such matters. In April, he accompanied four bishops from El Salvador to testify in Washington, D.C. on behalf of immigrants. But he was also protesting governmental barriers against immigrants back in 2008.
"Unfortunately, it's become a wedge issue," he said. "Whether it's the right or the left, Republican or Democrat, they have a vested interest in the status quo."
The Obama administration turned away three million people from American borders, Archbishop Gomez said during a press conference. Whoever is in power, he said, "the administration needs to listen to the people -- that we are a country of immigrants, and we need legislation that responds to the needs of our time."
Cardinal DiNardo added that the Congress, too, bears part of the blame -- and so do the bishops themselves, for not convincing those in government. "We haven't made it persuasive enough."