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The theology of migrants

English Spanish Fr. Eduardo Barrios, SJ Profile

When we talk about migrants, we are referring to both emigrants and immigrants. The theology of migrants refers to the effort of understanding the phenomenon of migration in the light of Divine Revelation.

The prehistory of the People of God begins with an emigration, that of Abraham and his family from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan, the Promised Land.

As time passed, and because of a famine, the descendants of Abraham eventually migrated to Egypt, where they were well received thanks to the position held by the patriarch Joseph at the court of Pharaoh (Gen 47).

After the death of Joseph, the new monarch ceased to be considerate towards the Hebrews, and these, under the leadership of Moses, escaped from slavery to the land of their origins. That mass displacement is known as the Exodus.

The ancient Hebrews were aware of their exceptionalism. God had chosen them among all peoples. However, that particular choice was a preparation for the formation of a universal people formed around the Messiah. The laws of the ancient people of God prescribed good treatment for foreigners or immigrants.

The Israelites never forgot their origins as pilgrims. They remembered it in their liturgies saying, “My father was a refugee Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as a resident alien. But there he became a nation great, strong and numerous” (Dt 26, 5).

Such memory prompts compassionate legislation towards foreigners. “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the LORD, am your God” (Lev 19, 33-34).

The Christian era begins with the birth of Jesus outside of Nazareth, where St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary lived. For census purposes, he was born in Bethlehem of Judah (Mt 2), but in the outskirts, sheltered under a stable, as an absolute homeless.

Shortly after the birth, the Holy Family fled the persecution unleashed by Herod and took refuge in Egypt, returning once the bloodthirsty king died. Jesus returns from Egypt as a new Moses. He knew exile and later knew the return as a new exodus, laden with religious symbolism.

In contemplating the public life of Jesus, we admire the exquisite treatment he gave to foreigners, such as a Roman centurion (Mt 8, 5ff.), a Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7, 24ff.), and the Samaritans (Lk 10, 25; 17,15-18; Jn 4, 5ff.).

St. Paul, an authorized interpreter of Jesus, goes so far as to say that in Christianity all discrimination barriers fall: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3, 28).

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews urges us to be hospitable using a surprising phrase: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (13, 2).

The Christian authors of the so-called Patristic Era (1st to 7th centuries) initiated the theological reflection on migrations. St. Augustine, sharp as few others, writes that hospitality brings enrichment to both the refugee and the host.

Taking a leap of many centuries, we arrive at the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903), who decided that countries with many immigrants should have national parishes. In 1914, Pope Benedict XV instituted the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Pope Paul VI established the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants. The current Pope, Francis, has been witnessing an unprecedented increase in migratory flows, and never tires of urging support to those who desperately flee from wars and persecutions.

The main theological argument in favor of migrants is that, “all men possess a rational soul and are created in God's likeness, since they have the same nature and origin” (Second Vatican Council, GS No. 29). 

What has been said about loving our migrant neighbor must be reconciled with the need for certain controls. There is a reason for having borders, passports, visas and a rigorous scrutiny of those who wish to enter a country. While the vast majority of immigrants come with good intentions, there are also those who want to sneak into a country with evil purposes. However, in emergency circumstances, countries should lean towards compassion for those fleeing intolerable situations, and migrant families should always be kept intact when crossing the borders.

Final salvation depends on having fully enjoyed the gift of the living faith expressed through charity. When the hour of the judgment arrives, the divine Judge will find merits in those who welcomed him in the immigrant: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. … For I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25: 34-35).

(Note: The author owes much to a monograph by Father Alberto Ares, SJ published in Barcelona by “Cristianisme i Justicia,” November 2017).

Fr. Eduardo Barrios, SJ
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Comments from readers

Eduardo Barrios - 07/04/2018 02:59 AM
Thank you, James and Ms. Bezos for your kind words regarding my article on migrants. God bless you for reading it with benevolent eyes.
james - 07/02/2018 06:03 PM
Greetings Fr. Eduardo Barrios and dear Holy parishioners, I fully agree a compassionate heart is needed in these matters. We should all embrace people fleeing horrible conditions, especially those that are being exterminated like a genocide. Now, additionally (and respectfully) THOMAS JEFFERSON'S THOUGHTS ON IMMIGRATION says that those immigrants shall fully incorporate into our society. WHICH means that things like carrying around your past countries flag is unacceptable in my humble opinion. And furthermore everyone should be using English to their best of their ability. God Bless Us all. Happy fourth of July, OUR independence from the ruthless Brits. In Unity,
Betty Bezos - 07/02/2018 01:57 PM
Gracias Fr. Barrios por tan acertado y bien detallada informacion. Es cierto que la realidad actual es confusa al tratar de hacernos creer que un pais sin fronteras es equivalente a un pais cristiano. La separacion de hijos y padres es otra cuestion importante, ya que en los eventos de estas ultimas semanas la separacion ha ocurrido cuando las personas con chicos tratan de cruzar la frontera por areas no controlados por el gobierno, creando una ilegalidad doble. Hay que hacer claro que las familias que entran por las areas de control de frontera no son separadas. Gracias por permitir hacer la aclaracion.


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