A Catholic pastor responds to immigration questions

By Father Steve Pawelk, a Glenmary Home Missioner and pastor of St. Teresa of Kolkata Parish in Maynardville and St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge

“Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.” (Matthew 2:14)

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

“As a body is one, though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. … If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all parts share its joy.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 26)

These are a few Scriptures that guide my pastoral practices with immigrants and others. For more than 30 years, immigrants have been part of my parishes in Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, and now Tennessee. They have come from India, the Philippines, Kenya, Cuba, Ireland, Germany, Bulgaria, France, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, China, Vietnam, and Honduras, to name some of the countries. In the last few years, the dialogue around immigration has radically changed.

In the midst of a heated and polarizing political climate, often focused on immigration, some very good Catholics are confused by the Catholic pastoral approach to immigrants. People have asked questions like:

  • “Who is illegal in our parish?”
  • “Father, are you protecting people who should not be here?”
  • “What can we do to help our brothers and sisters?”
  • “Why are they not citizens?”
  • “Can they get in line like everybody else?”
  • “What is the Church’s response to this issue?”

In short, there are Catholics on every side of this political position.

I cannot speak for the entire Church or for every pastor; what I am able to do is share one pastor’s response — my own. This has been a very personal issue since April 2018. I have had parishioners of St. John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge affected by that 2018 raid in Bean Station, and during the past Christmas season, a mother was removed from her four children after a minor traffic violation.

Just like any father of his family, I am protective and aim to be loving of all those under my pastoral care. This is what it means to be a pastor or have the title “Father.” I also acknowledge that our immigration system is broken and border security is part of any reform. Those enforcing the laws also are our brothers and sisters.

Therefore, as a pastor, my responsibility is the care and spiritual guidance for all who are Catholic or desire to be Catholic. As a Glenmarian, our founder states that everyone in the country, whether Catholic or not, is my parishioner. He refers to this as spreading “catholicity” to all.

So any person who comes to the door of the Church is greeted as a child of God and has a claim on my time. Any person who is baptized is my brother or sister. The first step of pastoral guidance, then, is the recognition that all are part of the body of Christ. There is no Spanish body, Chinese body, or English body of Christ.

There is only the one body of Christ that includes all races, all economic classes, all holy people, all sinners, all in and out of jail. Called to proclaim the reign of God, a call to unity, in a world that likes labels and divisions, is a very challenging pastoral task. Yet, it is the mandate of the Gospel.

Therefore, I do not ask anyone for any proof of citizenship to register in the parish. I usually know about someone’s immigration status only when they are trying to modify their status or experience a legal issue that is complicated by their immigration status. The only documentation parishioners need is their baptismal certificate if they are preparing for additional sacraments like Communion, confirmation, marriage, or ordination.

Secondly, as a Catholic pastor, I am pro-life and pro-family. Therefore, my concerns around immigration issues are based on how best to support the family. Last year, I witnessed the tears of U.S. citizen children weeping over the deportation or potential deportation of their parents. These are teenagers who have had a very stable and happy life until this moment. I also have ministered to a Honduran woman whose arms were macheted off above the elbows and her face was scarred. Her 7-year-old boy had to dress and feed her.

I hear the voices of immigrants as families try to make a safer and better home. Early in my ministry, I asked an immigrant who was here without permission how he reconciled this with his Christian life. His response was “Father, if your children could only eat rice and beans, what would you risk to feed them meat? If I can work three months in the United States, I can feed them meat for a year. How could I be a Christian parent if I did not make this choice?” These are people who have undergone great challenges for their families, and the compassion of Christ cries out for us to hear and respond with love for them in our hearts.

This sometimes means for us to remember that, as Catholics, we are taught to hate the sin but love the sinner. So, we may be disappointed or even angry over a person entering into the United States illegally, but we still love them as our brother and sister. Therefore, regardless of how someone enters our country, once he or she enters the door of the Church, they have the same rights to pastoral service, worship, and spiritual guidance as any other person.

Third, as a pastor, I am trying to help announce the reign of God. As Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). So, it is important to understand that not everything legal is moral, nor is everything illegal immoral. This is complex. We know that abortion is legal but immoral. Furthermore, it was illegal to harbor Jews during World War II in Germany and Italy, but the Vatican and many Catholic nuns, priests, and laity did so because it was moral. An informed conscience is the ultimate guide. The moral principles informing our conscience are the love of God and neighbor, the Ten Commandments, the Eight Beatitudes, and the corporal works of mercy. This places us in a very complex situation, hence our history is full of men and women who have become conscientious objectors, or have challenged the political norm for the sake of the Gospel. Some would count Jesus among them.

Fourth, as a pastor, I am trying to build the community of faith, or strengthen the body of Christ. I’m living out Matthew 25 and discovering what it means; “if one suffers we all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:26) is important. The mercy of Jesus, the compassion of Christ, the unity of humanity are part of our mission. Issues like immigration force us to reflect on what this means.

Politics, biased news, and talk radio can get in the way of understanding our Christian response to the problems of the world. Two pamphlets, however, outline the Catholic Church teaching on immigration without political bias. They are “Immigration” by Our Sunday Visitor and “Welcoming the Refugee and Migrant” by Catholic News Service.

In summary, as a Catholic pastor, the task is to be faithful to Christ, faithful to the Gospel, and faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church in service to all God’s children. This means that a pastor will stand in a zone that is often not the political philosophy of either party. This means the pastor is often a bridge between various cultures, ideas, and desires. This means that the pastor is listening and caring for all sinners and saints within his parish boundaries and sometimes beyond. This means the cross of love stretches each of us between heaven and earth. It means accepting a very complex reality with the depth of love and forgiveness offered to us by Christ.

No pastor will please everyone. As a friend says, “Wherever two or more are gathered, there is tension.” Yet, wherever Christians gather, there is love. Whether you agree or disagree with this pastor or your own, remember each of us is trying to love as Christ loves us.

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

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