Last week Pope Francis asked European Catholics to open their hearts and parishes to those fleeing conflicts from across the Middle East and parts of Africa. His announcement has been met with resistance from both clerical and lay believers. Others, including American bishops, have praised the decision and exhorted as many people as possible, including in the United States, to help those fleeing corruption, poverty, and violence. While the concerns of those resisting taking in refugees are understandable, the Pope is right: the Catholic Church must step forward and assist those in need, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed.
When I first heard the Pope’s announcement, I thought of part of the Gospel of Matthew where Christ enjoins us to hand over our cloaks when asked for our tunics and to walk two miles with a man when pressed into his service for one (5:40-41). Upon further reflection, other Biblical examples of the importance of hospitality came to my mind, chief among them the story of the Lord’s visiting Abraham, where the patriarch clearly showcases his hospitality (Genesis 18:1-15). In short, the Bible is filled with stories demonstrating that not only is hospitality gracious and pleasing to God but also that it is commanded of us (not necessarily our political systems, but our personal actions).
Despite God’s orders, hospitality remains difficult: we resist the discomfort it requires; we desire to protect those closest to us and to preserve our heritages. These are all understandable feelings. When the Prime Minister of Hungary warns that the current crisis is a threat to Europe’s Christian character, I don’t necessarily disagree with him. Europe is experiencing a demographic change after nearly a millennium of general ethnic stability. Taking in refugees means political difficulties and likely cultural tension; it means a period of uncertainty and possible damage to Christian identity. In fact, it might even mean increases in violence and terror.
But what I find myself asking is if “Christian identity” can be allowed to trump what Christ commands of us. Like many Christians, I joy in knowing my faith is shared by billions. But what right have I to claim that faith if I fail to do my part to practice what the Savior commands? Jesus tell us that the tax collectors loved those who loved them, that the pagans greeted only their brothers (Matthew 5:46-47). He then tells us to strive for the perfection of the Father, which includes self-sacrifice, self-denial, and their concomitant discomfort. Though we may pray to preserve both, Christian practice holds precedence over Christian identity and we must do what we can for the least of our brothers.
*Photo credit: AFP PHOTO /MIGUEL MEDINA/Getty Images, Internally displaced Syrian families spend their day at the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp along the Turkish border in the northern province of Aleppo on April 28, 2013. The number of Syrians who have fled their conflict-ravaged homeland has surpassed 1.4 million, the United Nations refugee agency said, warning that it was no longer able to meet their medical needs.