A Message from the Bishop

Faith lessons from our immigrants

Just about a year ago, I issued a pastoral statement on immigration concerns, challenging Catholics to consider immigrants as our neighbors in faith. Citing the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, I urged reflection upon the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

In a year’s time the rhetoric from some political commentators and political leaders has grown even more heated. Needed legislation like the Dream Act, intended to offer young immigrants an equitable pathway to education, failed to pass in Congress in large part because of anger directed toward immigrants.

I want to reaffirm that the way we treat immigrants to our country says much about ourselves, both as Catholics and as Americans. What is now driving the debate on immigration are legal and economic considerations, yet as Catholic Christians we need to address a third element, namely our moral principles.

As Americans, we believe that every person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as articulated in our Declaration of Independence. As Catholics, we have a belief that everyone has a God-given right to live with dignity and men and women should be able to provide a decent home, opportunity and education for their children.

Immigration concerns have been a part of my life since I can remember. Growing up in Philadelphia I was strongly influenced by my Italian-born grandparents. They came to this country at a time when, at least for many European immigrants, the only barrier to admittance was if you were unfortunate enough to have a communicable disease.

Still, my immigrant grandparents did not have it easy. They never were entirely comfortable in communicating in English. My grandfathers worked hard at gardening jobs. My parents, of course, grew up learning English. Yet I am told that the first words I ever publicly uttered were in Italian, as a 2-year-old, at my grandmother’s wake.

Wake up, play with me, I told my grandmother in her native tongue.

As a young priest, I was sent to the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, a poor border area where Mexican culture was strong. There, while serving under bishop (later Boston Cardinal) Humberto Medeiros, I was able to learn Spanish. We regularly visited parishes where Mexicans worshiped. I can still remember hearing the bishop, who was himself a Portuguese immigrant, strongly asserting that Mexican-American workers deserved a decent wage. It wasn’t always a popular message among those who employed them.

Now as bishop of Camden, I’m finding that I’m using my Spanish as much as ever. My family’s story of immigrant life is now repeated throughout South Jersey. These new immigrants come from all over Latin America, and also Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, Africa and the Caribbean as well.

They have gifts to offer, not the least of which is their hard work, filling needed jobs and paying taxes and contributing to programs such as Social Security, even in cases where they will never collect.

As Catholics, we need to recognize their spiritual gifts as well. For just one example, I have been impressed by the example of Mexican Americans.

They live aware of God’s Providence and reliance on family. They often have little else. Our American credo of rugged individualism, in the context of their lives, means little. North Americans are familiar with the grinding poverty that afflicts much of Mexico, but what is less known is how Mexican Catholics embrace their faith despite a history of persecution.

During the 1920s the Church in Mexico suffered severe persecution. The blood of martyrs flowed. But that never stopped the Mexican devotion to the person of Jesus and his mother, celebrated in Our Lady of Guadalupe. That faith is the gift of Mexican Americans to our diocese and the Church in the United States. Other immigrant groups bring their own stories of faith as well, enriching our Church immeasurably.

It remains my hope that immigration reform will result in a simpler, more efficient way for people to come here legally. But whatever happens legislatively, as Catholics we need to be reminded that these new immigrants are still children of a loving God, no matter how they got here. They are still part of our Catholic family, members whose faith and trust in God have overcome all kinds of barriers.

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