Each of you, the refugees who knock on our door bears the face of God and is the flesh of Christ.
– Pope Francis
The other day I noticed an announcement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that the World Youth Day Cross and Icon will be traveling across the United States this summer during the month of August. The Cross has been a part of every World Youth Day since its inception in 1984: the icon is of Mary, the Mother of God and Jesus. It was presented to the youth and young adults of the world by Pope St. John Paul II in 2003.
This particular Marian icon has the title Salus Populi Romani: the Protectress (literally the health or salvation) of the Roman People. It is an ancient icon, traditionally attributed to the hand of St. Luke the Evangelist, which was welcomed to Rome by Pope St. Gregory the Great in 590 AD.
This venerable icon (along with the WYD Cross) is making its way north from Latin America, and then return to Panama where World Youth Day will be held in January 2019. There will be five stops along the way in the United States: Chicago, Illinois, Miami, Florida; Washington DC, Houston, Texas and Los Angeles, California.
For me, the arrival of this beautiful icon of a mother holding her young son calls to mind the thousands of Central American and other asylum seekers who have made the dangerous journey to our border and have surrendered to immigration authorities asking for asylum.
These mothers (and fathers) and their children are in flight from unendurable levels of violence and criminality in “Northern Triangle” of their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Parents come with their children because they are understandably unwilling to leave them behind, fearing that when they grow older their sons will be forced into drug trafficking gangs and their daughters will be forced into prostitution.
Under harsh new policies intended to deter Central American refugees from entering the country, government agents at the border have been ordered to arrest and detain all adult asylum seekers and refer them for criminal prosecution as well as forcibly separate children from parents and place them in government custody.
Responding to this new policy, Austin Bishop Joe Vasquez, the chair of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration responded to this policy with this statement:
“Forcibly separating children from their mothers and fathers is ineffective to the goals of deterrence and safety and contrary to our Catholic values. Family unity is a cornerstone of our American immigration system and a foundational element of Catholic teaching. ‘Children are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb, a reward.’ (Psalm 127:3) Children are not instruments of deterrence but a blessing from God. Rupturing the bond between parent and child causes scientifically-proven trauma that often leads to irreparable emotional scarring. Accordingly, children should always be placed in the least restrictive setting: a safe, family environment, ideally with their own families.”
Referring all asylum seekers who enter this country for criminal prosecution will inevitably result in more children being taken away from their parents. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva denounced the policy of separating children from their parents as a violation of international law, saying that it :
“amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child. Children should never be detained for reasons related to their own or their parents’ migration status. Detention is never in the best interests of the child and always constitutes a child rights violation.”
The World Youth Day icon which will be touring our country in August depicts a refugee mother holding her child. This sacred image is a reminder (if we need one) that these impoverished and frightened families from Central America at our border are refugees and not criminals. Like Mary and Joseph trying to save their young son from Herod by fleeing to Egypt, these parents are in search of a safe place to live, for asylum for them and their families.
Imagine for a moment if the Egyptians treated asylum seekers the same way our country does. Mary and Joseph would have been arrested and put in prison, pending criminal prosecution. The Child Jesus would have been torn from his Mother’s arms and put in a detention facility for “unaccompanied minors” pending placement in the care of relatives or in foster care or deportation back to Judea.
But fortunately for Mary, Joseph and Jesus , their pagan neighbors acted with more compassion and mercy than those in public authority in our own country, who have hardened their hearts to the plight of these desperate and unfortunate people. Have they forgotten the Lord’s command to the Israelites (and to us): ”You too must befriend (love) the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) Or the words of Jesus himself: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35)
Presumably the Protectress Icon of the Mother of God will be allowed to cross the border into our country. Perhaps during the tour of the World Youth Day Icon, in addition to appearances at cathedrals and churches, young people in our Church might bring it to those places where children separated from their parents are being held or where parents are detained and kept apart from their children in order to pray for them and for an end to their cruel separation.
The border with Mexico is a long way from where we live here in Southeast Alaska, but the line dividing right from wrong is drawn across each of our hearts. Let us pray and act as well.
May we join with our Church leaders in their tireless advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers, strangers that Christ enjoins us to welcome in his name.
May those in public authority bring to an end their cruel and heartless treatment of these poor and desperate families.
May Mary, Mother and Protectress of Refugees intercede for these separated children and parents and bring them back together again.