By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
With the Feast of the Epiphany we celebrated the culmination of the Christmas season, ending officially with the Baptism of the Lord this past Monday. We are well into the new year, but this past week has been noteworthy as the National Migration Week – designated such by the American Catholic Bishops for more than 25 years. Why is there such a unique commemoration at this time of year? Read on, please.
Throughout the Christmas season we celebrated, and hopefully experienced, the glory of God shining on the face of Jesus Christ. If so, we have followed in a long line for nearly two thousand years in the light of the Incarnation. Beginning with the announcement of the angels, embraced eagerly and joyfully by the shepherds, and resolutely sought by the Magi, the Infancy Narratives laid the foundation for all disciples in succeeding generations right up to the present moment. Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians described this experience for all believers in the Word made flesh. “God designed it so that his light shines in our hearts in order to give us the light of knowing his glory revealed on the face of Jesus Christ.” (2Cor 4,6)
In the history of salvation that is celebrated in the Infancy Narratives the joy that breaks forth from an encounter with Jesus Christ is palpable and irresistible. When anyone encounters the mercy of God we, as women and men, discover or rediscover hope for our lives, nourishment for our hearts, minds, and souls. In turn this new life of salvation is intended to be diffused far and wide in ever increasing circles for all time in communities of faith, hope and love, of justice, peace and service in our homes and in our world.
But the story of the Nativity in the lives of Mary and Joseph also reveals the courage that is required to stay on the path of life that directs us to God in this world in the face of daunting circumstances. Beyond sentimentality and pious observances, we have a paradigm story for all families and individuals who are forced to abandon hearth and home. The Virgin Mother and Saint Joseph had to travel during the final days of her pregnancy. When they arrived in Bethlehem they received a little bit of help, and although not much, it was important. As strangers, they did not have a place to stay, and the time for the Lord’s birth was at hand. It was not the intention of Saint Luke and Matthew to dwell on the specific human concerns of the holy family, but we can imagine that midwives, who are still on hand in our time for the majority of births in our world, were certainly present to help Mary deliver, and to pick up Joseph when he collapsed on the straw.
After an arduous journey, hunger and thirst had to weigh heavily upon these strangers from elsewhere, and we are grateful for those nameless folks who provided nourishment for spirit, mind, and body. And on this feast of the Epiphany, we hear that the star led the Magi to the house were Mary and the child were lodging. Thanks to the hospitality and generosity of the locals, the holy family had a roof over their heads.
From strangers to refugees, the story continues. As soon as the three Kings departed by another route, forever changed, Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus had to flee for their lives. We know of the brutality of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents, including his own son in his lust to preserve his power. It is historically documented that when Cesar Augustus, the Emperor who had started it all in motion with his mandated census, received the news of this massacre ordered by Herod he said in amazement at such brutality, that it was better to be one of Herod’s pigs (because Jews did not eat pork) than one of his children. In that moment Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees who fled to Egypt where they remained for two or three years. There they received the hospitality of an unknown circle of people allowing them to live, work and mature as a family. Finally, they returned to Nazareth in northern Israel because Herod’s son was the king, and the threat of death was real.
It becomes clear that early January is an ideal time to grow in awareness at the plight of nearly 65 million in our world today who like the holy family have been forced to migrate and/or flee from hearth and home for a host of reasons. The theme for this year’s National Migration Week is taken from one of Pope Francis’ benchmark expressions, “To Create a Culture of Encounter.” Like the shepherds and the Magi, once we have encountered Jesus Christ our lives are never the same.
The goals for this week have remained the same for more than 25 years: to educate on the complex reality of migration which includes migrants, immigrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking, to encourage a culture of encounter in which Catholic communities open their hearts and hands to welcome the newcomers, not as strangers, but as members of the Body of Christ, to give thanks for the many in our society who are like those who helped the holy family.
In my travels around the diocese, and in my work at Catholic Charities, I am inspired to see the development of the sought after goals of the National Migration Week. People in the Church and throughout the state are serving the migrant communities who are here legally to pick and process the crops that we are accustomed to enjoy. Many are working to support those who have been victims of human trafficking whose stories cry out to heaven for justice and compassion.
Immigrants, documented and undocumented, are contributing significantly to the economic and social wellbeing of our State and local communities, including our parishes throughout the diocese. Catholic Charities since the aftermath of the Vietnam war in the late 70’s, in collaboration with a network of professional and compassionate people in our state, has been welcoming and serving unaccompanied refugee minors from around the world. These young people have thrived, and are now productive citizens of our country.
Putting aside the rhetoric of the recent presidential campaign and election, and the inaction and callousness of all Congresses and presidents for decades, there are many in our state and in our country who are encountering, accompanying, and befriending those who have arrived at our doorsteps. The National Migration Week is one week of 52 but it comes as the New Year dawns, and we pray that its noble goals will plant seeds and bear fruit throughout the year.
As the new year progresses we will be implementing the refreshed Mission, Vision, and Pastoral Priorities for the diocese. In harmony with the goals of the National Migration Week, I leave you with our diocesan Vision. To serve others — to embrace diversity — to inspire discipleship. May God who has begun the good work in us bring it to fulfillment on the day of Christ Jesus.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz