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J.D. Long GarcíaMarch 08, 2023
Pope Francis greets a woman and child during a July 8, 2019, Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican commemorating the sixth anniversary of his visit to the southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. (CNS Photo/Vatican Media)

Immigration—in terms of both policy and reality—can be hard to talk about. For some, it becomes a political issue. For others, it’s part of our family history.

In his first 10 years as pope, Francis has left a definitive mark on how the church and society as a whole talk about immigration. Who can forget his first visit outside of Rome to Lampedusa? In his homily there, he explained that the large number of drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean compelled his visit.

“The news was like a thorn piercing my heart,” he said. “Lord, we ask forgiveness, for those who with their laws and decisions have created situations that have led to these tragedies.”

In his first 10 years as pope, Francis has left a definitive mark on how the church and society as a whole talk about immigration.

I covered Pope Francis’ historic trip to Mexico in 2016, where he not only met with Mexican government officials and the bishops of the country, but also visited places—like Ecatepec, Chiapas, Morelia and Ciudad Juarez—where the marginalized of Mexico have traditionally lived. “He’s a human pope, humble,” said Cesar Cruz Coello, a florist in Mexico City. “But through his humility, he expresses his greatness.”

The people I interviewed felt Mexico was too often portrayed in the U.S. media only as a place of poverty, of drug and human trafficking. Francis, by his presence, helped create a new, more dignified narrative. “He’s making the peripheries the center of catechesis,” the Rev. José Felix García Benavente, a professor at the Pontifical University of Mexico, told me at the time.

Still, what caught our attention in the United States was when, aboard the papal plane home, Francis weighed in on the immigration debate in the United States. A reporter asked him specifically about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and he replied: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”

These last 10 years, Francis has used his office to recognize the fragmentation of society and the threats of radical individualism, aggressive nationalism and consumerism. He has decried our throwaway culture and recognized the lingering impact of colonization. Certainly, others before Francis used such terms. But because he is the leader of a worldwide church, Francis has given people of faith the vocabulary we need to discuss global migration.

Those who agree with Francis may need no further explanation for his actions or words. But for those who disagree and believe the pope is being overly political, I believe it will help look more closely at his Jesuit spirituality.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, articulates the “First Principle and Foundation” of Ignatian spirituality. I would argue it is a good place to start for those seeking to understand Francis:

God created human beings to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by doing this, to save their souls.
God created all other things on the face of the earth to help fulfill this purpose.
From this it follows that we are to use the things of this world only to the extent that they help us to this end, and we ought to rid ourselves of the things of this world to the extent that they get in the way of this end.
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things as much as we are able, so that we do not necessarily want health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long rather than a short life, and so in all the rest, so that we ultimately desire and choose only what is more conducive for us to the end for which God created us.

St. Ignatius defines human beings in terms of their relationship with God. The rest of creation exists to help fulfill this primary objective of praising, reverencing and serving God. Nothing—not health, not money, not honor—should stand in the way of the purpose for which God creates us.

Nothing—not health, not money, not honor—should stand in the way of the purpose for which God creates us.

But, as Francis has often noted, there are a lot of things that we allow to stand in the way. When we give into consumerism, we put material objects before God. When we are swept up into aggressive nationalism, we put our country before God. When we insist on radical individualism, we put ourselves before God.

Clearly, Pope Francis is not a politician. He is a pastor. I don’t think he cares that much about who we vote for, but he certainly cares who we live for. And if we live our lives for God, that will necessarily mean living our lives in service to others.

“To speak of a ‘culture of encounter’ means that we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone,” Pope Francis wrote in “Fratelli Tutti.” “This becomes an aspiration and a style of life.”

Francis recognizes that these trends that divide us and pit us against each other completely contradict the purpose for which God creates us.

To establish this culture, Francis has told us, we must overcome many barriers. Our society is fragmented, often along political lines. Society marginalizes many of its members—the throwaway culture of consumerism often throws away other human beings! Francis recognizes that these trends that divide us and pit us against each other completely contradict the purpose for which God creates us.

“The truth, however, is that we are all in the same boat and called to work together so that there will be no more walls that separate us, no longer others, but only a single ‘we,’ encompassing all of humanity,” Francis wrote in his 2021 World Day of Migrants and Refugees message.

This all-encompassing “we,” Pope Francis has taught us, will only come about through reconciliation, cooperation with the healing power of the Holy Spirit and recognition that we are part of the same human family. We will only see each other as siblings if we are willing to accompany each other.

“The current influx of migrants can be seen as a new ‘frontier’ for mission, a privileged opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ and the Gospel message at home, and to bear concrete witness to the Christian faith in a spirit of charity and profound esteem for other religious communities,” Pope Francis said in 2017 in his address to the National Directors of Pastoral Care for Migrants.

These are not the words of a politician. Frankly, they are not the words of someone who is just a humanitarian. They are the words of a Jesuit, of a person who has committed his life to bringing his fellow human beings closer to God and to each other. We would do well in our ongoing immigration debate to make the same commitment.

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