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Jaime SotoJune 09, 2023
The Hernandez family, Venezuelan migrants seeking asylum in the United States and who previously requested an appointment on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) CBP One application, wait to attend their appointment at the Paso del Norte International bridge, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 3, 2023. (OSV News photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Unexpectedly, neighbors came knocking at the door of the Diocese of Sacramento Pastoral Center last Friday, June 2. Young women and men, mostly from Venezuela and Colombia, had been picked up in El Paso, Tex., and flown across the country on private jets paid for by the state of Florida. They now stood dazed and unaware of where they had been shuttled. When I visited with them the following Monday, the sense of geographic and emotional vertigo was still on their faces.

I listened to stories of the journey. Mentions of the “tren” referred to the notorious bestia that thrumbles north through Mexico, ladened with human cargo headed to the border. Some were quick to unburden themselves of the miles of accumulated misery that brought them to the northern end of California’s Central Valley. For others, their silence spoke. What could not be said haunted the gathering.

“Reality is greater than ideas,” Pope Francis taught us in his first apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (Nos. 231-3). As I sat in the room with the migrants, the Holy Father’s sober wisdom came to mind. Our neighbors brought seemingly distant realities very close. Suddenly, solidarity had to be practical and personal. They have traveled far for this awkward encounter. Their continental migration presented the complex, troubling realities of many brothers and sisters in the vast neighborhood called America.

“Reality is greater than ideas,” Pope Francis taught us in his first apostolic exhortation. As I sat in the room with the migrants, the Holy Father’s sober wisdom came to mind.

St. John Paul II insisted on seeing North and South America as one continent. The 1997 synod of bishops, during the preparations for the Millennial Jubilee was intentionally named, “The Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops.” Not Americas, one America. John Paul II saw realities that continue to challenge the defiant sway of geopolitical, social and economic ideas that build walls. These aching realities knocked on our doors here in Sacramento. Jesus’ inquiry from the parable of the Good Samaritan echoed in the hearts of many Sacramentans: “Who will be the neighbor?” (cf. Lk 10:36).

The migrant young people related the need to travel together for companionship and safety in numbers, “una caravana.” Guessing from the variety of towns and regions they named, there was little else in common but the sad, perilous pilgrimage that huddled them together along the way. Now, Sacramentans of different faiths were becoming part of the journey. “Who will be the neighbor?”

At this point, ambiguity still clouds the future. Even their hopes are filled with uncertainty. Some have family or friends with whom they hope to connect. Others only hope for work and a life different from the one they have escaped. One nagging certainty: They all had court dates in randomly assigned places, including New York, Texas, Florida and Los Angeles. Now, we take one step at a time, hoping that time will make the next step clearer. Maybe our companionship will relieve the loneliness, bring some light and make the steps to come less uncertain.

The realities of their journey and the shambled immigration system that tangle them with us loom large. These are greater than the ideas that many harbor about our unexpected neighbors. Their arrival in the River City is a sober reality from which we cannot turn away. The ideas that keep us apart cannot ignore the hunger, hope and determination that has placed the reality of one continent, one humanity in our hands.

What is transpiring in Sacramento is part of a long, sorrowful litany of migrants being shuffled around as fodder for the propaganda of feeble, failed ideas.

These events unfold while the Catholic Church in the United States implements the National Eucharistic Revival. Much attention is focused on reviving an awe and wonder for the real presence of the Lord Jesus in the mystery of the most holy Eucharist. The faith that pierces the sacramental veil of bread and wine offers us the possibility of seeing the profound realities of human solidarity in the real presence of humble, broken migrants at the doors of the pastoral center this past Friday. The traditional hymn “Tantum Ergo,” sings: “Faith for all defects supplying/ where the feeble senses fail.” Eucharistic faith dares to believe in realities that defy our feeble ideas. Such faith-filled eyes must also see beyond feeble ideas that have wreaked havoc on our borders and beyond.

The migrants arrived in a city whose name dates from the early Spanish expeditions, Santísimo Sacramento, the most holy Sacrament. Sacraments are not figures of our religious imagination. They are divine realities that are greater than our ideas. Sacraments do not exist in the mind. They are realities that beckon us to a larger horizon. The traditional works of mercy spring from this sacramental view. The encounter with the migrants becomes an epiphany of the one body of Christ. Strangers become neighbors to whom we cannot say, “I do not need you” (1 Cor 12:21).

What is transpiring in Sacramento is part of a long, sorrowful litany of migrants being shuffled around as fodder for the propaganda of feeble, failed ideas. The rhetoric of blame bellows from coast to coast. Bipartisan indifference leaves a tattered immigration system to unravel even more. Immigration reform has been postponed by seven consecutive administrations. The rule of law, national sovereignty and security are essential principles for an effective immigration reform, but they must also respond to the larger realities we see.

Pope Francis warned of ideas becoming detached from realities (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 231). The Catholic voice should not cower from the unfolding farcical political theater of immigration folly. We must engage from the realities—both human and divine—that we see and serve, believing in the prudent sober truth that “realities are greater than ideas.”

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