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Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 24, 2023
Cardinal Seán O'Malley at the ADL New England's 12th Annual "A Nation of Immigrants" Community Seder at UMass Boston in 2019. Photo by Nathan Klima.

With the number of migrants arriving in Massachusetts outpacing available emergency supplies and housing, Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley is urging local Catholics to contribute resources ahead of the winter season. Describing the situation as “a major humanitarian and societal crisis,” the cardinal asked pastors in an Oct. 23 letter “to prepare your parishioners to be ready and willing to assist.”

“The challenge is the fate of immigrants arriving daily in Massachusetts, and in need of basic shelter and compassionate care and welcome,” wrote the cardinal.

The number of migrants needing assistance in Massachusetts mirrors situations in other states, with state and local leaders calling on the Biden administration to send more federal funds to help shelter migrants. 

Officials in Illinois and New York have urged the White House in recent weeks to do more to support the flow of migrants into those states, and in Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency in August, saying that the state had run out of emergency shelter space for families. Massachusetts is one of just a handful of states that has a “right to shelter” law, and it has seen the number of families being housed in emergency shelters, including in hotels, motels and college dorms, more than double in the past year. More than 7,000 families, or 20,000 people, are currently living in these emergency shelters, and the state says it is running out of money.

Massachusetts is one of just a handful of states that has a “right to shelter” law, and it has seen the number of families being housed in emergency shelters more than double in the past year.

“We are not ending the right-to-shelter law,” Gov. Healey said in a press conference last week, Politico reported. “We are being very clear, though, that we are not going to be able to guarantee placement for folks who are sent here after the end of this month.”

Last month, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement that compassion to migrants seeking refuge in the United States must be coupled with policies that enable people to stay safely in their home nations.

“Through our belief in Jesus Christ, we are compelled to respond with charity toward those who must uproot their lives in search of refuge,” said Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, who heads the bishops’ migration committee, “but efforts to manage migration—even when predicated on the common good—require that we also address the coercive forces driving people to migrate.”

Several local Catholic Charities agencies have responded to the crisis in various ways.

In New York, Catholics Charities of Brooklyn and Queens have added personnel to help assist migrant families. Shelters run by Catholic Charities of San Diego are housing migrants who often enter the United States at the southern border before moving on to other parts of the country. Chicago Catholic Charities assists migrants in finding stable housing once they arrive in the city, often from Texas and other border states. 

Cardinal O’Malley, who is in Rome this month as a delegate at the Synod on Synodality, laid out the steps the archdiocese has already taken to respond to the crisis in Massachusetts.

Cardinal O’Malley, who is in Rome this month as a delegate at the Synod on Synodality, laid out the steps the archdiocese has already taken to respond to the crisis in Massachusetts. Those include expanded capacity at three Catholic nonprofits and offering the state use of eight church-owned buildings. He also acknowledged that come winter, the crisis will only worsen, as “most of the recently arrived families are from warmer climates.”

With migrants being housed in more than 90 cities and towns, many local parishes have already responded, the cardinal said. But, he continued, “the challenge is for all of us as an Archdiocese.”

He asked parishioners to work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, “to collect and distribute items directly to those in need.” 

The letter suggests that parishes make use of donation bins for clothes and supplies and collect winter coats, boots and socks, plus toiletry items, ahead of Thanksgiving, which St. Vincent de Paul will distribute to local shelters. 

“Beyond these immediate actions, there may arise a time when all shelters are filled to capacity and weather conditions require immediate assistance for families in the New England winter,” Cardinal O’Malley continued. “If this occurs, offering short-term critical care and shelter in the biblical sense of ‘welcoming the stranger’ will be the appropriate response from the Archdiocese as a whole.”

“I offer this invitation in the spirit of Pope Francis who has asked us as Catholics to watch the ‘peripheries’ of society where suffering is located,” the cardinal concluded. “In our time, migrants and refugees are among the most vulnerable individuals and families in the United States. It is my hope and desire that as a Church we respond generously and effectively.

[Related: As New York’s migrant crisis makes headlines, Catholic Charities gets to work]

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