Pope: Encountering a migrant is encountering Christ

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A cross stands in front of "Angels Unawares," a sculpture by Canadian Timothy Schmalz, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 19, 2023. Pope Francis and members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops gathered to pray for migrants and refugees around the sculpture, which depicts a boat with 140 figures of migrants from various historical periods and various nations. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Every encounter with people on the move as migrants or refugees is an encounter with Christ, Pope Francis said.

“It is an occasion charged with salvation because Jesus is present in the sister or brother in need of our help. In this sense, the poor save us, because they enable us to encounter the face of the Lord,” the pope wrote in his message for the celebration Sept. 29 of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

“Do not let us become possessive” of the land God has offered as “a temporary home. Help us to keep walking, together with our migrant brothers and sisters” toward heaven, the pope wrote in a prayer for the world day.

Pope Francis’ message: Encountering Christ in migrants

Pope Francis’ message and prayer, which focused on the theme, “God walks with his people,” were released at the Vatican June 3.

By emphasizing its synodal nature, the Catholic Church can rediscover its “itinerant nature, as the People of God journeying through history on pilgrimage, ‘migrating,’ we could say, toward the Kingdom of Heaven,” the pope wrote.

The biblical narrative of Exodus, with the Israelites’ long journey from slavery to freedom, shares a number of similarities with the stories of migrants today, he wrote.

“Migrants often flee from oppression, abuse, insecurity, discrimination and lack of opportunities for development. Similar to the Jews in the desert, migrants encounter many obstacles in their path: They are tried by thirst and hunger; they are exhausted by toil and disease; they are tempted by despair,” he wrote.

Yet, with every exodus, the pope said, “God precedes and accompanies his people and all his children in every time and place.”

Pope Francis shares a moment of silence with members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops as they pray for migrants and refugees in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 19, 2023. Behind the pope is “Angels Unawares,” a sculpture by Canadian Timothy Schmalz, depicting a boat with 140 figures of migrants from various historical periods and various nations. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“Many migrants experience God as their traveling companion, guide and anchor of salvation” and consolation, he wrote. “Thanks to him, there are good Samaritans along the way.”

God also “identifies himself with men and women on their journey through history, particularly with the least, the poor and the marginalized,” he wrote. “For this reason, the encounter with the migrant, as with every brother and sister in need, is also an encounter with Christ.”

Journey with migrants

The pope asked people to unite in prayer “for all those who have had to leave their land in search of dignified living conditions. May we journey together with them, be ‘synodal’ together,” he wrote.

At a Vatican news conference to present the message, Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the “journeys of despair and hope” of migrants and refugees “could be ours.”

“If we experienced similar pressures,” such as war, poverty, natural disasters or other negative factors, “we would flee, too,” he said.

“Often propaganda or ideologies give the impression that a forced migrant, refugee or displaced person is (on the move) for pleasure, for an adventure. This is false, false, false,” he said, and “it is a shame we have to continue to insist” on the real “push and pull factors” people are faced with.

Realities of migration

Loreto Sister Patricia Murray, executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General, told reporters that educating young children “is crucial” and must be done by families, schools and wider society.

Some research suggests that “we learn our prejudices by age 7. So that at a very early age we learn who to include and who to exclude,” she said.

The message to present is “our differences enrich us, rather than our differences divide us,” she said. “We’re presenting a vision of society which is multicultural and intercultural, where we learn from one another, where we are transformed and changed by one another.”

People need to be reminded that immigrants are not “coming to take, to take whatever. They’re coming to give, to give gifts, skills, language, culture and a whole way of living that will enrich all of us,” Sister Murray said.

Survivor stories: Triumph over trafficking

Blessing Okoedion, a survivor of human trafficking from Nigeria and president of Weavers of Hope based in Caserta, Italy, told reporters that like migrants, victims of trafficking are also often fleeing from “situations of oppression and abuse, insecurity and discrimination, lack of prospects for development.”

“One should also listen more to the survivors of human trafficking, their experiences of fear and pain, but also of resilience and courage in the destination countries where they are exploited,” she said.

Trafficked to Italy in 2013, Okoedion reported her traffickers to the police and received direction and help in rebuilding her life from Ursuline Sister Rita Giaretta, who has been assisting trafficked women since 1995 in Caserta.

Together with other survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation, she founded the Weavers of Hope association in 2018, which has helped about 150 girls and women trafficked to Italy, she said.

“We are not ashamed to be called survivors of sexual exploitation because, with our testimony, we would like every girl in the world and in Nigeria to have hope and to continue dreaming, and that those who are still victims may be able to find the courage to be able to get out,” she said.

Their work, she said, is “a sign of redemption,” of not giving up and “of not keeping our mouths shut.”

Carol Glatz

Carol Glatz writes for Catholic News Service.