Sunday, April 27, 2008

Samaritans and Immigrants

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 27, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 8: 5-8, 14-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter 2008]

Imagine that there were televisions in Palestine way back in the first century. And imagine that one night in the holy city of Jerusalem, on cable channel 7, anchor Katie Couricstein read the following news item (which includes a direct quote from today’s first reading):

“It was reported today that Philip, a follower of Jesus the Nazorean, recently went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard and saw the signs he was doing. For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured. There was great joy in that city.

‘And this just in: It’s also being reported that the apostles Peter and John were sent to Samaria a few days ago to minister to these new converts to Christianity and to pray for a fuller outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them in what Christians refer to as the sacrament of Confirmation.”

If that announcement of Katie Couricstein had ever found its way into the living rooms of first century Jews who had recently become Christians themselves, do you know what the reaction would have been?

In all likelihood, many of those Jewish Christians would have needed to go to Confession immediately—because they would have been screaming in anger at their television sets! And some of them might have actually thrown their sandals through the TV screen!

“Did you hear that, Miriam? Philip went where? Peter and John did what? They preached to them?! They ministered to them?! They healed them?! Oy vey! How dare they associate with them—with those half-breed foreigners! How dare they welcome THEM into OUR church!”

The Samaritans—the “them” being referred to in that little tirade—were the descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with foreigners after the collapse of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The problem was, to devout first century Jews, that kind of intermarriage was a big no-no! Consequently in their minds the Samaritans were nothing more than racially impure half-breeds, and were to be avoided at all costs. And the negative feelings were mutual: the Samaritans detested the Jews every bit as much as the Jews detested them.

In some respects, my brothers and sisters, it’s like the anti-immigrant prejudice that some people in our country have right now. Hopefully no one in the congregation today shares those feelings, especially since most (if not all) of us are the direct descendants of immigrants—and a few of us actually are immigrants!

Now let me be clear before I get into this: My purpose in my homily this morning is not to propose concrete solutions to the current problems involving legal and illegal immigrants in our country. Quite frankly, I’m a priest and that’s not my role. Hashing out those particulars is the job of the legislative and executive branches of our government. And it’s not easy! I was talking to Senator Algiere about this a couple of weeks ago and he said to me, “It’s a very complicated matter, Fr. Ray, and there are no easy solutions.”

This is one reason, incidentally, why we always pray for our civil leaders in our Sunday prayer of the faithful; and it’s why we should remember our president, our governor, and our state and national legislators in our personal prayers every day! Wisdom is needed to find the right answers to the many questions surrounding immigration and the securing of our borders—and wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

So our leaders need the Spirit’s help—whether they realize it or not!

But even though I won’t offer any specific solutions today, what I will do is share with you briefly the Church’s moral teaching on how to deal with immigrants from other countries. That, after all, is my role as a priest! I do it because even here in our own state there’s been a lot of confusion lately about where Catholics should stand on these kinds of issues.

No doubt one of the reasons for all the confusion is that the Church in her teaching doesn’t propose specific laws (nor should she!). Rather, she merely sets forth the moral principles that should guide a given society in making its laws. This means that good people can embrace the same guiding principles, and yet disagree on some of the particulars of a given law. We’ll see an example of that in a moment.

Now whenever we have a question on what the Church actually teaches on a specific subject, the first place we should look is the Catechism. With that in mind listen to what the Catechism says in paragraph 2241:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

The first point made there is that prosperous nations have a moral obligation before God to welcome at least some foreigners into their countries. Well I think it’s safe to say that we are one of the more economically blessed nations on the face of the earth right now, so clearly this message applies to us. Of course, it’s interesting, the Catechism immediately qualifies this principle by saying that we are obliged to welcome foreigners to the extent we are able to. There, obviously, is one issue that good people can and will disagree on: Where do we draw the line in terms of numbers? How many immigrants are too many?

Now the corollary to this first principle is that nations also have the right—as well as the duty—to secure their own borders! Please hear this: The idea of people sneaking over national boundary lines whenever they feel like it is not a Catholic idea! It’s not something the Catholic Church supports! As the Catechism says, “Political authorities . . . may make the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions”—like passing through a border checkpoint, and having the proper government documentation!

The Catechism goes on to say that those who are welcomed into another country should receive respect, appropriate help and legal protection. That idea, along with every other principle of Catholic moral teaching, is rooted in the notion that every human being has a fundamental, God-given dignity—since every human being is made in the Lord’s image and likeness.

But notice that it’s not a one way street! Immigrants are to be respected and helped and protected, yes—but according to Church teaching they also have duties and responsibilities to the citizens of the country that’s been good enough to take them in! Among these are the responsibility to obey the country’s laws (including, I dare say, its immigration laws) and “to assist in carrying civic burdens” (that includes paying taxes like the rest of us).

Let me conclude now by quoting two paragraphs from Bishop Tobin’s public statement of two weeks ago concerning immigrants here in Rhode Island. Our bishop took a lot of heat for the things he said that day, but in point of fact the basis of what he said was the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that I just shared with you.

Listen carefully to his words—they incorporate almost every point I just made:

I join the Catholic Bishops of the United States in calling for comprehensive immigration reform. Such policy begins with securing our borders and providing for an orderly and welcoming immigration policy. Every nation has the right, and even the duty, to have safe and secure borders. I encourage the members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation – Senators Reed and Whitehouse, and Congressmen Kennedy and Langevin –to recognize the immigration challenges of our State and to take a more proactive role in promoting positive immigration reform.

In the meantime, while our nation strives toward the goal of an effective immigration policy, the immigrants who are already in our State should be able to live without fear. They should not be persecuted, intimidated or harassed. Immigrants come to the United States to seek freedom and prosperity, to provide a better life for themselves and their families. It is an aspiration shared by all members of the human family. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are law abiding individuals, pay a variety of taxes and contribute to the economic development of our community.

My brothers and sisters, the Jewish Christians of the early Church learned to accept and to love the Samaritans who were converted to the faith by St. Philip. It’s my prayer today that God will help us to do the same with respect to the many good and law-abiding foreigners who come to the United States as so many of our ancestors did—desperately seeking a better life for themselves and for their children.