Moving is in our genes

Migrants and refugees: “Moving is built into our genes”

Canadian Jesuit Fr Michael Czerny is undersecretary of the newly formed Section for Migrants and Refugees in the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, a position that reports directly to the pope. Fr Czerny was himself a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia until he and his family were welcomed by Canada 68 years ago. Prior to becoming undersecretary, Fr Czerny was counsellor to Cardinal Peter Turkson at the Council for Justice and Peace, where he worked on human rights and the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home. This interview with Thomas Reese SJ (edited for length) was first published on 6 March 2017 in the blog Faith and Justice. Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111.

How do you at the Vatican deal with the huge migration and refugee crisis in the world today?

The first thing we do is we say that it’s not a crisis. Migration and even taking refuge have been part of human life since the beginning. We’ve always been moving. If we hadn’t moved, we wouldn’t be the human family that we are today. Moving is built into our genes; it’s part of us.

Secondly, calling it a crisis puts it in the category of emergencies, which need a quick and not necessarily high-quality response. Whereas human mobility, and the fact that many people in the world today are forced to flee, needs a high-quality, steady response.

Fr Michael Czerny SJ

Fr Michael Czerny SJ
(Photo: C.Hincks/CJI)

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the decision to migrate is a very, very significant decision, a very difficult decision, and one that deserves the sympathy of everyone. It is a decision that “where I am, or where we as a family are right now, is nonviable. We can’t stay here; we’ve got to go.”

It’s a choice that people make, I would say, very rationally. They make the right decision. If you put yourself in the shoes of a person who has been forced to flee, you will probably say, “I would have made the same decision, except I would have made it quicker. I would have fled sooner. I wouldn’t have even waited that long or been that patient.”

Calling it a crisis blinds us to that — to the depth of the issue, the depth of the human experience, and also the reasonableness and deep humanity of the decision.

You don’t like the word crisis, but still, how does your section respond to what’s happening in terms of people moving around the world?

Our mission is actually to help the bishops of the world to answer your question. The section is not itself the action centre; it is there to help and support, to encourage and orient bishops. Since in the Catholic church there are about 3,000 dioceses, you could ask your question 3,000 times and piece together an answer, because each bishop, each diocese, has a different reality. What we hope for is that the church within those dioceses will find the means, the inspiration and the resources to meet what’s happening in their borders.

Your section reports directly to the pope… Migrants and refugees are clearly a major concern for him.

That’s right. This issue was the first towards which he made a very public and indeed dramatic gesture by going to Lampedusa [an Italian island that is a point of arrival for many migrants]. Maybe our section is the answer to the question: besides the symbolic gestures, the visits, the adopting a few families and bringing them back to the Vatican, what more could he actually do?

He remains the Roman pontiff, he remains the bishop of Rome; he can’t actually do that many things himself, practically, but he can see to it that this mission of his is carried out. That’s why I think he has chosen to direct the section himself.

His stress is on the work of the dioceses and getting them involved.

When we say “getting the dioceses involved,” it might suggest that they aren’t involved. That’s not at all the case. By being in touch with all the dioceses, we will get a much clearer and richer picture of actually what’s going on. As you know, the church is much better at doing things than at letting people know about them.

Internally displaced Syrians in Sahnaya carry food from a field kitchen.(Photo: JRS Syria)

Internally displaced Syrians in Sahnaya carry food from a field kitchen. (Photo: JRS Syria)

In fact, the Scalabrinian Missionaries, the religious order of my co-undersecretary, Fr. Baggio, was founded in 1887 to care for migrants. Here is a religious order (and there are branches for both men and women) whose whole vocation is to minister to these people.

We’re not saying that we’re doing everything we can. We’re not saying that there aren’t many, many things to be discovered, but I am saying that there are good practices and positive stories that also need to be dug up and told and not just inventories of unmet needs and critical needs.

How do you get the story out about the needs of migrants and refugees and what the church is doing?

Right from the start, we’ve opted to begin with social media. So, whether it’s using Twitter [@M_RSection] or Facebook or LinkedIn, every day we publish in four or five languages, a different story in each language.

Occasionally, they’re something we’ve put together ourselves, but often it’s something that we find. We’re sending these out and people who are on our lists are receiving answers to your question every day from different parts of the world in the various languages. It is in itself already a good service. It’s what I think we can do well — receive from everywhere and then share and put things into context and perspective.

You’re not the first or only organization in the church to work on this, so what about the others?

Even as we speak, there is a forum on migration, which the Scalabrinis sponsor. This is the third or fourth such forum. On the day before the forum opened, there was a meeting of Catholic organizations involved in refugee and migrant work. At this meeting, our new section introduced itself. Our hope is that we will be the base or the hub for a network among Catholic organizations. We will help to facilitate communication, but then also collaboration, division of labor, avoidance of overlap or competition, and more concerted efforts.

Something like Caritas International, except focused on migrants?

Caritas is a federation, so we’re not federating and we’re not the hub of a federation. We’re just basically the home of a network. But given our location and our mission, I think it’s cool that we can do this. I think it’s logical that we should do it. It’s gratifying that everybody, as far as I know, is very, very happy that there is someone now who has the mandate to do that and to be a good exchange point, a good crossroads for everyone.

Your section really is different from the Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People because you’re doing a comprehensive look at the situation.

That’s right. You could say that our mission or our ambition is as vast as the phenomenon. If it’s happening, then it’s of concern to us; which is to say, if it’s happening, it’s of concern to the church. This is exactly what the church said of herself in the first sentence of Gaudium et Spes. If this is a human reality, then it’s our reality. If people are suffering, it’s our suffering. If people are getting on with it and rejoicing, it’s our rejoicing.

We would like to help that mission of Gaudium et Spes be realized in every diocese and in every bishops’ conference, because there is no local church that does not have people leaving, people passing through, people arriving or people returning to its territory.

What is your reaction to the immigration debate in the United States?

Archbishop Jose Gómez of Los Angeles and others have spoken about the importance of immigration reform in the United States. This is a long-term solution to many of today’s problems.

Our section believes that the whole world needs immigration reform, not just the United States. Migration is a most important aspect of human life about which the United Nations and the international community have not been able to agree. So, we would like to tap into the energy that you have here in the United States for immigration reform domestically, and translate it into international energy towards an international legal framework that would make immigration safe, orderly and regular, so that people moving from any country to whatever other country may enjoy the protection, the support and the security that everyone would want if they were forced to flee. We hope that, in the months ahead, we can work together towards immigration reform both domestically and internationally.

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(Banner photo by M. Lopez-Villegas/CJI)