Pope Francis urges trusting openess to Refugees

Pope Francis has challenged Europe and especially European Catholics not to go down the route of ‘exclusivism and cultural fortification’ when challenged with the task of welcoming refugees.  Speaking at a meeting with the directors of migrant and refugee services from the bishops’ conferences of Europe, Francis was particularly sad when he saw these negative reactions in Catholic communities. “I will not hide my concern about the signs of intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia that are seen in different regions of Europe,” the Pope said. “These often are motivated by distrust and fear of the other, the different, the stranger.”  Acknowledging that the financial crisis had been “aggravated by the size and composition” of the waves of migrants trying to reach Europe, he reminded Catholics, “ of the universality of the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, which is destined for men and women of every culture.”

Often working in a hostile climate can discourage people but the pope reminded directors it was the Holy Spirit not our own efforts that mattered, “The Spirit, I am certain, will help us today to preserve an attitude of trusting openness, which will allow us to overcome every barrier and scale every wall,” Pope Francis said.  He noted that the Catholic community in many countries has been enriched and blessed by Catholics arriving from other countries, “The encounter with migrants and refugees of other confessions and religions,” he said, “is fertile ground for the development of a sincere and enriching ecumenical and interreligious dialogue”Pope Francis has been one of the most consistent voices on the world stage highlighting the needs of refugees. Similar leadership has been shown by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has just been re-elected, albeit with a reduced majority in Germany.  With the rise of the far right in various guises across Europe, even in Germany, the pope’s address will be encouraging to the many Catholic communities that are attempting to show concrete signs of their love and concern for people. 

The Jesuits in Britain has made working with refugees a priority.  Recently the new provincial, Fr Damian Howard SJ, has visited communities around the country sharing some of his vision for the future.  Work with refugees has been one of the key areas that Damian encouraged various communities to think about. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)  ‘At Home’ scheme has been running since 2012.  Through this scheme, JRS matches destitute refugees in need of accommodation with parishes and communities willing to offer hospitality.  Over the last year, they have had 13 refugee friends hosted by 13 parishes, religious communities and lay people.  The Mount Street Jesuit Centre in London is one of the Jesuit communities that has been hosting refugees this year.

The director of JRS, Sarah Teather, said “Hosts who take part in the scheme often report to us that they have found it a graced experience. It is not always without challenge and sometimes people are nervous about welcoming a refugee into their house in advance, but they often tell us that hosting has brought life to their community. They particularly appreciate being able to meet the person behind the label of “refugee” and get to know them as one human to another. It brings with it a realisation that refugees are just trying to get on with their life like everyone else.”  It is this culture of encounter that is at the heart of Pope Francis’ vision.  Sarah continues, “For refugees, it is more than just about providing a roof over their head, though that alone is a huge relief if you have been forced to sleep on a night bus, but it also brings a sense of inclusion within the community for people who have in every sense been actively marginalised. The sense of welcome and friendship is often transformative of people’s sense of themselves.”

At the moment JRS is only able to accept offers to host in the Greater London area. Although around the country various schemes have been co-ordinated by Caritas, Citizens UK and other groups. Anyone interested in being a host should contact JRS on uk@jrs.net.