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Pope Francis

His House

I recently saw two films on Netflix that got me thinking about the whole question of immigrants. They were His House (2020), about a married couple who flee South Sudan, cross the Mediterranean Sea, and end up in England, and Atlantics (2019), about a young couple parted when the man leaves another African country, Senegal, to risk a perilous Atlantic-Ocean, small-boat voyage to Spain.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, in one of his final presidential trips, went to Texas to give a speech near the US-Mexico border wall that he has reinforced and added to, primarily to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the USA. Ever since he announced that he was running for president in 2015, he has railed against illegal immigrants or even legal ones from countries he doesn’t like.

  • The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc” (2015).
  • "Haiti? Why do we want people from Haiti [and Africa] here? Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries here? We should have more people from places like Norway" (2018).

During his years as president some 5,500 children of parents trying to enter the USA illegally were separated from their parents, many of whom were then deported without their children.

In His House enough pre-England scenes are provided for viewers to realize that its chief characters (Bol and his wife, Rial) fled South Sudan because of the violence there, and made the perilous small-boat journey across the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. On the voyage they lost their daughter in the rough waters. Once in England in their government-prescribed house, their sea experiences continue to cause them nightmares; and they are haunted by ghosts and demons, which lead them to attack the walls of their house and displease the government officials with whom they deal.

Quick background research reveals that civil war (including ethnic killing) occurred in South Sudan between 2013 and early 2020. By mid-2018 about 400,000 people had been killed in the war, many resulting from ethnic conflicts, and some 2.5 million people had fled South Sudan. Violence, hunger and famine, and economic deterioration all contributed to the exodus.

The situation in Senegal, whose capital city, Dakar, is on Africa’s Atlantic coast, has not been as troubled as South Sudan, but still has enough problems to prod young men like Souleiman, the main male character in Atlantics, to risk his life in a small boat trying to get to Spain. He had been among a group of construction workers whose employer had not paid them for several months. (For more thorough reviews of His House and Atlantics, see here and here.)

His House

His House

Those from Africa who boarded small boats to cross dangerous waters in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere were just a small percentage of the approximately 80 million people globally who “have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18.” In recent years countries such as Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Syria have produced the most such refugees.

In countries such as the USA, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic right-wing political movements have strengthened as a result of opposition to increased refugees and other migrants. One of the right-wing’s most strenuous objections is that such immigrants often bring alien cultures and religions (like Islam) with them and resist accepting the ways of the countries in which they wish to reside.

In opposition to such right-wing reaction has been the voice of Pope Francis. On September 29, 2019, the Catholic Church’s 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he celebrated Mass, preached, and inaugurated in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square a 20-foot tall bronze sculpture depicting 140 migrants and refugees from different historical periods, including Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany and, more recently, Syrians and Africans fleeing from war, poverty, and famine.

In his sermon, Francis said that “wars only affect some regions of the world, yet weapons of war are produced and sold in other regions which are then unwilling to take in the refugees produced by these conflicts. Those who pay the price are always the little ones, the poor, the most vulnerable. . . . Our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. . . . If we put those four verbs into practice, we will help build the city of God and man. We will promote the integral human development of all people. We will also help the world community to come closer to the goals of sustainable development that it has set for itself and that, lacking such an approach, will prove difficult to achieve.”

The Jesuit magazine America noted that “ever since becoming pope on March 13, 2013, Francis, the son of migrants [from Italy to Brazil], has sought to awaken the consciences of people worldwide to the plight of migrants and refugees, which is the result of the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War.”

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More recently in Chapter Four of his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship" (Oct. 2020), Francis has much more to say on immigrants and refugees, at times quoting what he had said previously. (See here for reflections on other aspects of the encyclical.) He repeated, for example, what he had said earlier about the need to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” immigrants. But he also spelled out “certain indispensable steps, especially in response to those who are fleeing grave humanitarian crises.” And he provided the following examples:

increasing and simplifying the granting of visas; adopting programmes of individual and community sponsorship; opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees; providing suitable and dignified housing; guaranteeing personal security and access to basic services; ensuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents; equitable access to the justice system; the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive; freedom of movement and the possibility of employment; protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education; providing for programmes of temporary guardianship or shelter; guaranteeing religious freedom; promoting integration into society; supporting the reuniting of families; and preparing local communities for the process of integration.

Once a government admitted immigrants, the pope thought it should provide paths to “full citizenship” and not just maintain them in some sort of second-class status.



He acknowledged that “ideally, unnecessary migration ought to be avoided; this entails creating in countries of origin the conditions needed for a dignified life and integral development.” He recognized that creating such conditions might require assistance from wealthier countries, but this help should not be linked “to ideological strategies and practices alien or contrary to the cultures of the peoples being assisted.” But until such improved conditions came into being, Francis thought that better-off nations were “obliged to respect the right of all individuals to find a place that meets their basic needs and those of their families, and where they can find personal fulfilment.”

In a section entitled “Reciprocal Gifts,” the pope emphasized that “the arrival of those who are different, coming from other ways of life and cultures, can be a gift” to the countries that accept them. While realizing that preserving differing cultures is important and valuable--“a country that moves forward while remaining solidly grounded in its original cultural substratum is a treasure for the whole of humanity”--Francis also insisted that “cultures should be encouraged to be open to new experiences through their encounter with other realities, for the risk of succumbing to cultural sclerosis is always present.”

The pope’s approach to refugees and immigrants fits in nicely with his whole approach to international relations. “We need to develop the awareness that nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved.” Whether it is climate change or poverty, he believes that only a global approach will be successful: “The true worth of the different countries of our world is measured by their ability to think not simply as a country but also as part of the larger human family.”



He criticizes “narrow forms of nationalism” that “err in thinking” that countries “can develop on their own, heedless of the ruin of others, that by closing their doors to others they will be better protected. Immigrants are seen as usurpers who have nothing to offer. This leads to the simplistic belief that the poor are dangerous and useless, while the powerful are generous benefactors. Only a social and political culture that readily . . . welcomes others will have a future.” He is especially critical of those who would “set them [young people] against other young people, newly arrived in their countries, and who would encourage them to view the latter as a threat, and not possessed of the same inalienable dignity as every other human being.”

The approach of Pope Francis to immigrants not only differs greatly from that of Donald Trump, but also bears a strong resemblance to that of Frederick Douglass. In 1869, the great abolitionist stated that “our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.” Douglas advocated a “composite nation.” Historian Jill Lepore calls the concept “a strikingly original and generative idea, about a citizenry made better, and stronger, not in spite of its many elements, but because of them.” 

In the late 1860s, there were great fears regarding Chinese immigrants, but Douglass thought that they could enrich our nation. “Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.”

Now, a century and a half latter, can there be any doubt that Chinese or other immigrants have enriched our nation? In his 1958 book, A Nation of Immigrants, John Kennedy stated that “the contribution of immigrants can be seen in every aspect of our national life. We see it in religion, in politics, in business, in the arts, in education, even in athletics and entertainment. There is no part of our nation that has not been touched by our immigrant background. Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.’’ President Reagan also thought that immigrants were ‘‘one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.”

Following Trump’s disastrous view of most immigrants, there are welcoming signs that our incoming president Joe Biden, has views more akin to that of Pope Francis. Although the difficulty of crafting a humane but realistic plan for the treatment of refugees and immigrants should not be underestimated, Biden (a Catholic) told Francis in a phone call the week after our November election that they shared a “belief in the dignity and equality of all humankind.”

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Further, Biden hoped they could work together on issues such as “caring for the marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants.” Such cooperation with Francis and good-willed people of other nations will certainly be a welcome change from our years of Trumpian trauma.

Walter G. Moss