Refugees and Migrants – Are they part of Our Common Good?

By Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, M.S.W., A.C.S.W., Secretary General, International Catholic Migration Commission

A group of refugee schoolgirls in Malaysia participating in ICMC’s awareness-raising activities aimed to prevent gender- and sexual-based violence. © ICMC/WEI Chien Tee

In my global advocacy activities, both as the secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) and as part-time attaché at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, I have been amazed at the positive response of diplomats and international nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocates to Pope Francis’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’[1]. Many who would pass by me at the United Nations when they noticed my Roman collar now greet me warmly and tell me, “I like your Pope and his encyclical!” Despite my joy upon receiving these positive echoes, I am concerned that too many still see the encyclical as focusing on climate change alone (as vital and important as that issue might be) and do not discern the deeper implications of Pope Francis’s call for “integral human ecology,” which requires a profound discernment of our relationship with God, with nature, and with ourselves and each other.

In the sixth chapter of the encyclical, the Holy Father issued a rather curious challenge – that is, to promote “civic and political love”: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it (220)…. Social love is the key to authentic development (231).” What a contrast between Pope Francis’s admonition and the demeaning political rhetoric that dominated the recent referendum vote in the United Kingdom and the political campaigns in the United States and Europe!

The bitter debate about admission of migrants and refugees into Western countries is literally the most glaring proof of the crying need to promote civil and political love in our world. In February 2016, while standing at the border between Mexico and the United States, Pope Francis described the current situation in this manner: “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.”[2]

On January 15, 2017, the Catholic Church observes the 103rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees. For this occasion, Pope Francis has decided to focus on “Minor migrants, vulnerable and voiceless,”[3] who often arrive unaccompanied in their destination countries, “are unable to make their own voices heard” and “easily become victims of grave violations of human rights.” In his message for this day, the Holy Father insists on the need to strike a balance between “the right of states to control migratory movement and to protect the common good of the nation … with the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants.” He reminds us that the migration phenomenon is part of salvation history, which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.” Echoing dominant themes of Catholic social teaching, and specifically of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis calls for far-sighted perspectives, “capable of offering adequate programmes for areas struck by the worst injustice and instability, in order that access to authentic development can be guaranteed for all,” and reminds us that “this development should promote the good of boys and girls, who are humanity’s hope.”

My own organization, the ICMC, received a mandate from Pope Pius XII, “…to unite and organize existing Catholic associations and committees, and to promote, reinforce and coordinate their projects and activities in behalf of migrants and refugees.[4]” I recently visited the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey; our staff there are deeply engaged in assisting families to apply for resettlement in the United States. These refugees cannot return home, and their current host country is unable to offer them permanent residence, employment, and long-term safety.

SG Visit 3.JPG
Monsignor Vitillo visits with refugee children at the ICMC Refugee Service Centre in Istanbul, Turkey. © ICMC

During my visit, I spent time with a group of children who were receiving instruction on life in America. As most children, they were enthusiastic and curious – they grinned from ear to ear and spoke of what they planned to do in their new homes. Each had colored a map of the United States, placed his or her destination state in a special color and spoke with confidence about heading to better and happier lives. But behind their smiling faces, I noticed pain and trauma in their eyes. They had witnessed terrible atrocities; several had lost their loved ones. I am sure that they were experiencing much anxiety and concern about how safe they would be as they boarded an airplane heading for parts of the world that would be very unfamiliar to them. What impressed me most about these children, however, was their sense of hope – they could imagine a better life for themselves and their families despite the many challenges they had experienced so early in life. They, like the Child Jesus, could still imagine the world described by the prophet Isaiah, where “… the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat. The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them (Is. 11:6).”

For me, the time with these child refugees was a real lesson in a way to promote “civic and political love” that seems to be so lacking in our contemporary society and living proof that refugees and migrants are part of our common good!

[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 24 May 2015, available at documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.

[2] Idem, Apostolic Journey to Mexico, Homily during Mass at Ciudad Juarez Fairgrounds, 17 February 2016, available at

[3] Idem, Message for The World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017 (“Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless”), Vatican City, released 8 September 2016, available at messag[15 January 2017], es/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20160908_world-migrants-day-2017.html.

[4] Pope Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethana, 1952, available at p12exsul.htm.

Reactions to Laudato Si

By The Rev. Peter J. Henriot, S.J., Ph.D., with Lester A. Myers, Ph.D., J.D., CPA, CFF, CGMA


How do I react to the monumental encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si? Well, thinking about how to respond to that question brought to my mind three things I should be very clear about from the start:

  1. I am a Jesuit, not a Franciscan.
  1. I’ve lived in Africa for the past three decades, not in the United States.
  1. I’m a political scientist, not an ecological scientist.

First of all, I’m not much of a “brother sun,” “sister moon,” “mother earth,” sort of person. To be honest, I probably had never read the Canticle of Francis of Assisi until it began appearing everywhere on the Internet after Pope Francis released his encyclical. My formation in Jesuit spirituality seemed a lot less “poetic” than the lyrical expressions of the poor man of Assisi. But recently I’ve been challenged to go deeper into the Ignatian view of our created order. A Spanish Jesuit ecologist, José Antonio García, S.J., opened for me the environmentalist reading (and praying!) of the “Foundation” and the “Contemplation” of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.

Simply expressed, the created world deeply reveals God’s loving presence and calls for a respect and cooperation in every aspect of my life. While our Jesuit Pope does not cite Ignatius in Laudato Si, he–and I–cannot help but be influenced by what is really a radical Ignatian ecological spirituality.

Second, my understanding of today’s environmental crisis is influenced by my experience of climate change in Africa in recent years. While some prominent people might deny climate change, no one who lives in the midst of the environmental disasters of drought and flood such as I have experienced in Malawi in recent years can be blind to such a reality.

Paragraphs 25 and 26 of Laudato Si especially speak of the consequences of climate change to the livelihoods of the poor in the so-called “developing countries.” Pope Francis notes that the means of subsistence of these poor “are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.” And these are the realities most threatened by the climate change affecting the people I know in Africa.

Third, by training I look at the responses that Laudato Si recommends primarily in political terms – and I’m pleased that Pope Francis is very much aware of the need for political action and the relationship between such action and our joint and collective economic decisions about consumption, savings, and investment. He repeatedly emphasizes that the changes that will really respect our common home require actions by citizens that will especially influence economic decisions: “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (179).

Certainly this political emphasis is urgently needed in these days of transition of leadership in the United States. A president who denies the reality of climate change and promises to withdraw from international agreements to promote economic growth is a threat to cumulative gains, however modest these have been. As Pope Francis notes, there is an overwhelming body of scientific research supporting the conclusions that (1) climate change is real and (2) human activity is its principal cause. To suggest otherwise, e.g, through the Orwellian substitution of “climate contrarian” for “climate change denier,” is to practice a modern form of misology. Likewise, to discount the credibility of scientific researchers and the legitimacy of their work by imputing political or financial bias to them is intellectually dishonest in the face of the enormous political and financial interests that have everything to gain through such denials.

However, even the political realm is only part of the story and Catholic social tradition recognizes a pluralism of institutions: multiple centers of gravity for reinforcing salutary policies and practices. It is telling that corporations have joined civil society organizations, universities, faith-influenced organizations, and even the military and intelligence communities to hold fast to the scientific conclusions about climate change and to support global collaboration through public and private institutions to mitigate and try to reverse this threat.

When Pope Francis asks such hard questions through the lenses of the Canticle, chemistry, and cosmology, he brings us to an encounter with both sobering truths and venerable tools of Catholic social tradition for engaging with them. This is very much in the spirit of Pope Pius XI’s call for subsidiarity in the wake of the Great Depression, Pope John XXIII’s invocation of socialization after the Cuban missile crisis, and John Paul II’s exhortation to solidarity in building a global millennial consciousness in the wake of the Cold War. Pope Francis, in voicing an ethic of care for our common home and one another in Laudato Si, enlarges our ethical vision, our willingness to see afresh the challenging signs of the times, and our resolve to think differently and to act differently to build a future worthy of our principles and our promise.

Opportunities for Hope

By Andrea Pinnavaia

Campus Misericordiae Vigil 2
Photo credit: Andrea Pinnavaia

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls for “a conversation which includes everybody” and “a new and universal solidarity.” He reminds us that, “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God” (14). This bond of fellowship served as the thread that wove together the Holy Father’s message to us pilgrims at the 15th World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland in August 2016.

Pope St. John Paul the Great instituted this series of international gatherings of young Catholics the year I was born. I entered the experience in Krakow without expectation or assumption—other than, perhaps, a bit of awe mingled with skepticism at the prospect of systematically corralling, transporting, feeding and just maybe transforming one million young people in six days, all within 150 square miles. I have enough trouble trying to accomplish this with a few hundred students within the confines of my own campus day to day. However, all of this and more came to pass enabled by the guiding hand of our Loving Creator, the inestimable charisma of our beloved pope, and the inextinguishable determination of the spirit of the youth.

Prior to the start of World Youth Day, my group of college students gathered with 1,400 friends for Vincentian Youth Days in a town just outside of Krakow. Our group attended World Youth Day as the United States contingent of the Congregation of the Mission, or the Vincentians, who founded and continue to guide St. John’s University where I am a campus minister. It is through the lens of our charism of bringing the love of Christ to the poor that I began my pilgrimage. I would realize only after World Youth Day that our Superior General, the Rev. Tomaž Mavrič, C.M., perfectly described the current of hope that ran in the streets of Krakow that week, the reason we all gathered: “. . . to be engaged with new fire in following Jesus, and with Him, through Him and in Him continue to build together a better world!”

Photo credit: Andrea Pinnavaia

Indeed, God was at work: in the joy of the volunteers, the understanding through languages foreign to one another, the safety of the pilgrims, but, most of all, God truly and really present among us. Mercy and Love, in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, overwhelmed my first days of this gathering. It was here that along with 18,000 other English-speaking pilgrims in Tauron Arena, or the “Mercy Centre,” that, with the help of Matt Maher, Audrey Assad, and Bishop Robert Barron, Jesus came to us in a night of Eucharistic adoration. It was here that I experienced the Spirit of God bring cheers of joy to an electrified silence of worship and wonder back to the deafening roar of young people empowered and unfettered.

The Holy Father arrived in Poland the following day, and not even the persistent rain could dampen our joy at welcoming him. We’d made the air electrified the night before and I was sure his plane was carried in that voltage. Thousands huddled together in small pockets around personal radios in Błonia Park hungry for Pope Francis’s every word translated into ten languages. There had been a report that the pope had suffered a fall that morning and we worried he wouldn’t be up to the task. After some ceremony and presentations, Francis took to the microphone and addressed us like a dear grandfather reunited with his progeny, peppering his words with exclamations and enthusiastically coaxing us with his questions (which we ate up: “Yes!” “Si!” “Tak!” we shouted together.) He shared his hope for us over these days: “What better opportunity to renew our friendship with Jesus than by building friendships among yourselves! What better way to build our friendship with Jesus than by sharing him with others! What better way to experience the contagious joy of the Gospel than by striving to bring the Good News to all kinds of painful and difficult situations!”

In these days I witnessed God at work in the great compassion and sense of camaraderie that characterizes this generation of Catholic youth. Delegations passing one another on the city streets passionately cheered the names of the countries whose flags they encountered and their cheers were returned in kind. People admired and promptly gave hats, pins, and other patriotic paraphernalia to one another. And I swear we must have set some kind of world record for most high fives in a single week. I witnessed strangers help carry a pilgrim in a wheelchair for one mile over the rocky ground of Campus Misericordiae; neighbors camping out on the field of the papal mass readily offered food to someone who had misplaced his or her bag of rations; new friends took turns carrying the backpack of someone struggling to complete the 10-mile walk in the blistering heat; and upheld the conviction not to leave others behind.

World Youth Day has become a prototype for the coming together of the whole human family that Pope Francis wishes, where brothers and sisters embrace, celebrating and drawing life from diversity, where everyone has a voice, and, for this brief moment, seeks the kind of “sustainable and integral development” that effects change. For, as Francis reminds us, “Young people demand change” (ibid., 13).

The Holy Father keenly and prayerfully recounted the solidarity we experienced that week, as he commissioned us in his homily of the final Mass of World Youth Day. Acknowledging the times we think less of ourselves, undervalue our potential, allow darkness to hide us from the light of God’s love and our capacity to love, and forget humanity’s “ability to work together in building our common home” (idib., 13), Pope Francis reminded us:

God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful! . . . As he did on Pentecost, the Lord wants to work one of the greatest miracles we can experience; he wants to turn your hands, my hands, our hands, into signs of reconciliation, of communion, of creation. He wants your hands to continue building the world of today. And he wants to build that world with you. . . . Life nowadays tells us that it is much easier to concentrate on what divides us, what keeps us apart. People try to make us believe that being closed in on ourselves is the best way to keep safe from harm. Today, we adults need you to teach us, as you are doing today, how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. You are an opportunity for the future. Have the courage to teach us, have the courage to show us that it is easier to build bridges than walls! We need to learn this. Together we ask that you challenge us to take the path of fraternity.

Auschwitz wildflowers
Photo credit: Andrea Pinnavaia

While on this pilgrimage, I had the opportunity for a different sort of recollection and reflection when I visited Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, places that offered stark reminders of the worst evil human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. There I became more acutely aware that Pope Francis was calling us to build a new world because our own is scarred and broken from the work of our own hands. As I walked the haunted dirt roads of the concentration camp sites, it was the wildflowers that called me to look more closely and then to look beyond. Poland, a place that had seen some of the worst horrors of history, also had produced some of the greatest saints of the modern era. If even this scorched earth could produce beauty and devotion, then surely, I thought, the young generation can sustain the hope for a better world.