Laudato Si’ and Caring for Migrants and Refugees

by Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J.

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This sculpture by Timothy Schmalz was blessed by Pope Francis and given to the Migrants & Refugees Section. To learn more about the artist and the sculpture, visit: Photo and video courtesy of Migrants & Refugees SectionRifugiati.

“There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. . . . We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. . . . The poor and the earth are crying out.[1]

Center of Concern has asked me what, from my perspective, has changed since the release of Laudato Si’, what has not, and what gives me hope.

From the very beginning of his papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has encouraged the Church to accompany all people who have to flee. He wept with the asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants huddled at Lampedusa and Lesbos, major transit points in Italy and Greece. He brought some Syrian refugee families back from Lesbos to live in the Vatican.

Compassion also marks how Pope Francis wove the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth together in his 2015 Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home. The encyclical had a positive impact on international gatherings from the World Meetings of Popular Movements to the Paris Treaty on Climate Change. It continues to inspire practical actions to reverse climate change or desertification and to promote and integrate the newly arrived. Welcoming migrants and refugees has even helped some communities to revitalize.[2]

When Pope Francis created a special Section on Migrants and Refugees (M&R), he decided to lead it personally; and he appointed Fr. Fabio Baggio, C.S., and me to manage it. This small, action-oriented Vatican office helps the Church worldwide to support those who endure forcible displacement due to conflict, natural disaster, persecution, or extreme poverty; it also supports victims of human trafficking. This is a tall order: today there are 250 million international migrants, of whom 22.5 million are refugees.[3]

The 2018 papal message for peace[4] describes two linked sets of four actions and four stages to respond truly to the needs of forced migrants. First, we need “to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate”. Second, there are four important phases of the journey: in the country of origin, in transit, in the destination, and possibly in returning to the country of origin.

This past year I have been blessed several times to witness compassion in action in parts of this journey:

On Easter, I went with the parish priest in Lampedusa to the harbor at 3:00 a.m. to meet a boatload of migrants from Africa. He and his parishioners equally divide every financial donation to meet the needs of the arriving migrants and of the local poor.

In August, on the border in Chiapas between Guatemala and Mexico, I saw poor families—once migrants themselves—share not only food but their very hopes with youth fleeing the violence in Central America.

Different forms of community-based sponsorship for refugee resettlement are taking place in several countries, including the United States.

For Pope Francis, this “Church without frontiers, Mother to All, spreads throughout the world a culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place or disposable.”[5]

The 2018 World Peace Day Message invites all to respond at the local and international level, and Pope Francis repeats the invitation in this brief and powerful video.

The Migrants and Refugee Section has published 20 action points to guide the response of Christian communities.[6] It has presented these points to the United Nations to influence the ongoing negotiation of a global compact for safe, orderly, and regular migration and another global compact on refugees. The process began with the New York Declaration of September 2016. In December 2017, I participated in the Stock-Taking Conference in Mexico and the High Commissioner’s Dialogue in Geneva, where I saw participating states paying real attention to the circumstances of the most vulnerable. The prospects for adoption of the global compacts in late 2018 are looking brighter.

This hopeful message of peace addresses all peoples, as the angels’ message was not only for the shepherds, but for everyone today. For “the Scripture reminds us: Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it’” (Hebrews 13:2).


[1] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 25, 52, 246, available at encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si_en.pdf.

[2] See, for example,

[3] Of about 250 million international migrants around the world, 65.6 million are forcibly displaced and 22.5 million are refugees. Cf. U.N. International Migration Report, 2015. UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016.

[4] Message of Pope Francis for the 51st World Day of Peace 2018 Migrants and refugees: men and women in search of peace, available at

[5] Message of Pope Francis for the 101st World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2015, Church without Frontiers, Mother to All, available at documents/papa-francesco_20140903_world-migrants-day-2015.html.

[6] See

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.

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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.