Bishop discusses Pope’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2021

The Lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees for the Bishops' Conference has been discussing Pope Francis' message for the forthcoming World Day of Migrants and Refugees that will be celebrated on Sunday, 26 September.

Q: Tell us, in your words, how you see the importance of interconnectedness, the ever wider ‘we’ that Pope Francis talks about and what that means to Catholics here in England and Wales…

Pope Frances has spoken so often during his pontificate of interconnectedness – the interdependence which we have. It makes me think of a line from Saint Paul when he says the life and death of each of us has its influence upon others. And, of course, we know so well that that influence can be good or it can be otherwise.

We are all links in a chain. We can ask, what can the link – which is England and Wales – do to strengthen that interconnectedness when speaking of migrants and refugees? We need to explore why there ARE migrants and refugees. What reasons to people have for leaving their own country? Again and again the answer comes back giving three outstanding reasons for the movement of people: climate change, war, and poverty.

We can then ask, have we the power, or the means, of eliminating or reducing the effects of these factors which cause migration? And we do. In England and Wales, we need to be conscious of a lifestyle which increases global warming and causes sea levels to rise in other parts of the world – impacting directly on those who live in coastal regions elsewhere and try to make a living from the sea. The waters rise, their homes are flooded, they are displaced.

Secondly, war. Well, we know very well the war is waged with deadly weapons. They are manufactured in one country, exported to another. War is the result. Not surprisingly, people flee. It is valid to ask: what is the source of those arms? Where did they come from? Is our own country supplying weapons? They may bring a financial profit. The real result is destruction and displacement of thousands of innocent people.

Thirdly, poverty. As we know, there’s a plan to reduce the foreign aid budget this year. Humanitarian projects funded by that aid will cease. Poverty, and need, will increase. The natural consequence is that people will remove themselves from that situation, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. And this phenomenon of human mobility is often misunderstood. There is an ignorance for the reasons for migration and in England and Wales, I think we have to become more and more aware of the reasons for this displacement and, in intervening in any way we can, we stand with and support those who are being displaced.

Q: The Pope often talks about making the Church more and more “Catholic”, universal, working together, being inclusive. Now we always focus somewhat negatively on divisions and what makes us different, don’t we? Why is it so important for us to look for those opportunities of encounter, to learn from others and one another?

What you’ve said is so true. In this year’s message, Pope Francis makes a two-fold appeal. The first appeal is to the Catholic faithful asking them to appreciate it, who they are as members of the Universal Church and then to be true to who they are. The message this year is addressed equally to Catholics who live in huge cities, and Catholics who live in a small, remote villages. It is for those who live in developed European Nations and for those who live in Africa, Asia, South America or elsewhere.

Pope Francis is saying we should keep in mind that wherever you live there is a unity among Catholics which transcends national borders. That unity we enjoy, is unity in the spirit. An image I find very useful when speaking about the Catholic Church is that of a person who is 2,000 years old and has lived in every country, experienced every culture and way of life, spoken every language and drawn from all those experiences only what is good and life-giving. There is no single person, of course, but there is a Church. It’s very interesting that we speak of the Church as the body of Christ.

Pope Francis is saying we should be aware of all those experiences and more importantly, be open to those experiences – don’t close yourself off from them. Listen to them because they are part of who you are as a Catholic.

I like this story of a parish meeting in which there’s a proposal that the parish should assist an impoverished community on the other side of the world. An objection is raised, “but they are not Catholic”. But the answer given is, “we are not assisting them because they are Catholics, we are doing so because we are Catholics”. An essential element of being Catholic is to be missionary, to reach out. Sometimes that is in order to assist in a material way, but also, and always, it must include an openness to recognise that others have gifts from which we can benefit.

A missionary priest once told me that when he was being assigned his first mission overseas, he was told, “don’t think you’re taking God to them. God is already present among the people to whom you are being sent.” That acknowledgement that God is active, that he provides gifts to others which we can enjoy, helps to make us, as Pope Francis desires, more and more Catholic.

Q. Do you think there’s a need for us to be quite brave as Catholics in changing the narrative? Because, as we mentioned before, some of the narratives that are written are very negative and there are some tough questions to answer when it comes to migration. We’re seen very much as a destination country rather than a source or a transit country. So why should people be going all the way to the UK, for instance, when there are prosperous countries en-route? How, as Catholics, do you think we change that message? How do we suppress that fear and concentrate on how we’re so much better as a unified whole?

That rhetoric certainly has to be challenged. The appeal of Pope Francis is to move away from individualism and consumerism. His vision requires a change of mindset and attitude. Pope Francis proposes, instead of individualism and consumerism, solidarity and fraternity. A title in one of the chapters of a letter he has written is “A Heart Open to the World”. That sums up what is being put forward by the Pope to all Catholics – to be outward looking and to allow oneself to see and to be changed by the reality of the lives and circumstances of migrants and refugees.

Pope Francis says the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth cannot be separated. At the same time, we have to be aware that in listening to the needs of migrants and refugees, we are listening to God. So this requires challenging the rhetoric which is often put forward by those who are opposed to migration and assisting refugees. This plays on people’s fears. We need to present the truth, the reality.

On the promenade in Dover there’s a plaque which bears some words of Pope Francis. “Every migrant has a name, a face, a story.” That is our starting point. And that is our conclusion. In our outreach to migrants and refugees, we’re not dealing with numbers or statistics, we are dealing with people who have endured so many trials – who live day-to-day. They have known pain, persecution, war, suffering, hunger, poverty – on land and on sea.

And the message of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees is an appeal to replace that suffering with a genuine respect for the dignity of migrants and refugees by going to their aid and lifting them up so that the “I” will be replaced by the “we”. And the hope is that that way will become ever wider.

Q: Finally, Bishop Paul, in the Catholic Church every year we have many ‘World’ days for this subject, that subject – many days of prayer. There’s an awful lot we communicate with our Catholic community in England and Wales. If you had to give them one thing to focus on – something tangible that they can take from this day on 26 September, and perhaps beyond, what would that one thing be?

That is a very valid question, because, as you remark that Catholics are sometimes pulled from one interest to another – there are so many days in the year devoted to a particular topic.

I would suggest that for all Catholics on this day, for migrants and refugees, one should be conscious of the humanity of their brothers and sisters and how we are united to them because of our common humanity and that we should have a lifestyle which does not endanger their circumstances but be actively promoting their dignity.