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How forced migration defined Francis' papacy



From the very first moments of his pontificate, Jorge Bergoglio signalled a departure in style from that of his immediate predecessors. His taking of the name Francis, his eschewing the full papal vestments, and his appeal to the masses gathered in Saint Peter's Square below to pray for him, before imparting his own blessing, all indicated a more personal, pastoral style.

xxxxxFrancis, most commentators agree, was elected on his perceived ability to address the need for reform of a Roman Curia increasingly beset by paralysis, inefficiency and scandal. It soon became apparent, however, that he saw this reform as a subset of a wider and more comprehensive renewal of the Church as a whole, one not so much theological in nature as, for want of a better word, popular.

Was this reform to be merely superficial in nature? It is almost in parenthesis that we note Francis' pontificate coinciding with the rise of numbers of forced migrants to historically unprecedented post-war levels both in Europe and around the globe. This presented Francis with a unique opportunity to develop and demonstrate his vision for a renewed Church, repositioned in and for a globalised world.

Notwithstanding the importance of other ethical issues, the complexity and nature of forced migration and its attendant ethical debates provides a unique challenges to Church. It has been notoriously divisive, in seeming contradiction to the consistency, since the papacy of Pius XII, of Church teaching on the subject. The difficulty is in the application, with responses necessarily involving ordinary people of all faiths and none, and institutions such as NGOs, governments and various multi-lateral bodies of the United Nations. Within the Church itself the issue points to arguably impoverished concepts of sin and God's mercy and justice.

Francis' approach was not primarily theological; it was in the first place pastoral and active. It was to travel and place himself at the centre of people's lived experience, withholding moral judgement, but helping its participants to situate their experience — and suffering — within a larger narrative and analysis. His homily, spoken in July 2013 during Mass on the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Italy, the landing place of many boat migrants attempting to make their way to Europe, was unequivocal both in its gesture of solidarity and in its universal challenge.

Francis spoke powerfully of the situation as the cumulative result of multiple injustices to which we all at some level contribute, the solution to which, it follows, we all become at some level responsible. In so doing he exposed the moral vacuity of isolationism, and simplistic reductionism, at the same time as enriching John Paul II's concept of solidarity, bringing it to the level of obligation and thus tying it to universal human dignity.

At the same time, it draws on a concept of wrong doing which has its origins in individual actions but which works at systemic and social levels. To not attempt to address the injustices that result can become sins of omission — as serious as any equivalent active wrong doing. The 'remedy' to such injustice begins with real and lasting personal conversion. Without this, and the humility that results, no way forward is possible. And without God's merciful love, even this step itself will remain theoretical and remote.

In the English speaking world, it is easy to miss the richness of the concept denoted by the word 'mercy'. In the beginning of the Year of Mercy, Francis called on its fuller meaning by using the Latinate form misericordia, literally 'a heart (cordia) for or with the poor (miseri). God's love for us is of this nature, just as ours should be for others.


"Francis' approach was pastoral and active. It was to travel and place himself at the centre of people's lived experience, withholding judgement, but helping its participants to situate their experience and suffering within a larger analysis."


In this manner Francis built on the theological work of Benedict in particular to contribute a more coherent response to the 'God is dead' critique of 20th Century theorists such as Heidegger and Buber, arguably lacking in the Church hitherto. God's justice and mercy co-exist. This avoids sentimental constructions of God which risk continuing the violence already perpetrated against victims of injustice while at the same time correcting an imbalance that sees a justice-oriented Godhead as sometimes overly remote, inhuman and utopian.

Francis' pastoral response went further to create a formal structure to ensure ongoing movement in the refugee area. The Dicastery for Migrants and Refugees has the mandate to draw the whole church — the people at every level — into this work. It is a profoundly active and communal vision and places 'Church' firmly back in the public sphere with such work as a valid and constituent expression of church life.

This active and public Catholicism stands as a critique of a more privatised, individualised construction of religion and national sovereignty. It has also resulted in the unprecedented contribution of the Church to the multi-lateral Global Compact on Refugees and Migrants in the process of being negotiated at this time by the United Nations.

Francis' major contribution has been to focus upon the most vulnerable and most intractable and difficult of human situations, finding a way to incarnate existing theological developments, to make them concrete for the Church as a whole and the world beyond it. Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, is the underlying step that sets this process in motion: it is to model and preach a God who is both justice and mercy that draws people — is attract too strong a word? — to want the conversion of which he speaks so credibly.



writerAustralian Jesuit David Holdcroft is currently conducting a strategic review of post-secondary education in forced migrant settings for the global Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). David worked for seven years as director of JRS operations in Southern Africa. The full text of this article is published this month in Grace and Truth, journal of St Joseph's Theological Institute, Hilton, outh Africa

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, Pope Francis, refugees



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Existing comments

Seeing that most people who subjectively feel themselves forced to move don’t do so because the opportunities to create art are better elsewhere, but do so because livelihoods are more secure elsewhere, isn’t a forced migrant an economic migrant and not a ‘refugee’? If so, change the international rules concerning people who displace themselves, instead of calumniating Australia’s entirely appropriate maritime response to the boats as being anti-refugee and demanding solutions that exist outside the proper scope of the problem.

Roy Chen Yee | 24 September 2017  

Pope Francis' leadership has justly drawn wide praise. He has set an example of humility and care. And the Church needed this example. Refugees are people who have been savaged by terrible circumstances in their lives. They are not people who have had the advantages of safety and plenty taken for granted in most Western countries. I pray for Francis who had the humility to admit himself "a sinner" as are we all. God meets even the worst of humanity with his unconditional love.

Pam | 24 September 2017  

Pope Francis is a supremely modest man. As such I'm not sure he wants to be remembered as anything other than a simple follower in Jesus' footsteps: remarkably similar to the simple brother from Assisi whose name he chose. The Curia has been vast, labyrinthine and unwieldy for centuries. It has a powerful inbuilt inertia and resistance to change all of its own. Powerful figures in it such as Cardinal Burke have attempted to stymie reform. I am pleased that the immense stress he lives under has not caused serious health problems to the Pope. The international migrant crisis, caused by vile kleptocratic dictators; the ongoing struggle against Islamic extremism; climate change and a number of other factors, such as the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, has reached epic proportions. Voices within the Catholic Church, including that of Father Edward Lucie-Smith in the English 'Catholic Herald', have respectfully suggested that the Pope's approach is not the only one. Our record in Australia, with what are virtually offshore prison camps, is not good. Certainly we could have housed the detainees in Australian country towns which need employment and would have welcomed the detainees and probably treated them well. This is a huge, worldwide problem, and, as you infer, not one to be solved by a 'quick fix'.

Edward Fido | 24 September 2017  

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Sometimes it seems that Francis is fiddling while his Church and Christianity burns. Perhaps he should start to fight the fire with certainty and determination and stop tossing fuel on the flames with his "reforms".

john frawley | 25 September 2017  

In response to Roy Chen Yee: If the choice is death or flight, what then? I do not think many of these people have a "subjective" choice. I do think that the responses of our governments, past and present, have been unimaginative and inadequate.

Peter Horan | 25 September 2017  

Roy you have identified one of the conundrums of the issue. The Syrians started moving on masse to Europe in 2015 for 3 reasons- they had not been working for up to 5 years in camps and had run out of savings and it was a particularly harsh winter and the war did not look like finishing. Their original flight had been forced by war but, yes, this was a decision and worth the obvious risk. How to respond? Interestingly Pope Francis does not distinguish between the treatment of migrants and refugees acknowledging that the laws relating to their acceptance will be different. The unspoken story is that wealthier countries have withdrawn much of their resettlement quotas so refugees are stuck for over 20 years average (and camps are not nice places) so there are strong motivations to leave if they can particularly after 5 years or so.

David Holdcroft | 25 September 2017  

Roy, if Mary and Joseph hadn't felt themselves "subjectively" forced to flee the wrath of King Herod in Palestine and seek refuge in Egypt, Jesus might never have lived to fulfill his mission to tell us: “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

AURELIUS | 26 September 2017  

Pope Francis first showed the world his " Yes" to ''Gaudium et Spes'', ( considered the enfant terrible, by the majority of the Cardinals at Vatican II ) by giving 'Hope' to " boat people', on the island Lampedusa during his first pastoral visit outside Rome, on the 8th of July 2013. The first clearest expression of his desire for a "church of the poor . . . and for the poor". We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle

AO | 27 September 2017  

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