Plenary Panel on Migration – Michael Czerny S.J.

Meeting of Popular Movements
Modesto, California,
17 February 2017

Plenary Panel on Migration

I’m very, very happy to be here. 68 years ago, I was a refugee myself. Czechoslovakia was in ruins, the Communists had taken over. My parents gave up everything so that my brother and I could have a life. And Canada welcomed us.

In the last few weeks, since Pope Francis asked me and a fellow priest to help him run the new Section on Migrants and Refugees, I’ve begun remembering my own status. Of course, it’s something that you never forget.

Never before have I had the chance to work on migrants and refugees issues, and now it’s my full-time passion. So I share my story with you, from long ago when the world was just recovering from World War II. To migrate, to be a refugee, was the first realistic and reasonable step towards life and hope. One way of saying what this conference is all about is that migration should be a step towards life and hope, and not a falling into fear and into repression.

Have you asked yourself why, out of the larger Department for Integral Human Development headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Holy Father would select a special Section for Migrants and Refugees which he wanted to direct himself? Well, if that question crosses your mind, I can share with you the answer that he gave at the last World Meeting of Popular Movements in Rome in November 2016. When he described his decision to put the Section under his own direction, Pope Francis explained his motivation. He spoke about his visit to Lampedusa, the Italian island that receives many of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. And remembering his experience, he said there is only one word that came spontaneously to his lips: Shame. Vergüenza. Shame.

Maybe shame is not a very fashionable virtue, a fashionable motive. That might be so. Yet shame is one of the deeper human experiences we have. It touches us deeply … to such an extent, in fact, that we try to hide it.

But shame is a way of recognizing two things. One is that something terrible has happened or is happening. And secondly that I am involved.

So in the depth of this word shame – “something terrible is happening and I am involved” – the Holy Father wants a special effort made on behalf of migrants and refugees and victims of trafficking around the world.

I hope that we will all join him in that effort. For we do share in the shame. What is going on around us is nothing to be proud of at all. And the fact that it touches us deeply is the beginning of our own change of heart and our getting into motion.

There are two things that our Section on Migrants and Refugees would like to do about the so-called global crisis.

One is to stop calling it global. True, migration might be happening all over the world, but it does no good to call it “global”. Calling it “global” means that the numbers get larger and the fear gets deeper.

When you listen to someone who has faced migration, who has been a refugee, who has been trafficked, you realize that the story is anything but global. On the contrary, it is very personal. And it’s not just a matter of understanding that people need to move. It is to appreciate this very person who moves, who picks up, who leaves everything behind, risks everything, changes where they live, changes where they want to earn their living and bring up their family. When you hear why someone has decided to flee, you can only respond, “If I were in that situation, I would have done it, too. Except I would have been less patient. And I hope I’d have had the courage.”

So there’s something utterly human. There’s something which deeply connects us with the reasons, the motives, the fears, the hopes that move people. And that is the energy we need to tap into if we are to accompany and to welcome our brothers and sisters.

The other thing we would like to do about migration is to stop calling it a crisis. Migration is something that humans have been doing throughout our history. It is what we do on this round planet where there’s always a horizon beyond where I am. So to move is practically genetic. It is part of the human experience. It enriches the experience.

And I would add a word about the famous market that touches so much of our lives. The market explains much of why people move. People would not move if the possibility of participating in the economy in a more meaningful way did not exist somewhere else. People don’t move towards unemployment, people don’t move towards starvation, people don’t move towards repression, violence and war. People move towards hope. One of their motivations is economic, just as it would be mine or yours.

So let us appreciate that migrating and seeking refuge are a normal part of life. They are not global, nor an emergency, nor a crisis, and they won’t go away. Instead, they remain more and more a part of our shared experience.

Finally, I would like to connect what we hope to do in our Section for Migrants and Refugees with what we’ve heard this afternoon regarding the United States. Archbishop Gómez and others have spoken about the importance of immigration reform. This is a long-term solution to many of today’s problems.

Our Section believes that the whole world needs immigration reform, not just the United States. Migration is a most important aspect of human life about which the United Nations and the international community have not been able to agree. So we would like to tap into the energy that you have here in the United States for immigration reform domestically, and translate it into international energy towards an international legal framework which would make immigration safe, orderly and regular, so that people moving from any country to whatever other country may enjoy the protection, the support and the security that everyone would want if they were forced to flee. We hope that, in the months ahead, we can work together towards immigration reform both domestically and internationally.

Thank you for the welcome that I have received. This Regional Meeting of Popular Movements is a chance to listen. Listening is always a good place to start, so that our response gets built, not on what we imagine or think is best, but on what people really live and really need.

With the beautiful Message we read last night, Pope Francis is very happy to be with us in spirit. He is looking forward to accompany these causes and these movements in the weeks and months ahead.

Thank you very much.

Michael Czerny S.J.
Migrants & Refugees Section
Integral Human Development