Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you

Holy Family, entry into Egypt

By Fr Maurizio Pettena CS

August 1, 1952 marks the 60th anniversary of the Apostolic Constitution Exul Familia Nazarethana on the Pastoral Care of People on the Move by Pope Pius XII.

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom 15:1-7)

Chapter 15 of the Epistle to the Romans gives Christians the unnegotiable reason and the modalities of why and how to welcome others. The welcome must be Christian, in the sense that it must reflect the same welcoming one has received from Christ; (“Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you”); thus: Christ is the reason, Christ is the model and Christ sets the modalities such “ as Christ has welcomed you”. All of this is to be done “for the glory of God”. God is made manifest and given glory through the duty of welcoming which becomes, therefore, at the core of the Church’s ministry of evangelisation.

The end of the Second World War saw massive migration due the destruction brought about by the conflict, the new European political geography and the displacement of refugees and prisoners of war. This massive exodus did not go unnoticed by the Church. Local Churches were challenged and forced to quickly find solutions and provide pastoral care for the newcomers. The phenomenon of migration was nothing new to the Church. In 1800, the Bishops of the United States of America were confronted with a massive presence of migrants in their Dioceses and in their Parishes. The Bishops of the United States of America all agree that immigrants needed special pastoral care, but had different ideas about how this should be implemented. From 1800 to 1952, from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Pius XII various instructions were emanated by the Popes that stated the necessity to provide any form of assistance to the many migrants going abroad. These many ideas and different pastoral approach needed to be systematized so that there could be a clear set of principles and pastoral indications for the proper pastoral care to migrants.

This is the scenario which welcomed, on August 1 1952, the Apostolic Constitution on the Spiritual care of migrants, Exul Famila Nazarethana. (EF)

The Constitution invites the Church to look back at the experience of the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, to empathize with them as they are journeying towards Egypt and to ask why they had to flee home and seek asylum in a new country.

The Constitution makes it clear since its very start that this Holy Family is forced to seek asylum because of some form of tyranny. How can we not see in this Holy Family the many families who, forced by the new forms of tyranny, are forced to seek asylum to other countries and even to our own?

New forms of tyranny such as political persecution, the fear for one’s life and the tyranny of economic want are, today, as it was then, at the hearth of massive forced migration in present times.

Pius XII presents the Holy Family as a methodological understanding of every refugee family and gives a clear understanding of who this family is in every situation, across time, borders and cultures.

The émigré Holy family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and places the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear, or persecution, or want, is forced to leave his/her native land, his/her beloved parents and relatives, his/her close friends and to seek a foreign soil. (EF, Intro.)

Exul Familia is made up of two principal parts. The first part takes the reader through the history of the pastoral practice of the church towards migrants and refugees. This is a rather exhaustive compendium of all the official documents published over a long period of time.

The second part intends to offer pastoral guidelines and clear norms to make the pastoral care to migrants and refugees a global Church response to be implemented locally. The role of the local Bishops is a fundamental one. The Bishop is the responsible for the pastoral care of all who reside in the territory of his Diocese. Exul Familia establishes the responsibilities of the Ordinaries of the Diocese of arrival and departure. The Constitution clarifies the role of  what was then called Sacred Consistorial Congregation, now Sacred Congregation for Bishops, the competence and the function of the missionaries to migrants and of the chaplains on board. It also defines the task of the Pontifical College of Priests for Italian Migrants entrusted the the care of the Scalabrinian Missionaries.

Pius XII sees pastoral care as part of his own ministry as successor of Peter and states that “because of our supreme and universal ministry, we must continue to look with the greatest love after our sons who are caught in the trials and misfortunes of exile, and to strive with all our resources to help them(EF)

The icon of the fleeing Familia Nazarethana has become a common image in many parts of the world and it is so even in Australia where people come “from across the sea” asking for asylum and to live a dignified life.

The gift of hospitality when offered in service to Christ reveals how the “love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God”.(DCE, 16) “If only you knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him, and he would give you life-giving water” (John 4:10). In asking for asylum, our exiled brothers and sisters turn up unexpectedly as Christ does to call on our kindness. Our welcome, compassion and assistance to those in need, is not only pleasing to God it brings us closer to Him. Those who show such generosity will live full lives. Extending hospitality is therefore a blessing not only for asylum seekers but more so for the host community who is given the great privilege to serve God in this special way (cf. Mt 25: 38).

Exul Familia affirmed two seemingly conflicting rights: the right to seek asylum and also recognises the right of nations to manage migration flows across their borders. It is important to understand that both of these rights serve the same purpose – “devotion to humanity”.  The right to live a dignified life in ones homeland is the ultimate goal. The Church demands that all persons have the right to be part of a community and nation. The right of Nations to protect their borders is an extension of the right of all persons to live a dignified life in their community. It is not the protection of borders per se but the protection of community which in turn serves human dignity.

Sixty years on, Exul Familia continues to be a point of reference to understanding the moral obligation that we have towards people seeking asylum.

Pope Benedict XVI calls on the moral responsibility of individual states and the international community to avoid discrimination, to create a culture of solidarity and to make provision for hospitality and programs of resettlement: Asylum seekers, who fled from persecution, violence and situations that put their life at risk, stand in need of our understanding and welcome, of respect for their human dignity and rights, as well as awareness of their duties. Their suffering pleads with individual states and the international community to adopt attitudes of reciprocal acceptance, overcoming fears and avoiding forms of discrimination, and to make provisions for concrete solidarity also through appropriate structures for hospitality and resettlement programmes. All this entails mutual help between the suffering regions and those which, already for years, have accepted a large number of fleeing people, as well as a greater sharing of responsibilities among States.”. 98 Migrant and Refugee Message).

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Exul Familia, we in fact celebrate the pastoral concern the Church has always had for migrants and refugees. While trying to reflect upon the pastoral care for migrants in today’s Australia, in light of Exul Familia, we can experience on a daily basis the impact our migrant communities continue to have. Through the pastoral care of the Bishops, made vital in the ministry of many migrant chaplains, missionary priests, sisters and lay pastoral workers, we become aware of the permanent character of the migratory phenomenon through the implementation of pastoral structures both at local and national levels. Exul Familia contributed to the understanding that migrants and refugees represent a gift and an asset for the Church and made provision to create a synergy among the various Dioceses with the contribution of many Religious Congregations. The relationship between faith and culture is another pastoral point of great importance where upon the same shared faith becomes the universality where many different cultures find a common place to call home. Exul Familia insisted the first responsible of the pastoral care to migrants and refugees is the local Bishop and that pastoral care should always be made visible in the communion with the Diocesan Bishop, in communion with the Holy See.

Let this anniversary be an occasion for a renewed commitment and passion for the cause of migrants and refugees and the contemporary relevance of the mission of the Church and the project of the Father to reconcile all in Christ in whom no one is a stranger. (Gal 3:28)

For further reflection see:

For the translation in English of Exul Familia, see: Baggio, F., and Pettenà, M., (Ed) Caring For Migrants. A Collection of Church Documents on the Pastoral care of Migrants, St Paul Publications, Sydney 2009, pp 13 – 80.

Baggio, Fabio, Theology of Migration, Exodus Series 3, SMC, QC, 2005.

Bentoglio, Gabriele, Stranieri e Pellegrini, Icone Bibliche per una Pedagogia dell’Incontro, Paoline Ed. Torino, 2007, pp. 178 – 182.

Pettenà, Maurizio, The Teaching of the Church on Migration, Exodus Series 4, SMC, QC, 2005.