In his epic speech to the cardinal-electors before the conclave that would elect him pope last year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio told his fellow cardinals that he believed that the Church must “come out of herself and go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: [where] the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance…and of all misery [dwell].”
Boston Cardinal O’Malley and his brother bishops in the United States clearly got the memo. Tuesday, the Boston prelate and eight others gathered at the border between the Arizona and Mexico and railed against the unjust immigration system that has caused the death of an estimated 6,000 persons trying to enter into the United States since 1998.
In his poignant homily, O’Malley remarked that the bishops came on behalf of the Church in the United States “to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert.”
But even more memorable than O’Malley’s homily is what followed. During Holy Communion, O’Malley, his brother bishops and priests reached across the border fence to distribute hosts to Mexicans on the other side.
The message communicated here was unmistakable. The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith. We believe that God’s full reality in Jesus Christ is made manifest in it. So in this profound act, the bishops reminded us that in Jesus Christ, there are no borders. It too reminds us that Jesus himself was a young immigrant, fleeing into Egypt with Mary and Joseph shortly after his birth.
But there was also a message communicated to our political leaders in Washington: the Catholic Church isn’t going anywhere on immigration reform.
The pope’s first visit outside of Rome was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where hundreds have died in recent months trying to immigrate into Europe from North Africa. There, he blasted the “globalization of indifference” which has led us to become a society that struggles to have compassion for the plight of immigrants and the marginalized.
And the Church is unafraid to call political leaders to task on this crucial issue. Shortly before his meeting with President Obama, Pope Francis promised a ten-year-old girl whose father was facing deportation that he would raise the issue when the two met. Hours after the meeting, the man’s deportation process was abandoned by the government and he was freed from a Louisiana immigration detention facility.
But ending current deportation policies isn’t enough. The Church believes we need a full immigration overhaul that gives a pathway to citizenship for those already in our country. This will surely now be an even more important priority for the American bishops, who have undergone their own political reset after the election of Pope Francis.
The American bishops now must use their increased political capital under Francis’s papacy to encourage the Catholic Speaker of the House John Boehner to bring the immigration bill to the floor for a vote. As O’Malley remarked today, there are many politicians who personally support immigration reform, but have yet to find the courage to vote for it. Speaker Boehner is clearly one of them. But perhaps Tuesday's mass can open him up to a new path forward. He can take heart at the latest polling that even suggests that passing immigration reform won’t hurt the Republicans at the polls this November.
But even if Boehner doesn’t act, Tuesday was a good day for supporters of immigration reform. The American bishops—with a nudge from Pope Francis—have clearly drawn a line in the sand and expressed that the Church is going to ramp up the pressure on Washington to get the job done. And with a strong coalition of faith, business and labor leaders acting in unison on immigration reform, the future is looking increasingly bleak for those oppose this necessary shift in public policy.
It’s not too late to shift, however. It’s time for politicians who oppose reform to take a lesson from Pope Francis, Cardinal O’Malley and the bishops and spend time in our Lampedusa, our country’s “existential periphery: [where] the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance…and of all misery [dwell].”
Faced with the human suffering perpetuated by our failed immigration system, a conversion of heart and a change of course is all but inevitable. After all, isn’t Lent the perfect time for that?
Christopher J. Hale is a senior fellow of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.