The visit of Pope Francis to America featured many moments and messages, but one consistent theme was his focus on immigrants. While he did not endorse specific legislation, he set—or shall I say, reset--a moral framework for the national immigration debate.
The pope’s goal, which he achieved, was to remind all Americans of our immigrant past and that immigrants help renew, not destroy, our country. His first formal sentence in America was that he was the son of immigrants and that “he was happy to be a guest in this country, which was largely built by immigrants.” In one sentence, he identified with the American people and reminded us that immigrants helped build this country. It was a sign of more to come.
Such powerful messages resonate with the American people, an immigrant people, which is why the usual suspects of elected officials, anti-immigrant groups, and presidential candidates are attacking Pope Francis as being unworldly and uneducated on nation-states and borders. That is quite an insult to the moral leader of 1.2 billion persons across the globe. It is akin to the Pharisees telling Jesus He did not know the scriptures.
Pope Francis is painfully aware of the borders that govern the earth, which in part is why he speaks against globalization that allows commerce and capital to cross borders but otherwise uses and then disposes of the individual—the human being. “We need to avoid a common temptation these days,” he told Congress, “to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
Catholic teaching acknowledges the right of the sovereign to control its borders, as did Pope Francis, who urged us to respond to immigrants “as best we can.” Given our record deportations and family separations, the lack of action on immigration reform, and the scapegoating of immigrants for our social ills, we are at our worst, not our best.
The church also teaches that all nations—particularly rich and powerful ones--have an obligation to the common good, which knows no borders. Speaking to Congress, Pope Francis invoked the common good five times, defining it as the purpose of political life. “Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good,” he stated. “Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples.” In other words, as a global leader America cannot turn its back on the rest of the world.
The lasting legacy of the Pope’s visit is that he was able to humanize immigrants and highlight their contributions to our country, in part as an answer to those in the public square who dehumanize and minimize them. Listen to their stories, he implored us, and accept their gifts, and it will benefit our nation’s future.
“Building a nation,” he said, “calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best.”
“I am confident we can do this,” he concluded. Amen.
Elizondo is auxiliary bishop of Seattle, Wshington, and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration.