By Steve Vivona
St. Vincent de Paul charged his 17th-century priests with
serving refugees and those who were displaced by civil wars and
other insurrections in France. On March 4 the Vincentian Center for
Church and Society and The Center for Migration Studies
co-sponsored From Strangers to Neighbors: A Conference on the
Church and Migration in the New York Region. Featured speakers
included Most Reverend Nicholas DiMarzio, Bishop of the Brooklyn
Diocese, and Reverend Jean-Pierre Ruiz, Associate Professor,
Department of Theology and Religious Studies, St. John's
Bishop DiMarzio noted that migration within the Church has been
going on since its inception when new congregants of various ethnic
backgrounds were welcomed and with it, he added, there has been a
certain amount of conflict between those groups. "It's an issue
that seems to come up time and time again and was present at (the
Church's) very beginning."
He stressed that the first encounter a migrant usually has with
the Church is at the local level, with the parish and not with the
diocese. "If the front door of that Church is open, if there is a
liturgy that uses his or her language, that is how they are
Bishop DiMarzio observed that because Catholic congregations are
so large, "we have a different approach to what welcoming is all
about, and some may say we are most unwelcome. Having been a pastor
and associate pastor I can understand why people may say that, but
I also understand that with the large congregations that we have,
sometimes people get lost in the shuffle."
He stressed that the perception of an unwelcoming Church is
simply not true. He noted that in larger Churches the door is
always open but there may not be someone there to shake a new
person's hand. "The understanding of welcome has to be much deeper.
It's almost a theological reflection for us, of understanding how
the Church is open and Catholic and universal."
Inherent in the Church's social teaching on migration is a sense
of welcoming, Bishop DiMarzio said. "People have a right to migrate
to sustain their lives," a notion he said is difficult to explain
to those not brought up under the umbrella of Catholic social
teaching. However, he added countries have the right to regulate
their borders and control immigration. "The right to migrate has to
have a complementary right of entrance."
Bishop DiMarzio observed that this teaching also states countries
must regulate their borders with justice and mercy and do what is
best for the common good.
The local Church is charged with the responsibility of welcoming
migrants based on the principles set forth by the universal Church.
Bishop DiMarzio explained that cultural clashes often prevent
immigrants from being fully welcomed into a parish. He has
witnessed firsthand the problems encountered in a parish between
the "dominant" culture and the "minority" culture.
"We are often afraid of what we do not understand," he stressed,
adding that the Church is not immune to those fears and barriers,
despite having done much good in this area. "We cannot welcome
someone with a document. We cannot welcome someone with a statement
from the Bishop. The welcome has to be done person to person."