“This project was important as a means to show that the theology espoused by Pope Francis could be done well and done ethically—and done in a way that respects everyone’s dignity.”
Those words from Meghan J. Clark, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Assistant Chair, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, described her time as part of the Migration and Refugee Section of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development’s project, “Doing Theology from the Existential Peripheries.”
The Dicastery studies and collects information relating to justice and peace, the progress of peoples, the promotion and protection of dignity and human rights, disarmament and armed conflicts, as well as their consequences on civilians and the natural environment. It strives to make the social teachings of the Church known and put into practice.
This project was designed to capture the faith lives and experiences of those who dwell on what Pope Francis calls “our existential peripheries,” as well as their struggles, which include various forms of violence and oppression. Dr. Clark recalled that the project was born from a two-fold desire “to show that what Pope Francis is both doing and calling for is theologically rich.” Each region put together a bibliography of theology being done by theologians in each area, particularly on themes and documents the Holy Father stressed as important, she added.
The bigger part of it, she emphasized, “was to do theology in the way that Pope Francis is calling us to do—that theologians could go out to the margins and peripheries and allow that to be a locus of learning about the Church.” Many of the communities to whom the groups spoke were those not captured as easily as if they were simply located in a parish. “While some, like pastoral theologians, have done community-based theology for decades, this is the first time that I know of where a systematic, global, ecclesial project of this kind launched.”
This experience, Dr. Clark noted, allowed theologians to accompany people, helping draw out the rich theology latent within their own experience and reflection on their faith in and witness to God.
The North American Regional Team, of which Dr. Clark was a part, included theologians from New York, NY; Chicago, IL; Toronto, Canada; and San Diego, CA. She traveled with a faculty member from DePaul University to El Paso, TX, and Juarez, Mexico, for a series of interviews and meetings. There were five teams working with different areas of the world.
She met with people in detention centers and migrant shelters and listened to their stories of being swept up in this worldwide crisis. “The questions I asked were the same no matter where we were,” she stressed. “It was about seeing what people’s understandings of faith, of God, of the Church has or hasn’t accompanied them. How they pray is one of the first questions we asked.”
She added that many migrants kept a very small Bible with them on their journey, especially parents with children. “It would help ground things by reading scripture in the midst of all this chaos. It was really quite a powerful witness.”
This notion of “local listening” is something that has been growing within the practice of theology for years, Dr. Clark said. The themes of the project included wisdom from the margins, vulnerability and tenderness, welcome the stranger, and dialogue and encounter.
Dr. Clark added that it was imperative her group’s report reflected the voices of the people who shared their stories. “The bulk of it was letting people speak for themselves and share their hopes and their dreams, their joys and their pain. Frustration and anger rose unfiltered. We were there to accompany and amplify and integrate their voices into the way we do theology. We were not there to tell you what it means or speak for them.”
Dr. Clark recalled that it was a blessing and an overwhelming responsibility for her to the people brave enough to share their stories with her. These individuals revealed their most vulnerable selves, and she wanted their experience to be reflected accurately.
“People want to be heard. They wanted to talk to us,” she said. “The very idea that the Holy Father cared about how they prayed, and their experience of God and faith, were deeply important to the vast majority of people with whom we spoke.”
“What was so moving was this deep assurance in them that God accompanied them,” Dr. Clark stressed. “There was this palpable assurance that God was on the path with them.”
She said the challenge for her as a theologian was how to accompany these individuals as God might. “One of the things that just struck me was just how the persistence of hope and faith in the face of rejection that sometimes is also rejection by your faith community,” Dr. Clark noted. “Yet there is that hope and persistence that they still have, and that faith that isn't sentimental.”
On the struggles faced by the migrants, she added, “It’s not the long walks or the lack of food. It’s that most of them have experienced violence, much of it sexual, on this journey—a journey that they are still on.”
Dr. Clark was also heartened by the many committed people of faith she met who are accompanying migrants on their journey and seek justice for them, particularly in the border areas. She stressed that she has enjoyed great support from her department and from the University at large with this project. “This is all pretty Vincentian.”
An introduction to the project can be viewed here.