FR Maurizio Pettena firmly believes the key to welcoming migrants and refugees into parish life is listening to their stories.
“Let’s be attentive to details,” Fr Pettena, director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office said, launching the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees to be held on Sunday, August 26.
“Hear their cry – where they come from, what price they had to pay to be able to persevere in their faith.”
Sometimes migrants voluntarily leave their homelands in search of a better future. Others are forced to flee because they have been displaced by natural disasters, war, religious persecution, political oppression and grinding poverty.
According to the latest annual figures, from 2015, from the International Organisation for Migration, there were 244 million international migrants.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.
Fr Pettena points to the four-point “action plan” outlined by Pope Francis in his message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
The Pope wrote that “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees” were essential to the Christian faith.
“Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age (Matthew 25:35-43),” Pope Francis wrote.
“The Lord entrusts to the Church’s motherly love every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future.”
The Church plays an important part in Australia’s migration program through the provision of pastoral care and resettlement programs, however, Fr Pettena said there was much that could be done at a grassroots level.
He said it was not enough for a parish to simply put on a welcoming morning tea after Mass and expect migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to instantly fit in after that.
Rather, he said, it took a dedicated, long-term effort to help integrate newcomers into a local Catholic community.
Fr Pettena said he recognised the strong welcoming efforts of many parishes in Brisbane archdiocese – starting with understanding migrant and refugee stories.
“Let’s create some space where they can share their history – so that their history becomes some sort of spiritual light or salt for the community,” he said.
“If we want to understand the history, the trauma, the life of people who come and ask for asylum in this country we need to understand the push factors that have pushed them out, and to reflect on those factors from the point of view of the Gospel.”
In his Migrant and Refugee Day message, Pope Francis squarely addresses the importance of integration: “Integration is not ‘an assimilation that leads migrants to suppress or forget their own cultural identity’.”
“Rather, contact with others leads to discovering their ‘secret’, to being open to them I order to welcome their valid aspects and thus contribute to knowing each one better,” Pope Francis wrote.
“I reiterate the need to foster a culture of encounter in every way possible – by increasing opportunities for inter-cultural exchange…”
Writing in the 2018 World Day of Migrants and Refugees pamphlet, Brisbane Catholic Percy Pamo Lawrence shares the experience of the Filipino Catholic Community integrating into the local Church as “an ongoing journey that takes time and effort, trial and error, steps back and forward”.
“The success of one or a number of ethnic communities’ integration into a parish depends largely on how the parish itself interprets these action words,” she wrote. “Integration, in particular, should not be forced upon but rather firmly encouraged. Otherwise, the process simply becomes subtle assimilation under the guise of integration.”
Fr Pettena pointed out that the Church was clear that every human being had the right to migrate.
However, he said, the first right was the right not to migrate.
“I think we are not doing enough to address the push factors,” he said.
Fr Pettena pointed to once flourishing Christian communities in Syria and northern Iraq – forced to flee their war-torn homelands, leaving few Christians left.
“I don’t think we are doing very well in addressing the push factors. We have become accustomed to accept violence,” he said.
A kit promoting Migrant and Refugee Week (August 20-26) is being distributed to parishes, schools and Catholic agencies across the Archdiocese of Brisbane.