Crossing borders instead of closing them

Peace & Justice

The scuttlebutt around Washington is that Pope Francis wanted to come to the United States next week by walking across the border from Mexico, but that security and logistics nixed the idea. I have no clue whether the rumor is true or a too-good-to-be-true urban legend. I have my doubts. It is true, however, that he will address the issue of immigration, refugees, and migration at all three cities he will visit during his upcoming visit—Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.

It’s the immigration crisis in Europe that now galvanizes attention.  This morning, off the coast of Greek islands with names out of the Epistles of St. Paul, 34 more refugees died in a capsized boat. The scene of a refrigerator truck, filled with 71 dead immigrants along an Austrian highway normally jammed with European summer tourists coming and going from alpine vacations, shocked that continent. Mediterranean vistas, normally pretty with rental sailboats and luxury cruise ships, are now tragic with desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East.  It was, however, a photo of a dead baby boy, his tiny body lying tummy down in the surf along a Turkish beach, that seems to have awakened the conscience of the world.

We should remember that the first trip taken by Francis as pope was to a scene of migrant tragedy on the tiny island of Lampedusa. That day he called for Europe and the world to do more. Last week he called on Catholic parishes across Europe to host these refugees fleeing war, oppression, and the systemic poverty that comes from both.  He asked all of Europe to remember its foundational Christian values and welcome the influx of migration.

The appeal from His Holiness has seen a mixed response.  In the countries that President George Bush’s Defense Secretary once labeled Old Europe—countries ironically often lambasted in some religious circles for secularism—the pope’s call has sparked signs reading Willkommen and Bienvenue.  Germany alone may be dealing with a million immigrant Syrians. Heartwarming scenes of German grandmothers welcoming trains full of Middle Eastern immigrants with juice boxes, diapers, and balloons affirm the Christian values to which the pope appealed.

In the eastern countries of New Europe, many of them with large Catholic populations, the pope’s call has been less well received. There, the voice of the opposition to Pope Francis is embodied by the Hungary’s “Putin-esque” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.


Anti-Semitic and anti-Roma incidents were already on the rise in Hungary under Orbán’s leadership, but the refugee crisis seems to have tipped things into full-blown xenophobia.  The chancellor of Austria has called Orbán’s reaction Nazi-like.  While Pope Francis called upon Europe to remember its Christian values and to welcome the refugees and immigrants, Orbán, citing an alleged threat to Europe’s Christian culture and identity, called for closing Hungary’s borders with a wall of razor wire and establishing work camps for interned “illegal aliens.”

Here in the United States we have our own migration and immigration issues; I worry that a homegrown version of xenophobia is brewing in domestic politics. How will Americans—Catholic, Christian, and otherwise—respond to a call from His Holiness regarding immigration? I am profoundly worried about how some politicians here might react to what the pope will preach.

Putin-esque was the name I gave to Orbán’s approach to politics. Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin is the model. Sadly, such chest-thumping showmanship and macho nativism shows every sign of working all too well with American voters at the moment. Orbán’s calls for fences and walls, the internment of refugees, deportations, and positioning troops at the border sound eerily and scarily familiar to those of us who have been following presidential politics. Am I too pessimistic? President Obama has suggested that the United States could accept a mere 10,000 Syrian migrants. How well has that been received?

I am encouraged, though, that Pope Francis’s appeal to Europe’s foundational moral values has inspired some champions there. At a face-off over Hungary’s handling of the immigration crisis, the Catholic, Polish-born President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, rebuked Orbán’s dark account of defensive Christian identity. Pointedly addressing Orbán’s statements at a news conference, Tusk admonished the Hungarian Prime Minister, saying:

For me Christianity in public and social life means a duty to our brothers in need. Referring to Christianity in a public debate about migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice. For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion, and nationality the person in need represents.



I pray that here in the United States there are stateswomen and men who share the values that Tusk invokes and the courage of his convictions.  I pray that real Christians here will stand up to domestic Viktor Orbán wannabes who shout that our values and identity need to be protected by internment, deportation, and razor wire.  May Americans open their hearts to consider what Pope Francis will say about refugees, migrants, and immigration.

The Alitalia plane with Pope Francis is scheduled to land at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington late in the afternoon of September 22. But, yes, in my heart His Holiness will indeed enter our country on foot, walking over our southern border.

Stephen Schneck’s blog, Church and state, will update every Monday. Follow him on Twitter @StephenSchneck.

Image: Flickr cc via Climatalk .in