FACING IMMIGRATION: WHAT OPTION FOR THE SECULAR FRANCISCAN ORDER?
Welcome, protect, promote and integrate are the key words in the message of
the holy Father Pope Francis for the 104th world day of Migrants and refugees to be observed on January 14th this year.
Today, migration provoked by violence and insecurity is a major problem for many societies. Millions of people and families are forced to move to other areas, of the same country or of other countries, sometimes, thousands of kilometers away just for their safety. Thousands of youths are flooding into Europe particularly from some African countries. These would rather face the dangers of crossing the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, than remain in the dangers and hopelessness of their homes. What are they looking for? These same people have generally become a hot “problem” to be solved by political leaders or to be handled by humanitarian organizations. But the scheme is always almost the same: on the one side, there are the needy: refugees and immigrants; and on the other, there are the benefactors: host countries and humanitarian groups. For both entities, these brothers and sisters remain a bitter problem to solve so that life may be normal once more.
Meeting the immigrants with the heart of St. Francis
“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34). This is the text on which Pope Francis bases his message.
Reflecting on his personal journey of conversion so as to leave a spiritual testament for posterity, St. Francis of Assisi says: “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body”.  Why this general feeling of bitterness in facing the refugee issues today? Why is the sight of a needy person still so bitter to many today? The experience of St. Franciscan is true for the individual as well as for the society. Stooping to help the other who is in need at a given moment will always bring that sweetness of soul and body of which st. Francis speaks.
If there is one person who has transformed into reality the experience of St. Francis to the letter and made it possible for many to make the same experience, it is Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta who was recently canonized by Pope Francis on September 4th. In one of her interviews, she narrates the experience of a novice of the Missionaries of charity who attended to a wounded man. She had just joined the Congregation after graduating from university: “before they left, together with a fellow novice, to serve the poor, one day, I reminded both of them: ‘do you remember where you are heading for? During Mass, do you see with what tenderness and love the priest takes into his hands the Body of Christ? Do not forget that that Christ is the same Christ that you touch in the poor’. The two sisters went out. One of them, the novice, knocked at my door afterwards. She told me, full of joy: ‘Mother, I have touched the Body of Christ, for the past three hours’. Her face was expressing profound joy. ‘Why? What did you do?’ I asked her. ‘when we had just arrived our destination’ she said ‘we were brought a seriously injured man who was screaming from pain. He had been rescued from the rubbles of a collapsed building. I had to help during the medication of the wounds. It took three hours. So, I touched the Body of Christ for three hours. I am certain: He was the one’”. Pope Francis says: “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” (Mt 25:35-43).
Discovering “Opportunities” instead of “Problems”
Whether a specific situation is a problem or an opportunity depends on the viewer. Yet the difference between the two perspectives is like that between a drop of water and an ocean.
The Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order Says: “As the Father sees in every person the features of his Son, the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, so the Secular Franciscans with a gentle and courteous spirit accept ALL PEOPLE as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ. A sense of community will make them joyful and ready to place themselves on a equal basis with all people, especially with the lowly for whom they shall strive to create conditions of life worthy of people redeemed by Christ”. From this perspective, each encounter becomes an opportunity for an encounter with the person of Christ Jesus. But how should this come about concretely?
The General Constitutions of the Secular Franciscan Order provide the answer: “They should deepen the true foundations of universal kinship and create a spirit of welcome and an atmosphere of fraternity everywhere. They should firmly commit themselves to oppose every form of exploitation, discrimination, and exclusion and against every attitude of indifference in relation to others. They should work together with movements which promote the building of fraternity among peoples: they should be committed to “create worthy conditions of life” for all and to work for the freedom of all people.”
Seizing the opportunities given to us
Every encounter is an opportunity either to meet Jesus or to make Him known. “Throughout the world, let us be permanently in a state of mission”. What opportunities are given us for mission today? Some events in the history of the Church might enlighten us on God’s way of operating. When the early Church was closed up in fear of the Jews, God fired them up with the Holy Spirit and they proclaimed Christ Jesus so that all could hear in their different languages; (cf. Act 2,1-13). Later on, through persecutions, the Lord “Whipped” the “comfortable Church” to “gallop” into mission and an Ethiopian Eunuch was immediately baptized, (Act 8, 1-8.26-40). Further on, as the Church was risking self-imprisonment in Jewish circles and customs, the Lord called Paul and consecrated him into the apostle of the Gentiles and the faith fast spread to all of the Rome empire; (Act 9). While the European world of the 13th century was violently divided along lines of wealth and religion, St. Francis was given brothers with no lines of division and distinction, a universal Fraternity for the rebuilding of the Church, and he began a Secular Order for the salvation of all. So, what opportunity is given us today?
Mgr Paolo Martinelli, OFMCap, often said – quoting Hans Urs Von Balthasar, I believe -: “life is a vocation because reality is a provocation.” In the present situation, God is giving new opportunities to many persons to experience, like St. Francis, the sweetness of soul and body hidden in the selfless service of the others who are in need. It is an opportunity for charity, an opportunity for mercy and, most of all, for evangelization. The following words of Pope Francis are enlightening with all their apostolic authority: “In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded”.
Br. Francis Bongajum Dor, OFMCap.
General Spiritual Assistant OFS/YouFra
 Cf. Message of Pope Francis for the 104th World day of Migrants and Refugees, 14th January 2018 http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20170815_world-migrants-day-2018.html
 Testament 1-3.
 Madre Teresa, un cuore infinito – pagine inedite sulla forza della misericordia, a cura di John Scally, PIEMME, 2014, pp. 62-63.
 Message of Pope Francis for the 104th World day of Migrants and Refugees, 14th January 2018.
 OFS Rule, n° 13.
 General Constitutions OFS, Article 18;2-3).
 Pope Francis, Encyclical Evangeli Gaudium, n°25.
 Pope Francis, Encyclical Evangeli Gaudium, n° 23.