In this week’s Common Good Forum, Hosffman Ospino, a brilliant young Latino theologian at Boston College reflects on the Pope’s trip and the forthcoming visit by our bishops to “Our Lampedusa.” This essay begins several weeks of reflections on the issue of immigration here at CACG. On April 1, when the bishops are gathered for a Mass at the border, we encourage all our members to go to Church that day and pray for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

What comes to your mind first when you hear about the U.S.-Mexican border? Think for a moment. A miles-long and expensive fence? Drug-related violence? Documented and undocumented migration? Polarized ideological debates? National security concerns? Trade agreements? Perhaps all of the above. It is very likely that you thought about “issues.” I normally do. Our pragmatic minds are drawn to issues, more than people. No names, no faces, no persons, no stories; let’s focus on the issues. We tend to reduce the complexity of the everyday into manageable issues, straw-figures that we domesticate, destroy, ignore with ease. Issues sometimes serve as excuses to trivialize complex realities. Talk shows run day and night addressing the issues. Political arguments often serve as exercises to read the issues in light of one’s ideological stance. We normally buy into the illusion of so-called “objective analysis” (read impersonal) that saves us from getting out of our comfort zones, looking at others in their eyes, hearing their words, experiencing their pain. Issues can be ignored, dismissed. We long for quick and easy ways to solve issues even when many are beyond immediate solutions. Often we make decisions about issues without pondering much about whom those decisions will affect. Besides, there are so many issues and not all can equally compel us with a sense of urgency. Why should everyone, for instance, worry about immigration? When hearing about the U.S.-Mexican border, why should anyone think of people we do not know, the circumstances that led them to migrate, or any of their sufferings?  

It is precisely such condition of nameless and faceless indifference that Pope Francis addressed in July 2013 when he visited the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in his first official trip outside of Rome. A boat full of immigrants from Africa fleeing unrest and poverty caught fire and sank killing more than a hundred people. The Pope rightly called this incident “a tragedy.” Over the years nearly 20,000 more Africans have died in Mediterranean waters under similar circumstances. A tragedy of enormous proportions! Thousands of immigrants today live on the island awaiting an uncertain future. In the homily delivered during his visit, Pope Francis modeled a profoundly Christian approach to the reality of migration. He did not simply talk about issues. Neither did he reduce the complexity of the situation to a few practical thoughts, perhaps some teachings about justice, and then returned to business as usual. At Lampedusa Pope Francis reminded Catholics and the entire world what the Church is about, the place where she needs to be. Pope Francis’ presence at Lampedusa was also an appeal to all the baptized to find our own Lampedusas, the places where we need to be, to witness what we are about as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.  

At Lampedusa Pope Francis began by recognizing the humanity of all immigrants, those who died in the accident and those mourning their loss. In doing this he was moved by deep compassion. He knew that tragedies like this occur far too often, an awareness that he described as “a painful thorn in my heart.” It was not enough to read about it in the papers or to watch the images on a television screen. He went to the island to pray with them and offered his accompaniment. In his message he drew from the wisdom of the Scripture not to justify the tragedy, neither to blame those who were victims of the accident nor the immigrants for their decisions, but to instill a spirit of Christian solidarity sustained upon the conviction that we all are responsible for each other. In his homily Francis asked: “Adam, where are you?”... “Cain, where is your brother?” He denounced the nameless and faceless indifference that often curbs solidarity and mutual responsibility. He added a third question, perhaps the most poignant one for a Christian who is compelled to contemplate the suffering Christ in the face of the homeless immigrant struggling to make sense of feelings of loss and solitude: “Has any one of us wept because of this situation and others like it?” He concluded invoking God’s mercy asking for forgiveness for the times we choose to remain indifferent, dwelling in the comfort of our status quo, and for the sins that push many into desperate situations.

This is not the space for a major exegesis of Pope Francis’ homily, although it well deserves one! Suffice it to say that what we find here is a great approach, actually a pedagogy of compassion for Catholics—and others—to better respond to the complexity of the migratory experience: 1) recognition and affirmation of the dignity of all immigrants; 2) Accompaniment of and prayer with immigrants; 3) Appeal to evangelical compassion; 4) Exercise of prophetic reflection, which includes proclamation and denunciation; and, 5) Invitation to trust in God’s mercy and a call to permanent conversion.

Thanks to the simple, yet profound gesture of visiting Lampedusa and raising awareness about what African immigrants face to get to the island, Pope Francis invited us into shared responsibility. This is not just one more issue on a faraway island north of Africa. It is about women and men who are dying in search of a better life —and we cannot remain indifferent anymore. It is about seeing the face of Christ in those immigrants from Africa and everywhere else where flesh-and-blood people face similar circumstances. The experience has the power of thrusting us into our own context to search for our own Lampedusas. No need to strain our imaginations: think of the women and men crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. As in the case of the small Sicilian island, we cannot remain indifferent.

Migration realities at the U.S.-Mexican border cannot be reduced to mere impersonal issues to be endlessly debated, partially fixed, or used as political footballs every time there is an election season. We are talking about real people, women and men with real names, wounded travelers who long for a good Samaritan, faces of Christ for us today. They are more than issues. There is plenty in our Christian Catholic tradition and the witness of leaders like Pope Francis to make a difference. Yet many of us are permanently caught up on nameless and faceless issues. Many still fail to see the face of Christ in the immigrant. 

Hundreds of thousands of people from Latin America and the Caribbean every year leave the little they have and risk everything to cross desserts, mountains, portions of the ocean, and rivers searching for better life conditions. Many flee situations that make it impossible to live with dignity. Receiving nations are expected to be better. Are they? Are we providing a more humane experience for these newcomers and their families in the United States? In 2013 about twenty five thousand children, mostly from Central America, arrived in the U.S. without the company of an adult, exposed to many perils and abuse. Tens of thousands of families are separated in the midst of migration patterns, many without the hope of reunification under present circumstances. More than ten million people live in the United States as undocumented immigrants exposed to exploitation, lacking access to basic paths to social mobility, and constantly under fear. Every year in the last decade around four hundred people (at least those who get counted) have been found dead in deserted areas along the border. The number increased dramatically in 2012. Heart-wrenching statistics, no doubt. If what happened at Lampedusa was a tragedy, the ongoing situation at the U.S. Mexican border, our Lampedusa, is a tragedy of massive proportions. Knowing that this happens year after year before our own eyes and screens is “a painful thorn in my heart,” to borrow Pope Francis’ words. We must do something. Embracing his pedagogy of compassion is a good place, indeed the only place for a Christian, to begin. 

Hosffman Ospino, PhD is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College, School of Theology and Ministry, where he also serves as the Director of Graduate Programs in Hispanic Ministry.