ECJA Conference: Rome, Italy 16 September 2016

Distinguished guests, members of the WUJA, all present:

I am honored and grateful for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. As a graduate of three Jesuit institutions, I can honestly use the pronoun “we” when talking about the influence of Jesuit education in our lives. As the International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, I am grateful you have taken this opportunity to come to Rome and chose to include a deeper understanding of the situation of refugees as part of your European meeting.

Allow me to begin with a brief story. One of my first field visits took place in Rwanda, where an elderly woman named Isabel welcomed us into her home. Except she couldn’t, as the round hut she lived in couldn’t welcome two people at once. But the sincerity of her welcome was a grace. I was in the presence of a holy woman.

While I am not a holy man, it is with a bit of that feeling that I welcome you. The issue of refugees in our world is so significant, so large, that all I can do is add a small piece, a small perspective to this reality.

JRS’ mission is to accompany, serve and advocate for and with forcibly displaced people throughout the world. JRS works with over 700,000 of our brothers and sisters each year, walking with them, sharing their stories and helping them find solutions to their needs. We are active in 45 countries around the world, and looking at taking up opportunities to serve in three more.

In these efforts, JRS collaborates with other entities. We are an implementing partner of UNHCR. We work with organizations like Caritas, Doctors without Borders, World Food Programme…. We focus on working with women and men post-displacement, when things are confusing, unsettled, and people are need of looking toward a future.

The reality of refugees and how we, as the human community respond is the essential question of this moment in time. As a fellow Jesuit alumnus, let me propose that an Ignatian response to the refugee moment is relevant and critical to the world in which we live.

Allow me to present a picture of the world of refugees, a way of responding based on Ignatian spirituality, and finally, echoing St. Ignatius Loyola, how we might show our love more in deeds than in words.

In the Spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola presents the retreatant with a number of meditations to help her or him see the world as God sees it. One of the most important meditations is on the Incarnation, when Ignatius invites to imagine the Holy Trinity looking down on the world, and quite specifically: see the various people, people in great need, in great diversity of clothing and attitude, some white, some black; some at peace, others in war, some crying, others laughing, some healthy and others sick; some being born, others dying, etc.

If we were imagining the Trinity looking on the world today, undoubtedly the divine persons would notice that there more than 65 million of our brothers and sisters are forcibly on the move: refugees who left their home countries and displaced persons forced to move within their countries. They are larger than the population of Spain, equivalent to the population of Italy, and represent the largest number of forcibly displaced people since the aftermath of World War II. Almost all lack one thing: access to basic human rights.

65 million is an abstract number. What do 65 million refugee faces look like? What do 65 million life stories of displaced people sound like? The Holy Trinity looking on the world can answer that question. You and I can only know a few of those stories of real people. Without safety, without education, without work and freedom – what do these people have? How do we respond?

A mysticism of service

On a trip to Nairobi a few months ago, I met a woman from Rwanda named Michelle. She had escaped the genocide there, found JRS, and was helped to a new start. When I was introduced to her as the head of JRS, she said “For me, JRS is Jesus Christ.”

Now JRS is not Jesus Christ in the flesh– though perhaps there are a few Jesuits who think they are! But Michelle’s comment reminds me of something distinctive to Jesuit spirituality as practiced by St. Ignatius and explicitly renewed by Pedro Arrupe: our experience of the divine should lead us to serve others. Our experience of following Christ should lead us to see and serve Christ in the world.

Janet Ruffing is a Sister of Mercy currently at the Yale School of Divinity in the United States. I am grateful for her analysis “Ignatian Mysticism of Service: Ignatius Loyola and Pedro Arrupe” as the foundation of this part of my talk. She identifies a distinctive quality of Ignatius’ mystical experience as an expression for social transformation, of seeking to discover and reveal Christ in the world.

Ignatius was not interested in being a church reformer, or in leaving the church a la Martin Luther. Further, God’s mystical work in him was not fundamentally about the mystical relationship itself, a la John of the Cross. Rather, in the context of church, God more deeply revealed himself and his relationship to the world through Jesus Christ to Ignatius.

One of the most iconic of Ignatius’ mystical experiences that has come down to us is the vision at La Storta, where the Father placed Ignatius with his Son carrying the cross. The experience of union with God produced an encounter which thrust the Ignatius into the world of Christ being crucified and Christ crucified redeeming it. This dynamic, I think, is crucial to understanding an Ignatian way of responding to the reality of refugees. Allow me to provide three examples.

The post-Vatican II movement known as Liberation Theology is in reality the expressions of a number of theologians whose starting point was the poverty of Latin America. There is no single liberation theology, but one of the most enduring strains can be found in the thinking of two Jesuits, Basque Ignacio Ellacuria (murdered in El Salvador in 1989 with six other Jesuits, their cook and her daughter) and Basque Barcelonan Jon Sobrino, who was out of the country when the massacre took place and has lived to deepen the analysis. Through pastoral contact with the poor of El Salvador– people oppressed by an oligarchy for decades and massacred and forced to flee in the civil war of the 1980s – Ellacuria and Sobrino identified Christ Crucified in today’s world as the poor, and to use Sobrino’s words, “The sign of the times is the existence of a crucified people, and the prime demand on us is that we take them down from the cross.” (The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross) This is a deep encounter with the reality of Christ crucified, an expression of which does not leave one grieving at the foot of the cross but doing what must be done to free those on the cross.

An even more noteworthy expressor of the reality of Christ crucified in our day is Pope Francis, whose pastoral ecclesiology is clearly drawn from ongoing encounter and reflection with the poor and marginalized. It is not an accident that his first journey as Pope was to Lampedusa, the Mediterranean island which symbolizes the desperation and hope of Africans crossing the Mediterranean to find hope in a new land. It is not an accident that five months ago he invited Orthodox leaders to join him on the island of Lesbos, the largest single landing point for Syrians and others fleeing war and chaos in the Middle East and Asia. Death by water is no less cruel than death on a cross.

One can also find an expression of La Storta in one of Francis’ most well-known images: the church as field hospital: This quote from his 2013 interview with Jesuit magazines captures this: “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”

In this context I invite us to look at Pedro Arrupe and JRS as his expression of La Storta. Arrupe, as you know, a native of Bilbao, was a medical student when he joined the Society of Jesus. Forced to leave Spain to finish his formation, he absorbed himself in the history and spirituality of the Society of Jesus and Ignatius himself.

This deep felt knowledge came to fruition in 1945 while serving as the director of novices in Hiroshima. The atomic bomb and its consequences on thousands of innocent people forever stayed with him and allowed him to be joined always with those most in need, those needing the freedom of Christ crucified. In that dark time he prayed for victims and those who dropped the bomb. He threw himself into accompanying those grievously injured. The experience marked the rest of his life and especially, his understanding of the role of the Society of Jesus in its articulation of the Catholic faith of which justice is a requirement.

The experience of Hiroshima connected him profoundly to Vietnamese fleeing their country in the late 70s and early 80s. Known colloquially as the boat people, a third of them died on open seas or as victims of pirates. Moved with compassion for the exodus and their lives in transitional camps throughout southern Asia, Arrupe invited leaders of the Society of Jesus to invite Jesuits to accompany these refugees, reminding them that the Society’s mission was not only about their material needs, but also to revive their hope and their confidence in others.

Arrupe experienced the call for the Society to be with Christ crucified in our modern world: God is calling us through the poor. The accompaniment is mutual; the spiritual growth happens on all sides. Refugee sisters and brothers recognize Christ; we become more Christ-like and recognize Christ in them.

How do we deepen this mystical vision? How do you and I begin to see 65 million sisters and brothers of ours as the Holy Trinity sees them? Let me suggest a path from fear and anxiety through justice and love to welcome and accompaniment.

Fear is a human reality. Each of us has her or his own fears–situations or people that put us in a state of discomfort or even panic. In our world, there are things to be afraid of. Certainly the actions of terrorists in Paris and Brussels have sparked a sense of anxiety in the European community. And it is also true about the human psyche that what is unpredictable frightens us more. Terrorism in Europe is a rare occurrence, but its randomness is what is truly anxiety-producing: we cannot predict it, and we may not be able to avoid it.

Fear has become a dominant response to the reality of global refugees. We are afraid of what “they” will do to us. Some are anxious about their “way of life” when imagining Muslim refugees in their lands.

A rational analysis, of course, debunks these fears. We all know that terrorist acts in Belgium and France were led by local, radicalized Islamists. More significantly, the language of a refugee “crisis” in Europe is hyperbole. In Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, 1 million are Syrian refugees – one in four there are refugees. For Europe to reach that ratio, 145 million refugees would have to be here. Lebanon has a crisis; in Europe, there is irrational anxiety.

Of course, our political class likes to exploit this. It makes for great drama, and it captures voters in their vulnerability. “Brexit” is hard to imagine in another context. My own country is not exempt; Donald Trump could be president based on a campaign of xenophobia and fear.

As I said earlier, the fear is real. But anxiety is a terrible spirit or perspective from which to make a decision, because it is a spirit notably lacking in freedom. When one is afraid or anxious, one can think of little else but the object of that fear. In Ignatian spirituality, this is an “attachment,” something holding us back from seeing reality as it is. Attachments get in the way of embracing the freedom of God, the freedom to see the world as God sees it.

These fears typically propel us to look for security; but solutions based in fear are typically so lacking in perspective and freedom that the desired security is fundamentally an illusion. Closing Europe’s borders to refugees and migrants may seem like the solution that brings security. But how realistic is it to stop small boats landing on Lampedusa and Lesbos? How illusionary is it to think that conditions of war will not continue to force people to find a better life? Decisions based in fear are not the answer.

The first letter of John does offer us an answer. In chapter 4 verse 18 John writes: “In love there is no room for fear; perfect love drives out fear.” This may seem like a tall order, and we have to be realistic that our love will never be perfect. But I think the invitation is clear: a stance of love, a stance of openness to the other will not let fear become the dominant mode of decision. So if not fear, then what? What might love concretely look like in responding to 65 million global refugees?

One necessary movement is to the language of justice. As noted African-American sociologist of religion Cornell West writes: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” The language of the human rights of all people – including or especially, the rights of refugees – is important for civic society and political leadership to embrace, and if we are honest, to wrestle with: the human rights of one person or group are always in the context of the other, and we will never totally agree on the precise balancing of competing rights. JRS strongly believes that refugees are entitled to basic human rights of safety and security, freedom to express their religion, a right to education and the possibility of work. Much of our advocacy is focused on the protection and fulfillment of the basic rights of refugees and forcibly displaced people.

But the language of human rights, important as it is, does not really address the dynamic of fear. To one who is afraid, the language of human rights is either abstract or threatening; it does not attend to the spiritual/emotional attachment to fear that fundamentally paralyzes us in our own rights and does not allow us to move to a place of freedom.

Let me suggest a different movement. If perfect love can drive out fear, can imperfect love express itself in welcome? Can we invite ourselves personally and as cultures to move to a place of welcome? Can we make the effort to not focus on the 65 million, but on the one or two? Can we take the risk to go beyond fear to come to know a refugee, to listen to her or his story, to come to see the human person beneath the label of refugee, nationality, or religious faith? Can I welcome the possibility of discovering that I have much more in common with a Syrian or Somali refugee then what may apparently divide us?

The Scriptures are replete with welcoming that is complicated, imperfect and ultimately filled with God’s spirit– from Joseph welcoming to Egypt the brothers who tried to kill him, to the widow of Zarephath who haltingly offers the prophet Elijah some water and a cake and is rewarded with a jug of oil and jar of flour not going empty through a drought.

I believe this movement from fear to welcome is foundational to understanding Jesus’ message. The parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25—separating the sheep and the goats by whether they recognize Christ in the stranger—captures this dynamic. Similarly, isn’t the story of the Good Samaritan fundamentally about moving from fear of the stranger on the road to discovering the stranger as neighbor?

This idea of welcoming is also essential to JRS. Pedro Arrupe called us to accompaniment, welcoming the refugee and taking his or her experience as the starting point for our service to them. In the context of welcoming we accompany people who have had to flee their homes, who have been traumatized in countless ways, and who face an often uncertain future. From a place of welcome, JRS can help people to heal, help them find hope, and help them move beyond their home fear finding the presence of God in the here and now.

JRS does this accompaniment in a global context: 70% of the people we accompany are not Christian, and 55% are Muslim. We do not serve them because of who they are, but out of who we are as followers of Jesus Christ.

So what might justice and welcome look like in this reality? I invite us to remember the words of St. Ignatius towards the end of the Spiritual Exercises: Love is better shown in deeds rather than words. It is time for each of us, as society and as individuals to step up and put our justice and welcome into practice.

In March I was on the panel talking about the global migration issue, and one of the panelists was Elizabeth Collett, the Director of the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels. Her excellent presentation was highlighted by this line: “We’ve had enough poetry about refugees; it’s time to put in the plumbing.” To paraphrase her: we have more than enough words about refugees coming to Europe; it’s time to build the structures to welcome them. Let me offer an example.

I visited the island of Lesbos last December. The weather was rough, and the number of refugees making the five hour crossing from the Turkish coast to Greece was down. The law of supply and demand was at work: it was only costing $800 to $1000 to risk one’s life in a rubber dinghy crossing a dangerous sea. Now from the same departure point in Turkey there is a daily ferry to Lesbos that costs €20.

Can Europe imagine a way begin the process of accepting refugees which minimizes the danger and exploitation? Now I am not an open border proponent; there must be some rules and structure for allowing refugees to enter and be integrated into society.

Could Europe, for instance, set up a way to approve and coordinate the acceptance of those in need before they arrive in Europe, and thereby arrange ways that all countries welcome a proportionate share of those in need? Can temporary humanitarian visas be a preferred way of helping Syrian refugees find safety? Can Europe get beyond the trafficking-like spectacle of trading bad migrants for good refugees as has been done in the agreement with Turkey that is now failing? Such solutions are doable if we, as civil society, are willing to put structures in place that are feasible and genuinely respond to human needs and rights.

But what about the welcoming that goes beyond fear, that expresses a conversion of heart, built on the reality that we are all sisters and brothers? This is the type of accompaniment that I would invite each of us here this evening to consider. It is the welcome that Pope Francis spoke of last summer, when he invited parishes and faith communities to sponsor one or two refugee families…not all 65 million – one or two families. Pope Francis’ recent visit to Lesbos was remarkable not only for welcoming Orthodox leaders, but for accompanying three Syrian families back to Rome with him – love best shown in deeds, not words.

Several years ago, JRS France started a Welcoming Project, a structured program for individuals and families to welcome refugees into their home and come to know them as people. JRS Europe is now developing this Welcoming Project throughout the continent, inviting each of us to find the way to open our hearts and homes.

In Spain, el servicio Jesuita migrante españa/ Jesuit Migrant Service has been welcoming refugees and migrants for many years. They too have specific programs to invite local residents to show a place of welcome for those most in need.

So this is doable. And I end on this note. The Service Mysticism of Ignatius and Arrupe is the foundation for JRS. We accompany people like Michelle so that the presence of God, however they might call on God, is more tangible and gives hope in their lives. Can we as Jesuit graduates, aspire to do the same? Can we strive to see forcibly displaced people as the Trinity sees them, can we accompany them in welcome and justice, can we take the risk of realizing we have more in common than what drives us apart?

65 million refugees is a global reality. Ignatius invites us to see this reality as God does each of us a cherished one in God’s eyes. We pray for this grace to become more of an actual presence in our world.

Thank you very much.