The way a country responds to the needs of migrants and refugees is a “thermometer” of the wellbeing of that society. That’s the view of Canadian Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, recently appointed as undersecretary of the Vatican’s new department for Integral Human Development.
Alongside Italian Scalabrini Father Fabio Baggio, Fr Michael took up his new post on 1 January, in charge of the section dealing with refugees, migrants and survivors of human trafficking. Answering directly to Pope Francis, he sees his “modest but ambitious mission” as helping the Church to accompany forced migrants at all stages of their often perilous journey.
As the child of a refugee family himself, Fr Michael believes that “with a little bit of sharing of the enormous resources available throughout the world”, countries can “very comfortably and very securely and very profitably” provide for the needs of all people on the move.
Fr Michael explains that the concept of ‘Integral Human Development’ goes back to vision of the Second Vatican Council and its key document ‘Gaudium et Spes’ on the Church in the modern world. Over the years since then, he says, different Vatican offices have been set up to meet specific needs regarding human development. But Pope Francis’ recent documents ‘Evangeli Gaudium’ and ‘Laudato Sii’ have pioneered a new approach of ‘Integral Human Development’ and within that context the plight of those forced to leave their homes is an “area of real concern”.
Top priority for Pope Francis
This topic, Fr Michael continues, is a “top priority” for the pope whose own family migrated from Italy and was “welcomed into Argentina about a century ago”. It’s also an urgent topic, he insists, because “it’s one of those thermometers, I think, of the health and wellbeing of a society”. If societies don’t respond to the needs of migrants “up to the mark of human dignity, there’s something seriously wrong” with that society.
Mission to accompany migrants
The section for migrants and refugees, Fr Michael explains, is concerned with all people on the move whose “human rights and dignity and basic reasons for hope are under extreme duress”. “Our modest but ambitious mission” he adds, is for people “to feel and to experience the accompaniment of the Church”, in the places where migrants begin their journeys, in the transit countries and in the so-called ‘receiving’ nations. How can parishes or dioceses welcome migrants, he asks, just as “we would so much want to be warmly welcomed …. if we were forced to flee?”
Refugee family experience
Reflecting on the experience of his own parents, who fled from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of World War II, Fr Michael says he has “some appreciation” of the anxieties and tensions facing families forced to leave their homelands. Such decisions, he says, are “never taken lightly”, but instead such people are “opting for the least worst solution for their very bad situation and… deserve all the help, support, sympathy and prayer that they can get”.
Sharing global resources
Through this new office, Fr Michael says, the pope is not seeking “to mount some huge programme to mobilise unheard-of resources” but rather “to help the hearts and minds, the hands and feet of people everywhere” to share what they can with those in need. With a little bit of sharing of “the enormous resources available throughout the world” he adds, “we can very comfortably and very securely and very profitably” accommodate all people on the move.
Focus on people, not fears
Asked about the challenges of the current climate of hostility towards migrants, Fr Michael says “maybe more of the truth is on the table” now and “maybe it’s worse if it were somehow repressed and unspoken”. He takes up his new job “at a moment when people are on a higher kind of alert”, he says, stressing the importance of focusing, not on fears or security concerns which “have nothing to do with refugees”, but on those who “need a place to settle down and restart their lives”.