Bishop's Interview: Overcoming fear and praying for peace in 2016
Editor: In November the U.S. bishops issued a statement on refugees and security. What pre-empted the statement?
Bishop Vásquez: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on Syrian refugees a few days after the terrorist attacks in Paris. The Syrian refugee crisis has taken on a monumental dimension both in Europe and also now in our own country. Syrian refugees are leaving their country in huge numbers because they are trying to escape the civil war that has ravaged on for four years. These are families who are abandoning their homes because they see no other way because of the constant violence. The Syrian government is not able to protect them. For months now, we have heard the stories of how these refugees risk their lives on make shift boats and how many of them do not survive. They are literally drowning in the ocean trying to get to safe harbors. This is a humanitarian crisis.
Then the terrorist attacks that took place on Nov. 13 in Paris killing more than 130 people also sent shock waves throughout the world. There was an immediate reaction to cut off aid and acceptance of Syrian refugees in several states. In this statement we as bishops wanted to make clear that we realize there are legitimate security concerns, but we must understand that refusing to welcome the stranger and failing to work together toward a solution to this refugee crisis only aids our enemies. We understand the fear many people have that the senseless violence in Paris will make its way here, but as Christians we cannot allow our attitudes and our actions to be overtaken by this fear. This is a very important time in which we as a country have an opportunity to show compassion provide protection and receive these families and children in need. As the statement said, “These refugees … are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization.
Editor: However, it seems many because of fear of terrorism are reticent to help these people.
Bishop Vásquez: We need to acknowledge and encourage the government to implement and maintain a process to screen refugees coming into this country. We know the federal government takes 18 to 24 months to screen the applicants via background checks and multiple interviews. This screening process is important for the security of our country, but we must not turn our backs on those seeking refuge in country.
Our faith does not allow us to remain indifferent or react in fear, which closes our doors and our hearts to people and turns our backs on those who find themselves in these violent situations. It is good to remember that Jesus, Mary and Joseph –– the Holy Family –– were refugees. They had to escape into Egypt to avoid Herod’s threats to kill the baby Jesus.
As Catholics we take to heart and are guided by Jesus’ most fundamental teachings. The Gospel of Matthew (25:35-36) clearly reminds of us of our responsibility to care for our suffering brothers and sisters: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Jesus makes it very clear that when we help such people we are attending to his needs –– he is there present in these individuals. When we don’t assist them, we are also neglecting him. This is a great opportunity for us to practice one of the Corporal Works of Mercy in this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Editor: Meanwhile thousands of people are still exiting Syria because of the ravages of war. What can we do from this country to help those refugees?
Bishop Vásquez: The first thing we have to do is pray –– we have to pray for an end to violence in Syria and in the Middle East. We also have to pray for peace. My concern is that many people have stopped praying for peace because they don’t see immediate results and feel their prayers are not making much of a difference. We should never give in to this mentality. We must continue to pray without ceasing for peace in these war-torn countries.
The second thing we can do is to keep asking our government to help negotiate an end to this war. This is a complicated and difficult situation and there is no easy solution. It will require the efforts of many nations to create a cease fire and then work out a plan to establish peace. We know that innocent Christians and Muslims are being killed in this conflict every day and this must stop.
Nations must also work together to end terrorism. As long as it continues we are going to see many people fleeing. People who have been displaced because of terror are on the move, which in turn creates a lot of instability. And with instability comes suffering and hardship for those who are fleeing and for those who are trying to help them. The refugees need food, shelter and medical attention.
Catholic Relief Services, which carries out the commitment of the U.S. bishops to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas, is doing its best to assist the Syrian refugees on a daily basis. CRS is not trying to influence politics. Where there is a need and people are suffering and hurting, CRS is there to help. If people are looking for a way to assist the refugees monetarily, CRS is an excellent organization they can support. Their website is www.crs.org.
Pope Francis has declared Jan. 17 the World Day for Migrants and Refugees. On this day, may we all pray with special intention for all of those who are leaving their homelands in search of more peace and stability for themselves and their families. When he visited the U.S. and spoke to Congress on Sept. 24, the pope said, “Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions … We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Editor: What is your prayer for all of us as we begin 2016?
Bishop Vásquez: As we begin a New Year and continue our journey in this Year of Mercy, may our hearts turn our attention to our brothers and sisters in Syria who are suffering tremendously. May we find ways to bring an end to this war and move those in power to bring about a peaceful end to this tragedy. May God hear our prayers for peace.