My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
Immigration has been a hot button topic in recent times, but it has been a matter of keen interest for me during most of my adult life. My great-grandparents on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family were Polish immigrants who came to the United States in the 1890s. The neighborhood where I grew up was heavily Polish when I was a young child. Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico began to move into our neighborhood when I was in high school. My father, who spoke English and Polish, learned Spanish so he could speak to his customers in our family pharmacy. Similarly, the priests of my home parish learned Spanish so they could celebrate the Mass and the sacraments in English, Polish and Spanish.
My first assignment as a newly-ordained priest was similar to my home parish. We had Masses in English, Polish and Spanish for the many immigrants who had come to South Chicago to work in the steel mills. Although we did not speak Polish at home when I was growing up, the religious sisters in my parish’s grade school taught me how to read and pronounce the Polish language. I also took two years of Polish classes in my high school seminary. When I was in college seminary, I began to study Spanish and then spent two summers of intensive Spanish, one after my second year at Mundelein Seminary and another summer after my ordination as a priest. This enabled me to celebrate many Masses, baptisms and weddings in Spanish. We had over 1,000 people attending the Spanish Mass every Sunday!
It was during this time in my first parish assignment that I also began to study civil law at DePaul University College of Law. My interest in doing so was to acquire a tool to help the poor, especially since so many of our parishioners were losing their jobs as the steel mills began to close down. In response to this need, I co-founded a legal services program that we initially called the “South Chicago Legal Clinic for Immigrants.” After a short while, we dropped the reference to immigrants from the title, since the legal problems being presented to us were more than just immigration issues. We also shortened the name to simply “Chicago Legal Clinic” after we had opened branch offices in other neighborhoods of the city.
When I was representing clients as a civil lawyer, I concentrated my practice on immigration law. It is a challenging and complex area of the law, but it is also very rewarding. I remember going with clients to federal court for the ceremony in which they were sworn in as new citizens of the United States, after which they would shed tears of joy and express their gratitude for helping them to achieve this goal!
After several years during which I acquired a doctorate in canon law and served as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, I returned to serving immigrants directly when I became pastor of a large Polish-American parish. Every weekend we had three Masses in Polish attended by standing-room-only crowds of over 1,000 people at each Mass, so I have certainly worked with many immigrants over the years!
The Catholic Church has a long history of helping immigrants. The teaching of the Catholic Church expresses a very favorable attitude towards immigrants, reflecting the lessons of the Bible, where we read in the Old Testament about the plight of the people of Israel during their years of slavery in Egypt, as well as the experience of the Holy Family described in the New Testament, when Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety to escape King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a very balanced approach to the question of migration, stating (in paragraph 2241), “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. … Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions.”
In other words, there are two duties, both of which must be carried out and neither of which can be ignored. The first duty is to welcome the foreigner out of charity and respect for the human person. The second duty is to secure one’s border and enforce the law for the sake of the common good. Balancing these two duties is not easy, so we must pray for our governmental officials and urge them to work in a bipartisan manner to reach this balance and enact comprehensive immigration reform.
May God give us this grace. Amen.