In the fall, when I was visiting my father back in Springfield, Illinois, I took some time to visit Calvary Cemetery, where I had made hundreds of trips to for funerals as a parish priest. I was going just to visit my mother’s grave, when I decided to visit all of the family’s and relatives graves scattered throughout the cemetery. The oldest burial plot of the family is in the shadow of the obelisk on the top of President Abraham Lincoln’s tomb, in distant Oak Ridge cemetery. The name on the huge black granite family marker says “JAMES WATERS”. He was my great-great grandfather. On the other side of the monument one reads: the birthplaces of James and Mary Waters – County Carlow and County Tipperary Ireland. They, like so many before them, and so many after them headed the call of Emma Lazarus’ poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”. In search of this freedom and better life, they eventually ended up east of Springfield, Illinois as farming families, with so many others from their native land. They brought with their as well their Catholic Faith. They had the challenges of reestablishing themselves here and were grateful to be here. However, they also had to contend with a different way to speak English (not all immigrant groups have this advantage, and learning to speak another language as an adult is not easy, and sometimes just not possible. I know this from personal experience). They also had to contend with “nativism”, the KKK, and the how to become a citizen and find legal status in this country. But, mirroring the words of Father Junipero Serra in the part of the country where I now am, they lived “siempre adelante”, they always went ahead in Faith, and so must we.
As many of us gathered from the Dioceses around the country, praying and reflecting on how to work together for the common good (and with always the background of the dignity of the human person in the eyes of God) and for immigration reform, we reflected on the human stories of the many immigrant families that we came from and the many we now know and minister to and with. We know of challenges to ministry and family life, to name just two, that the inability to rectify one’s legal status brings. As pastors and ministers remembering the actual reality of our families and hearing their stories puts a human face on these struggles and is a great motivation for all of us to work and minister together for our immigrants in the present moment. More of these stories will be forthcoming in the days ahead, but they are above all, accounts of the presence of God in the inherent worth of each individual who comes to our country bringing their Faith and culture, and seeking a better life for their families. And, because so many of them are our brothers and sisters in our Catholic Faith, we are all family together. Approached together by all of us in Faith, the common good is strengthened.
It is worthwhile to remember some relevant words of Pope Benedict XVI as a background for the current day: “The noble goal of attaining the common good through an ordered social life can only be attained if political leaders are devoted to ensuring the welfare of individuals and groups in the spirit of integrity and fairness…The Church thus works for the building of a harmonious and just society, while at the same time respecting and encouraging the freedom and responsibility of citizens to participate in the political process and in the pursuit of the common good… (June 16, 2005).