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Welcome, protect, promote, integrate: the Eucharist and the refugee
20 June 2017

Pope Francis during a mass on the island of Lampedusa in Italy where thousands of refugees have come fleeing violence and unrest in Northern Africa and the Middle East. (© ANSA/C.Fusco)

Vatican, 20 June 2017 - Pope Francis chose the Feast of Corpus Christi last Sunday to speak again about his concerns for refugees, as the United Nations' World Day for Refugees comes around on 20th June. After praying the Angelus he asked the world to listen to the stories of grief and hope told by refugees: it is in these personal encounters that fear and distorted ideologies are banished, and bridges built. 

Pope Francis suggested earlier this year that our response to refugees should be articulated in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote, integrate. While listening to his Angelus talk, however, I was struck for the first time by how these verbs express, and are rooted in, a profoundly Eucharistic theology. 

Pope Francis began his Angelus catechesis by noting that the Church is gathered around the Eucharist, and he says later that Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist in the same way that he approached the two dismayed disciples at Emmaus who had just seen all their hopes and dreams destroyed. We often make the mistake of thinking that it is the we who do something at the Eucharist: we "attend" Mass, we "prepare" the liturgy, we "make" a good celebration. In fact, it is not that we gather, or that we initiate the Eucharistic celebration: it is the Lord who takes the initiative. Jesus gathers us in, and makes himself present to us in our isolation, fear, and self-centredness. It is Jesus, present and alive in the Eucharist, who does something to us. He welcomes us, and in that loving hospitality we are made aware that we are not alone. 

We are then reminded by Pope Francis that the Eucharist is real food that "sustains one on the way to the Promised Land." Jesus gives us his flesh to "make the world live", and Pope Francis describes Jesus here as the "supportive presence" that nourishes and comforts us. In a world where hope can seem elusive, and where violence and fear can threaten to overwhelm our humanity, Jesus protects us on our pilgrim way.

The Eucharist is ever and always a dynamic event of gathering in and sending out: the Church is welcomed and sustained so that it may be missioned. As Pope Francis expressed it in his Angelus talk, "in the Eucharist, Jesus offers Himself as spiritual strength to help us put His commandment into practice." We are leaven for the world, sent out to love one another just as Jesus has loved us. We are not just receivers in the Eucharist: by feeding us, Jesus enables us to become actors ourselves in the great plan that God has for his creation. Jesus promotes our growth and our participation in God's active desire for the world's flourishing. 

At the end of his Angelus talk, Pope Francis prayed that we might rediscover the beauty of the Eucharist, which nourishes us so that we might live in communion with God and with our sisters and brothers. It can be tempting to regard the Eucharist as simply a kind of identity-marker for Christians, or a reward for the virtuous. We forget that when Jesus looked out at the men gathered around him on the night before he died, he knew that they were weak and fearful, and that they would all abandon him. His response to their betrayal was to offer them communion and forgiveness: take, eat, remember, act. The bread is broken for, the wine is poured out for; Pope Francis suggests that what it is for is to build "hospitable communities open to the needs of all, especially of the most frail, poor and needy persons." In the Eucharist, Jesus integrates us into community and into communion: no one is excluded from the love of God. 

In the celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus welcomes, protects, promotes, and integrates us into His body: nourished by the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ. We in our turn then become ourselves bread broken for the world: we are sent to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate all the many children of God whom we encounter, and particularly those who are described by Pope Francis as "the most frail, poor, and needy persons". To respond to the needs and cries of the refugee is to live the Eucharist. 

Fr Aloysious Mowe SJ, JRS International Director of Advocacy and Communications

(Photo source: UNHCR)

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