With many European families already opening their homes to refugees, the current head of the Jesuit’s refugee agency says Pope Francis’ appeal for parishes to open their doors offers a practical way of combating what is otherwise an overwhelming crisis.
The Roman Pontiff’s call for Europe’s parishes to take in refugees is “a very practical, concrete, manageable, idea,” said Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J., the outgoing international director for Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), in a Sept. 7 interview with CNA.
He added that the Pope’s proposal is realistic because even a small parish of a couple hundred people can find a way to take care of a single family.
“It brings down the overwhelming situation of all these images from the media … and also the negative media, who exploit that and create fear … to very practical levels of a parish.”
On Sunday, Pope Francis said all parishes, religious communities, monasteries, and sanctuaries in Europe – including the Vatican – should welcome refugee families as part of the upcoming Jubilee of Mercy.
The Roman Pontiff has frequently appealed on behalf of the plight of migrants, as hundreds of thousands of refugees continue arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
“This is something churches have always done,” said Fr. Thomas Smolich, SJ, incoming international director of JRS, in response to the Pope’s call. “Churches have always been a place of refuge.”
As the refugee crisis receives heightened attention, Fr. Smolich acknowledged reports of violence against refugees trying to cross the border into European countries. However, JRS workers on the ground have said many Europeans are welcoming the refugees.
“We are humans, and this migrant crisis, refugee crisis, brings up all of our feelings,” he said. “We have to be careful which spirit we listen to in this.”
Speaking on these media reports, and observing that the refugee crisis is apt to bring many emotions to the surface, Fr. Smolich warned against giving into fear.
“I would say, generally speaking, a spirit of fear at this time is from the evil spirit,” he said.
“A spirit of welcome, a spirit of challenge – it isn’t easy! – but I think that’s what God is inviting us to do at this time.”
While promoting this “spirit of welcome,” Fr. Smolich said the current refugee crisis could also serve as a motivator to governments in bringing about peace in the conflict regions.?
Among the conflicts driving people to Europe is the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, forcing 4 million people to flee the country.
“Most people who are forced to flee their countries want to go back,” he said. “If anything, I hope this crisis puts some pressure on the powers-that-be to say: This war in Syria has to end.”
“The best way to deal with this crisis is to find peace.”
More than 350,000 migrants have crossed into Europe in 2015, according to the BBC. Many attempt the crossing in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats, leading to scores of deaths due to drowning and starvation.
Public awareness of the refugee crisis reached an apex over the past week when the photo of a drowned Syrian toddler published by the British newspaper The Independent circulated the internet.
Aylan Al-Kurdi, 3, drowned along with his mother and older brother in a failed attempt to reach the nearby Greek island of Kos from Bodrum, their most direct passage into the European Union.
JRS already offers a France-based program for families to take in refugees, and would typically receive about five inquires per week. After the photo of Aylan went viral, however JRS officials say the the requests to host refugee families has skyrocketed.
“During the summer we received about five inquiries a week from people saying they wanted to help,” said Michel Croc, head of JRS France, according to a statement. “When the picture of the little Syrian boy was published, we received hundreds of calls.”
“We have to bring Catholics from a state of emotion and urgency to the pace of welcome, to take care of people month after month,” Croc added.
The photo of Aylan has also sparked widespread outcry over government inaction to the refugee crisis. However, Fr. Ballais said the generosity of people welcoming refugees into their homes “will encourage governments also to be more generous in their law and the structure.”
“People vote with their action and their deeds,” he said. “If governments have only hostile people, it’s very hard for governments to push through refugee-friendly policy, and many governments act out of that fear of being criticized.”?
“As Christians, our response has to be love, charity, mercy” for refugees, Fr. Ballais said. “This is the only way to overcome the bad things which happen now.”
“The Church,” he said, “as an important part of the society, an element of the European society, takes a lead, and I think we lead by example.”