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The Holy Family in Exile – Icon of Refugees

cover of kit depicting the Holy Family in ExileThis is a reflection that I wrote for the Australian Catholic Migrant & Refugee Office’s kit for Migrant & Refugee Sunday. You can download the whole kit here.

The Holy Family in Exile
If you were asked to paint an icon of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, how would you depict them in a symbol or image? The dominant images in the media have been of boats rather than people. When we have glimpsed the people in the boats, we have largely seen men on their own, not whole families. Our faith sources suggest quite a different icon or symbol.

Writing in 1952, Pope Pius XII set out systematically for the first time a plan for how the Church around the world should exercise pastoral care for migrants and refugees. He held up the Holy Family as the icon of people on the move:

“The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, is the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave their native land, their beloved parents and relatives, their close friends, and to seek a foreign soil.” (Pius XII, Exsul Familia Nazarethana, 1952)

Women and children are not a large proportion of those currently trying to reach Australia by boat in order to seek asylum, but internationally they are the majority of asylum seekers, refugees, and forced migrants. Often families are split as women and children wait while their men take the most extreme risks to find a place of safety for the family. Families cannot always flee together. Modern day Josephs may need to go ahead and prepare the way.
While focusing on onshore asylum seekers makes vulnerable women and children less visible, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples holds up Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as the icon of refugee women, saying that she can be:

“… contemplated as a living symbol of the woman emigrant. She gave birth to her Son away from home (cf. Lk 2:1-7) and was compelled to flee to Egypt (cf. Mt 2:13-14). Popular devotion is right to consider Mary as the Madonna of the Way.” (Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi, 2004 n 15)

Perhaps you, or your mother or grandmother, also gave birth far from home and the support of relatives? It is good for us to remember our own family stories that connect us to this experience. If we can place ourselves imaginatively in the shoes of today’s Mary’s our views on asylum and migration policies might become more welcoming. Who are we rejecting by saying there is no room at the inn?

Let us remember that the asylum seeker men who we sometimes glimpse in the news also have mothers. Each one is someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s brother. Their stories are embedded in a network of relationships. They are the stories of whole families fractured by persecution and deprivation. They are stories of suffering and vulnerability, of flight from violence and want, stories of courage, hope and the search for safe haven. They are stories like that of the Holy Family.

Our sense of being one human family is a fragile thing. We don’t always seem to experience the suffering, vulnerability and hopes of people on the move as though they are in fact our sisters and brothers. The Holy Family is their family and ours too. It is not enough for us to say there is no room at the inn, or that Herod’s wrath is not our fault, and that comforting the weeping Rachel is not our responsibility.

In Jesus, God not only took the side of the poorest and most marginalized but actually became a refugee, a foreigner, an outsider among us:

“Born away from home and coming from another land (cf. Lk 2:4-7), “he came to dwell among us” (cf. Jn 1:11,14) and spent His public life on the move, going through towns and villages (cf. Lk 13:22; Mt 9:35).
After His resurrection, still a foreigner and unknown, He appeared on the way to Emmaus to two of His disciples, who only recognized Him at the breaking of the bread (cf. Lk 24:35). So Christians are followers of a man on the move “who has nowhere to lay his head (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58)”.” (Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Erga Migrantes Caritas Christi, 2004 n 15)

When we close our hearts and our borders to families feeing violence, persecution and want, we prolong the exile of the Holy Family. When we give temporary rather than permanent visas we leave families living in fear while waiting for Herod to die. When we refuse the possibility of family reunification we separate Mary and Joseph and leave Jesus lacking a guardian. The drama of the Holy Family in exile continues to be lived today prompting Pope Francis to ask at Lampedusa:

“Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? … the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! In the Gospel we have heard the crying, the wailing, the great lamentation: “Rachel weeps for her children… because they are no more”. Herod sowed death to protect his own comfort … and so it continues… Let us ask the Lord to remove the part of Herod that lurks in our hearts; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this.” (Pope Francis, Homily, 8 July 2103, Lampedusa)

Sandie Cornish

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