The Child Refugee, Jesus

“The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” painted in 1609 by German artist Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610). (Public Domain)
“The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” painted in 1609 by German artist Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610). (Public Domain)

Take the child and his mother, flee into Egypt …” With this command from the Angel, Joseph, in the middle of the night, fled the massacre that King Herod intended for the child Jesus; and the Holy Family became refugees (Mt 2:13f).

While it is true that Egypt had been a place of refuge for the Jewish people for centuries, and that a sizeable Jewish population resided in various parts of the country at that time, most notably in Alexandria, nonetheless the child Jesus and his parents were not spared the uncertainty, danger and hardship that is the daily lot of refugees. Sadly, this tragic drama of human suffering has greatly escalated in recent years.

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese's 1.1 million Catholics.
The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s 1.1 million Catholics.

Today, there are more children refugees than ever witnessed in recorded history. At least 20 million vulnerable refugees have been forcibly displaced worldwide; a large portion of them are children. For this reason, on Sept. 8 of this year, Pope Francis felt “compelled to draw attention to the reality of child migrants, especially the ones who are alone.” In his message, he reminded us that “in Jesus God became a child” to express His “loving proximity to the smallest and the weakest.” Extending solidarity with child refugees remains an integral part of the mission that He entrusted to His disciples (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2017: “Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless”).

Child migrants are especially vulnerable and defenseless in three ways: first, simply because they are children; second, because they are foreigners; and third, because they have no means of protecting themselves.

EN ESPAÑOL: El niño refugiado, Jesús

The reasons for so many child refugees are numerous; they include violence, poverty, environmental hazards and exploitation by the unscrupulous seeking to turn a fast profit. Without adults accompanying them, these children often end up at the lowest levels of human degradation, unable to defend themselves. Child trafficking and the abuse of minors are crimes that are tragically escalating in our day.

What can we who love Jesus do for child migrants today? Perhaps we should begin by recalling God’s exhortation to Moses at the time of the Exodus (Dt 10:17-19), “The Lord, your God … who has no favorites, accepts no bribes, … executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and befriends the alien …. So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”

Migration is in our DNA as disciples of Jesus; it is part and parcel of our salvation history. The Church is composed of members from “every nation, race, people and tongue” (Rev 7:9). We who are Christians, along with our Jewish brothers and sisters, know the blessing of being welcomed by others and know that it is our duty and honor to welcome the stranger, especially those who are children. As the Holy Father wrote (Ibid.), “Each person is precious, persons are more important than things, and the worth of an institution is measured by the way it treats the life and dignity of human beings, particularly when they are vulnerable, in the case of child migrants.”

For more than a century, the Church has taken the lead in our country’s hospitality to migrants and refugees. Here in the United States — the only country in the world that accepts unaccompanied minor refugees — Catholic Charities has been at the forefront of these welcoming efforts, working closely with pastors and laity in individual parishes, as well as the U.S. Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services agency. I am deeply grateful for the vital contribution that has been made in this regard here in Arizona by our own Catholic Charities agency, which serves both unaccompanied refugee children and entire refugee families who have been displaced from their homelands. These efforts deserve and need our support and collaboration in order to guarantee the safety and protection of child migrants and, when they cannot be safely repatriated, to help them become integrated into American society. Together with them, we need to search for long-term solutions. As our Holy Father wrote (Ibid.), “Since this is a complex phenomenon, the question of child migrants must be tackled at its source. Wars, human rights violations, corruption, poverty, environmental imbalance and disasters, are all causes of this problem.”

As we recall during this holy season how Jesus, as a little child, suffered the hardship of being a refugee along with Mary and Joseph, let us not grow weary of welcoming the Lord Jesus among the smallest and most vulnerable who come, in our day, to our beloved country.