Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, addresses the congregation during a “Prayer Vigil for Migrant Justice” at St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix Oct. 11, 2021. (CNS screen grab/Facebook, St. Mary’s Basilica)

By Tony GutiƩrrez, Catholic News Service

PHOENIX (CNS) — One family fled cartel violence in their small town in Zacatecas, Mexico. Another fled Honduras after the coronavirus pandemic and tropical storms decimated their business and left them impoverished.

These stories were among a handful shared by Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative at a “Prayer Vigil for Migrant Justice” Oct. 11 at St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix.

Williams said the family from Zacatecas struck her when the patriarch shared how they had planted peach trees with the hope that by the time they had matured, the cartels would have left.

“Those peaches are now bearing fruit, and the fruit is falling to the ground because there’s no one there to harvest it, and it’s rotting on the ground,” she said, relating what the father told her. After another cartel moved in and threatened the family, they left and arrived in Nogales, Mexico.

“They’re in the very country that they’re fleeing from. But they didn’t want to flee,” she said. “They believed that they had a future until the circumstances showed them that that wasn’t possible.”

The Arizona-based Catholic Coalition for Migrant Justice sponsored the prayer vigil, which included biblical passages challenging listeners to “welcome the stranger,” including Leviticus 19 and the “Sheep and the Goats” from Matthew 25.

The coalition is mainly parish-based, with 37 parishes represented, but includes other apostolates, such as the Kino Border Initiative.

Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted addresses the congregation during a “Prayer Vigil for Migrant Justice” at St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix Oct. 11, 2021. (CNS screen grab/Facebook, St. Mary’s Basilica)

In his remarks, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted reflected on the “Catholic Principles of Migration,” as outlined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We have all heard of the record numbers of immigrants at the southern U.S. border — tens of thousands have been detained while crossing, and the bodies of hundreds more have been recovered from the desert,” he said.

“Our immigration laws are chaotic, and, when selectively enforced, they create dangerous situations for the immigrants as well as for residents in the United States,” he said.

Bishop Olmsted called to mind Pope Francis’ 2019 Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which had as its theme, “It is not just about migrants.” At its root, the immigration crisis is a crisis of faith in failing to recognize our Jesus Christ in the suffering and the needy, he said.

“There has been a lamentable rise in anger toward migrants that is unbecoming of a nation of immigrants with such a clear and defined Christian heritage. If we are honest with ourselves, we can recognize that prejudice is a driving factor behind much of our political discourse,” Bishop Olmsted said.

“The most troubling aspect behind the debate on immigration is that we, as Catholics no longer see the strangers among us as our brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said, “but only as perhaps thieves or criminals or a means to an end. This is our ‘crisis within.'”

The bishop tied in the current migration crisis to the “Las Posadas” tradition, in which people representing Mary and Joseph go from door to door seeking shelter until they are finally welcomed in when the innkeeper recognizes that among them is “someone special and worthy of respect.”

“The most common responses to undocumented immigrants are dehumanizing — labeling them ‘criminal aliens’ and ignoring the real and essential human needs, including poverty and lack of work, that led them to journey far from home, often at great risks,” he said.

“The response from many Christians would change if the weary and desperate face before us was Jesus Christ himself. The Catholic response always begins with Jesus Christ and our recognition that the immigrant is, in fact, ‘someone special who is worthy of respect.'”

In remarks offered at the beginning of the vigil, coalition chairman Saul Solis, who attends St. Timothy Parish in Mesa, Arizona, said his mother left Mexico at age 12 because her father was ill, and she needed to find a way to support her mother and siblings.

“She was lucky to find compassionate people who took her in, and this became her country,” Solis said.

The purpose of the vigil, he said in comments sent to Catholic News Service, was to pray for the immigrants as they struggle to seek a new life in the U.S., to promote the church’s moral authority on immigration.

It also was aimed at inviting Catholics to embrace that teaching and to pray for political leaders to “find the strength and courage to pass just and compassionate immigration laws and policies,” he said.

In an interview with CNS, Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona, who attends St. Catherine of Siena Parish in South Phoenix, noted the need to overcome the division in society.

“We cannot be partisan; we have to work on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “We have to move beyond what’s been dividing us. We need to solve these problems; we can’t just go around fighting because we belong to one party.”

Alan Tavassoli, president of the Catholic Coalition for Migrant Justice, addresses the congregation during a “Prayer Vigil for Migrant Justice” at St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix Oct. 11, 2021. (CNS screen grab/Facebook, St. Mary’s Basilica)

The coalition’s primary function is to be prayer-based and educational, said coalition president Alan Tavassoli, who attends Corpus Christi Parish in Phoenix.

“It’s important to embrace Catholic social teaching on these issues, so, the prayer vigil evolved from that and trying to get the idea that God is with us, and that prayer is a key aspect to our work,” he said. “The bishop was eager to accept the invitation to explain the church’s position and moral teaching on this issue.”

It is the work of every Christian to ensure that political loyalties and points of view do not dominate the dialogue on any issue, including immigration, Bishop Olmsted said.

“No member of the faithful should find himself or herself directed by the political views of society without first being informed and empowered by the Gospel mandate to care for our brothers and sisters and especially, for the least among us,” he said, closing his homily.

“We are all involved in a daily real-life posada, on one side of the door or the other. Will we decide to reject or to embrace the ‘Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus’ that come to us?” he asked.

Read Bishop Olmsted’s prepared remarks.