Building bridges; let’s start in our parishes


Pope Francis is a pastor of the borders.

On Feb. 17, 2016, during his visit to Mexico, Francis prayed and laid flowers at a memorial for the thousands of migrants who have died trying to reach the United States.

Its towering cross, built on a concrete platform overlooking the militarized international bridge between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Tex., was emblazoned with a silhouette of the holy family fleeing into Egypt.

Francis’ visit to the border was emblematic of the gravitational force at the heart of his pontificate: the constant pull toward the margins. Dwelling in silent prayer in a space charged with the memory of injustice and human suffering, Francis invited the whole church to dwell there too.

He invited us, in other words, to make a preferential option for the borderlands.

There we find the crucified and risen Christ whom we encounter.

But living as we do in a historical moment characterized by profound ideological polarization and wide-scale conflation of legal status with moral status, advocating for a theological and pastoral commitment to the borderlands is not easy.

In our distorted national imagination, the specter of the border looms both as a dam, holding back oncoming tides of the undesired other, and as a frontier to be conquered: militarily, economically and culturally.

Borderlands become checkpoints, endpoints, spaces of danger and suspicion beyond which we dare venture only as missionaries or tourists—never as equals, lest we, too, become undesirable.

They are spaces from which, like Nazareth, we who are formed to fear them grow to believe that nothing good can ever come.

Such formation renders empathy impossible.

In this distorted national imagination, the architectural form proper to the border is not the bridge but rather the iron fence or the concrete wall.

Taught to fear our geographical borderlands, we imbibe in turn a fear of the borders that exist within our own communities—the spaces in our parishes, neighborhoods and schools where races, cultures and classes meet.

Such fear must be rejected.

Jesus’ own thoroughgoing marginality in the Gospels invites us to recognize borders as spaces where Christ is revealed in our midst, where the church is being stretched and reshaped.

Re-envisioning borders not as spaces where identities and relationships end but rather where they might begin to grow, we are better able to perceive in them the possibility of encounter, conversion and salvation.

Solidarity across near and distant borders becomes a real possibility when we approach this joining not as a display of begrudging welcome but as a soteriological act: a desire for true communion with our neighbors.

The questions Pope Francis implicitly poses to us, then, is:

  • Where are the borders in our midst?
  • Where are we being called to build bridges?

It is tempting to believe that missionary discipleship—the outward, centrifugal impulse toward loving encounter of which Francis often speaks—compels us to journey elsewhere.

In the first world, our largely racially, culturally and economically segregated existences encourage the misconception that in order to encounter difference in consequential and challenging ways, we need to travel half a world away—as on a service trip.

The notion that the place for solidarity is somewhere else is a deceptive one, because it risks absolving us of our responsibility to scrutinize the contours of our own local realities.

I want to suggest that for Catholics, the work of solidarity across borders begins in that most local of communities: the parish. Continue reading

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