One of the few facts I recall from Peter Damian’s Life of St Romuald (whose feast we celebrate today) is that he was a kind of monastic itinerant. His zeal for reform meant that he was constantly either abandoning the monastery he had entered as being too lax or being forced from it by monks unhappy with his efforts to make them adopt a more austere manner of life. Eventually, he established the distinctive form of monasticism we now know as the Calmaldolese but I have often wondered about those years of constant disruption and movement. Benedictines have such a strong sense of place, of being rooted in it, that the idea of endless wandering, of never having a home, so to say, is quite alien. The latest report from the U.N. Refugee Agency therefore makes very sobering reading. It estimates that there are now 40 million internally displaced persons, 25.4 million refugees (19.9 million under the UNHCR mandate, 5.4 million Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA) and 3.1 million asylum seekers, an unprecedented total of 68.5 million people forced from their homes. More than half the refugees (57%) come from just three countries: South Sudan (2.4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million) and, overwhelmingly, Syria (6.3 million). Their numbers are always growing. Approximately 44,400 people are forced to flee their homes because of violence or persecution every day. That is one person every two seconds.
After a while, the statistics begin to be numbing. We have to make a conscious effort to realise that there is a human face behind every number, that over half the world’s refugees are under eighteen years of age and have little or no experience of being safe, having a home, an identity other than that of unwelcome burden on their host country. What is life like for them? How do they perceive the world in which they live? My guess is that it is cold and uncaring. There are currently 3.5 million refugees in Turkey alone, but rarely do we hear about their living conditions or the efforts being made to give them a sense of security. Instead of Christ’s words, ‘I was a stranger and you made me welcome’ we hear of attempts to limit numbers, turn people back, suspicion and hostility. At one level, that is understandable. It is usually those who are themselves vulnerable who have the closest contact with refugees and asylum seekers and are sometimes wary of what may result. But politicians often stoke up the fears because it is vote-catching. After all, it is easy to appear strong by tyrannising the weak.
I suspect most of us will respond to Refugee Week by making a donation to an appropriate agency and praying for all who are affected, but I wonder how many of us will mull over the U.N. Refugee Agency report and examine our own attitudes to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. It can be surprising, even shocking, to realise that even the most ‘liberal’ of us sometimes harbour prejudices and fears we would be reluctant to admit. I come back to St Romuald again. One of the practices he urged on his followers was the constant praying of the psalms. They contain a whole pattern of life: they make us humble, they show us our shortcomings, and they give us hope. Of all these, perhaps hope is what we most need.