Uncomfortable Questions about What it Means to Be Welcoming

Benedictines have a ‘thing’ about hospitality. The Rule encourages us to welcome all who come to the monastery tamquam Christus, as though they were Christ (RB 53.1). It is sometimes easier to do that online than it is in the flesh, because the computer or tablet can be switched off when we can give and take no more. The guest, alas, cannot. He/she must be allowed to ramble on and on, like the Tennysonian brook. The feast of St Alban, however, reminds us that the duty of hospitality may extend beyond just listening. While not yet baptized, Alban sheltered a Christian priest and gave his own life in exchange for his. The Proto-Martyr of Britain took hospitality to extreme lengths, you might say; but before we acknowledge his heroism and pass on, quietly relieved that no such demands are made on us today, let’s pause a moment. Sometimes we need the particular in order to think about the general.

During the past week the fate of two stowaways has shocked many in Britain. One was found dead on the roof of an office building in Richmond, having apparently fallen from an aircraft; another was discovered in the undercarriage of an aircraft that had flown from South Africa — an eleven-hour flight during which he would have had to endure temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius. Neither was, as far as we know, a refugee as the United Nations understands that term: both were economic migrants and, as such, likely to be returned to their country of origin if and when discovered. Their stories only made the headlines because of the circumstances in which they were found. Every week stowaways are discovered hiding in lorries or car boots and barely merit a small paragraph on the BBC web site or in the local newspaper. The words of Pope Francis in his recently published encyclical, Laudato Si, seem peculiarly apt:

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.
Laudato si, 25, emphasis mine

The thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life are putting a huge strain on their host countries. Some are indeed refugees, fleeing terror and persecution in their homeland. Others are economic migrants, like our aircraft stowaways. We use this rough-and-ready distinction to try to decide who can or cannot be admitted to our countries, but we are still left with the challenge of Pope Francis’ words. Can we claim to be civilized when we exclude from our society those we regard (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) as being a drain on it? Do we have a duty of hospitality in such circumstances and, if so, what, if any, limits should we impose? How do we reconcile the need to be fair to our own citizens with the desire to be welcoming to others, especially those who are vulnerable?

You won’t be surprised to know that I think Pope Francis’ encyclical worth studying in its entirety for what he says about this and many other subjects of common concern. He doesn’t have all the answers, but he does ask some uncomfortable questions we would all do well to consider. You can get a PDF of the text here.

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