By Bishop Edward J. Burns, September 2015 Southeast Alaska Catholic

Although the Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis is scheduled to officially begin on December 8th, 2015, I wonder if perhaps the overture to the Year of Mercy might have actually begun in July 2013. That summer Pope Francis made his first papal visit, not to New York or Paris or even to his hometown of Buenos Aires, but to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where in recent years tens of thousands of African refugees and migrants have made landfall and where thousands have drowned attempting to make the sea crossing from Africa to Europe. He visited Lampedusa to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the millions of people worldwide who are on the move seeking asylum, safety and a better life.

Syrian refugee children scream as they sit in front of Macedonian riot police at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the village of Idomeni, Greece, Aug. 21. Pope Francis referred to the plight of persecuted Christians during his Aug. 30 audience address. (CNS photo/Yannis Behrakis, Reuters) See AUSTRIA-MIGRANTS-TRUCK and POPE-PERSECUTION Aug. 31, 2015.
Syrian refugee children scream as they sit in front of Macedonian riot police at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the village of Idomeni, Greece, Aug. 21. Pope Francis referred to the plight of persecuted Christians during his Aug. 30 audience address. (CNS photo/Yannis Behrakis, Reuters)

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 59 million people around the world are refugees and migrants, fleeing civil wars and religious persecution as well as drought, flooding, famine and other natural disasters. In his message from Lampedusa, the Holy Father spoke out against what he termed “the globalization of indifference” that has left so many of our brothers and sisters abandoned and without hope in refugee camps and shanty towns.

In contrast to so much indifference to the suffering and misery of migrants and refugees, the Holy Father proposed mercy and solidarity. In Latin, the word for mercy is “misericordia,” which can be translated to mean “a heart inclined or sensitive to those in misery.” Mercy is, of course, revealed to us in the Old Testament and most perfectly in the person of Jesus, as a characteristic of the very nature of God, whose mercy is infinite and without limit.

In recent weeks, the misery of the long-suffering Syrian and Iraqi refugees seeking asylum in Europe has become more and more impossible to overlook. Refugees by the thousands have been making the perilous journey by land and sea to southern Europe in the hope of finding asylum in the countries of the European Union. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, in which over 200,000 people have been killed, an estimated four million Syrian and Iraqi refugees have fled Syria to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Iraqis fleeing Syria, many of whom are Christians, initially sought refuge in that still peaceful country from violence and persecution after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Another 6.5 million Syrians are internal refugees within Syria, forced out of their homes by the war or the threat of violence and unable to leave the country.

Powerless and desperate to reach safe refuge in Europe or the United States, the Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as is the case with most poor migrants around the world, are at the mercy of armed groups, corrupt officials and traffickers. Just days ago, the bodies of Syrian children who drowned in the perilous sea journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos, were found washed up on the island’s beaches. In Vienna at the end of August, police discovered the bodies of 71 Syrian refugees who had been abandoned by smugglers and suffocated in a locked cargo van. Some countries, such as Hungary, have erected border fences to keep out the growing influx of refugees. Others, such as Germany, have indicated their willingness to resettle refugees who cross their borders.

As you are no doubt aware, Catholic Relief Services is one of the most important ways in which we put into action the mercy and compassion of Christ and of his Church. I’m grateful, as a member of the Board of Catholic Relief Services, to report that CRS, together with its partners in Greece, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia is working to provide arriving refugees, especially those who are most vulnerable — women, children and the elderly– with immediate assistance, including food, water, access to sanitation, medical care and translation and legal services.

In addition to its expanding work in southern Europe, CRS continues to be a part of an international effort to provide assistance to the millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees languishing in refugee camps and settlements throughout the Middle East.

CRS has called on the Obama administration and on Congress to expand humanitarian assistance to the countries neighboring Syria who for years have been sheltering the largest numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as well as to the countries of southern Europe struggling to cope with the needs of the refugees seeking asylum.

Most importantly, CRS believes that the United States needs to increase its diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in Syria, which is the underlying cause of the current crisis.

How can we incline our hearts in mercy towards our Syrian and Iraqi brothers and sisters who are in so much misery? Let me suggest three actions each of us can take:

  1. First, pray for an end to the civil war in Syria and for Syrian and Iraqi refugees that they may find safety, shelter and welcome.
  2. Contact Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Congressman Young to urge them to continue funding international humanitarian and refugee assistance. Visit http://www.contactingthecongress.org for convenient email links.
  3. Continue your generous support for the work of Catholic Relief Services on behalf of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and other migrants. http://www.crs.org

Thank you for your prayers, advocacy and generosity, as each of us seeks to assist our neighbors in their misery with the merciful love of Jesus!