(Washington, D.C.) March 2, 2016 — Last December, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA’s Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J. delivered a homily during a Mass in the Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart at Georgetown University celebrating The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The service also marked the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and inaugurated the JRS Mercy in Motion refugee education campaign.
Fr. O’Donovan’s homily follows
“Hail, full of grace,” says the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary of Nazareth, according to the Gospel of Luke. “The Lord is with you.” She is free from all sin, immaculate — as we are all meant to be. And today we celebrate the feast of her Immaculate Conception, and remember her as the patron of the United States.
But Maria Jose Mambole, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, stands before a group of 30 women seated under the shade of a tree in rural Angola. She holds up a document that lists different forms of abuse women face: physical, psychological, financial, verbal, abandonment, and sexual.
“But the biggest problem is sexual," she explains. Despite the poverty and xenophobia these women already face as refugees, they are burdened with an additional power-gap due to their gender. Yet together, they have committed themselves to be activists for change.
"Jesuit Refugee Service brought a program to the women in the community which consists of seminars, informational sessions and debriefing,” Maria explains. “The program aims to stop the violence, facilitate conversations with men and intervene legally — when needed."
Monica Muzinga, also a refugee from the DRC and since 1997, explains how she, her husband and daughter lived a semi-pastoral life off the land as refugees in Angola. On a rainy night, their difficult yet simple life irrevocably changed. Four men — Monica describes them as security forces — burst into their humble home, tied up her husband and daughter and demanded money. They pleaded with these men explaining that they had no money, and in response, a rifle was pointed at her husband, accompanied by threats that he would be shot.
Not having any money to give the men, Monica was taken and gang raped. She pleaded with them to leave her seven-year-old daughter alone; her daughter was eventually spared a horrific assault. The next morning, riddled with the pain of her physical injuries and the emotional torture she endured, she reported the matter to the local chief — also referred to as the "soba" — who coldly replied that it was not his matter to deal with.
Monica's husband divorced her soon after that, claiming he could no longer be with her after being forced to watch the incident. Now she is a single mother to their daughter, unable to work as a result of the long-term injuries and chronic health problems with which the assault left her. Today, a year after the traumatic rape Monica endured, she struggles to provide for herself and her daughter, with no emotional support except for the group of activist refugee women led by Maria, the refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
After Jesus was born, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, an angel warned Joseph that King Herod was seeking to kill the new-born child, and so in haste Joseph took Mary and the child by night and fled, desperate refugees, to Egypt, only to return after the King’s death to Nazareth n Galilee, where they learned of all the children who had been killed.
It was something like that in our day for a Somali woman now a refugee in Malta.
“I am a mother of five,” she tells us, “and I lost my husband in the conflict in Somalia. I had no support, I tried to bring up my children but was unable to. Often I had no food for them; sometimes I would give them bread and in the evening I might get some beans or something. My life was like that, all the time, I had no one to help me, no place to go to work, but my children expected me to put food on the table and I didn’t have any. At the same time, life was getting more dangerous. When I was out searching for food, I’d be afraid that I would not return home, because I would be killed. There was always fighting going on. I saw people dying before my eyes all the time. There was fighting and every day I would see the body of someone I know, lying on the street. I decided to leave. I went to Ethiopia. I didn’t have any documents, so I hid from the police, crossed the border illegally and arrived in Sudan. There I found and joined a group of migrants and we decided to try to cross the desert together. I spent two months there, with very little food and water, in a very hot cave. We came to Sabha, in Libya, where we were brought before this man – anyone who crossed the border had to see him – he abducts people and asks for ransom money. Whoever doesn’t obey will stay there, where there is beating, torture. This man also takes any woman he likes. Unless every one of the group pays, they all stay there. It took three months for all of us to pay and then he transferred us to Tripoli. In Tripoli, I was detained for three months and was finally released because I was sick. Then I managed to come here “— the small island of Malta.
From the Gospel of Luke, which does not tell the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees, we read of the circumcision of Jesus, his presentation in the Temple, and then, 12 years later, how the boy is separated from his parents in Jerusalem and after an anxious search they find him in the Temple, listening to the teachers there and questioning them. Luke concludes these early stories of Mary and her son by saying that she “treasured all these things in her heart,” while “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”
Catherine Mora, a Syrian refugee and teacher today at the Jesuit Refugee Service center in Jbeil, also had happy early years. "Growing up everything was good," she says . "That is until the war started. It was hard to believe what was happening was real. They just shoot, not thinking people are actually walking there. When I went to teach each day, I would say goodbye to my mom; you walk out of your house never knowing if you're coming back."
Catherine describes growing up in Syria. "I was happy with my friends, my family. I used to be a girl scout for 15 years and loved camping." After graduating from the University of Aleppo, she had her dream job teaching in a private school in Syria. "I struggled not to leave Syria, but after three years of struggling, we couldn't stay anymore."
By the time that Catherine left with her family, the situation in Aleppo had deteriorated immensely. Electricity and water were scarce; mortars and bombings were a daily risk. What she misses most is being near her family, who, she said, is now scattered all over the world.
Catherine has been teaching at the Jesuit Refugee Service Jbeil center as an English teacher for two sessions now, or approximately one year. When she started her first session, "the children were shy, sad. They couldn't look you in the eye out of fear, clearly a reflection on their past trauma through the war."
"They used to fight when they played," she recalls. "It was all they knew." Her family is still scattered all over the world.
What we hear about Mary after the childhood of Jesus is scattered through the Gospels—and not at all extensive. Mark tells us that she and “the brothers” of Jesus are present on an occasion when he is preaching. John tells the story of a marriage feat to which both Mary and her son are invited. In a highly symbolic scene John also places her, unnamed but described as “the mother of Jesus,” along with the beloved disciple at the cross of Jesus. Despite the devotional conviction of saints like Ignatius of Loyola that the risen Jesus must have appeared to his mother, no Gospel mentions such an appearance. But at the beginning of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles we do find Mary again, in a “crowd” of disciples numbering some “one hundred and twenty people” who, at Pentecost are “filled with the Holy Spirit” and begin to speak “about God’s deeds of power.” And notice that Luke, who could so tenderly and evocatively write of Mary in his infancy narrative, does not place her at the center of the disciples but rather among them. She is indeed “a model of holiness,” as the Preface for today’s feast says, but as a friend of God and prophet, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson, “within the circle of all those who seek God, the company of saints living and dead.”
I want to call on this immaculate model of holiness, who is as we are meant to be, on behalf of the world’s refugees today, the sixty million women and men worldwide, who are meant to be recognized in their full human dignity — but are not, have their fair share of this world’s resources — but do not, be liberated from violence and oppression — but are not, and have access to the light of learning — but do not. Who will be our patron in redressing this drastic situation?
A few weeks ago in Rome, celebrating with representatives of Jesuit Refugee Service their 35th anniversary, Pope Francis said: “The Jesuit Refugee Service works to offer hope and prospects to refugees, mainly through the educational services you provide, which reach large numbers of people and is of particular importance.” “Education affords young refugees a way to discover their true calling and to develop their potential,” the Pope continued. “For this reason, during the approaching Jubilee Year of Mercy, you have set the goal of helping another hundred thousand young refugees to receive schooling.”
Faced with such urgency, and on this feast of the Immaclate Conception, who would not say, “I want to help”? And who could be a better patroness for the work the Pope commends that the woman of responsive courage and dedicated discipleship, a follower of her son, “one of our race,” “a true daughter of Eve,” “truly our sister, who as a poor and humble woman fully shared our lot,” in the words of Pope Paul VI (1975).
Let us turn to her with the refugees we hope to educate—and will educate—less as to a queen secure on her throne, but rather as a fellow pilgrim of faith; not so much as to a treasury of grace, but rather as a woman seeking God’s mercy with her sisters and brothers. She is truly our sister, sister to women bereft, sister to men bereaved; a poor woman, barefoot, a peasant, living her whole life under the oppressive occupation of her homeland, far from the elegantly attired early bourgeoisie with books and fine appointments at her disposal that we see in Renaissance paintings (beautiful though they may be).
Let her remind us to be with the lives God gives us in the current crisis; to serve them however we can, but especially with the lamp of learning; and to be their advocate. For we will never be home ourselves until they—Maria and Monica, the Somali woman in Malta, Catherine from Syria, and all the others with their own wonderful names—find a home as well.
They belong to us. And we to them. We will never be home until they find a home as well.