(Source: Novena/Michele Raviart, Vatican News)

The role of young people in shaping society will be central in the world that will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. We can only emerge better from this crisis if we overcome individualism and include those who are most vulnerable and marginalised, such as migrants and refugees.

These were amongst the considerations raised by Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, in a speech during an online conference at the Catholic Jesuit Center of Sophia University in Tokyo.

The effects of the pandemic on migrants

The event took place one year from Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Japan and included a series of meetings to reflect on the Pope’s words – in particular, on the connection between “protecting all life” and the challenges the world is facing with COVID-19.

Taking inspiration from the Pope’s reflections of the past months and the encyclical letter Fratelli tutti, Cardinal Czerny on Friday invited his audience to think “of how the COVID crisis affects migrants, refugees, displaced peoples, and victims of human trafficking”.

The coronavirus “has shone an unusual light on these populations. Even ‘normal’ times are not normal for them. They are accustomed to enduring months and typically years of uncertainty, acute anxiety, precarious nutrition and lodging, poor health, legal limbo, and either unemployment or the risk of exploitation and abuse if they do find paid work”, Czerny denounced.

Migrants, refugees, displaced peoples, and victims of human trafficking cannot go back to their countries of origin because of the closure of borders and they find themselves with even fewer means to survive, the cardinal added.

Governments seek solutions for their citizens and migrants and refugees risk being “doubly – and sometimes even deliberately – forgotten”, he lamented.

This happens, Czerny went on, while foreigners’ contributions to society in this period have been crucial: think of farm labourers or those in charge of distribution and delivery, many of whom live in shantytowns without social distancing, in camps or detention centres.

The “virus” of injustice

Cardinal Czerny noted that the pandemic has struck a society in which there is already widespread injustice – a “big virus” in addition to the “small but terrible virus” of COVID-19: a “larger virus” of social injustice, inequality of opportunity, marginalisation, and the lack of protection for the weakest.

He recalled the Pope’s definition of injustice as a virus from which one can defend oneself with the antibodies of justice, clarity and solidarity.

“As we think about the plight of these vulnerable populations, Pope Francis offers a number of vital lessons”, Czerny explained:

● We must put the common good above self-centeredness;
● We must reject the ruinous ideologies of indifference, invisibility and individualism;
● We must not ignore and we must not forget;
● We must not foster divisions;
● We must not be hypocrites;
● We must reject an economic model based on greed, zeal for profit, and instant gratification;
● We must put people first, rejecting purely technocratic solutions

The cardinal added that the pandemic has highlighted both our vulnerability and our interdependence.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, he explained, because these are two factors that unite us and, if we emerge better from these crises, it will be by not falling into the temptation of individualism, be it personal or collective, often expressed in the form of political nationalism and narrow economic interests.

The teachings of Fratelli tutti

The cardinal said the answer to the crisis can be found in some ancient teachings of the Christian tradition, as is made clear in Fratelli tutti, where the Pope asks us to establish fraternity and social friendship among all peoples and nations.

This, Czerny explained, has clear implications for vulnerable populations such as migrants and refugees.

He also called for the right not to migrate that implies the right of all men and women to obtain self-realisation and not be forced to flee tragedies such as hunger, war and climate change to seek new opportunities and to dream of a better future.

The cardinal decried the many obstacles migrants and refugees face, starting from nationalist and populist regimes that try to exclude foreigners, entrenched as they are behind defensive walls and a xenophobic mentality that, Czerny said, is not compatible with Christianity. 

Young people

The decisive role in creating a culture of fraternity, solidarity and gratuitousness will be played by young people, Czerny insisted.

Respect for history, for the elderly, for Creation and a commitment to social dialogue between generations and to solidarity are the founding values for a better society, the Vatican official went on, encouraging an attitude of openness towards migrants and refugees.

The pandemic, Czerny concluded, has put us all in crisis” but as Pope Francis says: “Let us remember that after a crisis a person is not the same. We come out of it better, or we come out of it worse. This is our option”.

More on Novena on the Church’s concern for migrants during COVID:

Cardinal Hollerich warns: “The EU will lose its soul in the Mediterranean if it does not save refugees from drowning”

German abbess prosecuted for sheltering asylum seekers wins Göttingen Peace Prize

Spanish bishop denounces drama of migrants on Canary Islands: “We must treat them as people, help them and take them in”

Bishops clamour: “European solidarity should extend urgently to refugees, seriously threatened by the virus” (full text)