One of the bigger Vatican stories this week came in the unlikely form of a papal reaction to a photograph. On Wednesday, the Vatican released a statement saying Francis was heartsick about the image of a father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande to reach the United States.
“The pope is profoundly saddened by their death, and [he] is praying for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery,” said the statement signed by the director ad interim of the Vatican’s press office, Alessandro Gisotti.
Some observers may be tempted to say, “Of course that’s what Francis would say … we all know he’s pro-immigrant.”
It’s worth asking, however, how the pope’s compassion for migrants has become such common knowledge. It’s not primarily because Francis talks about immigrants a lot, although he does. Mostly, it’s because of his gestures - scores of them, one after another, in which the pontiff has found imaginative ways to make the point.
Shortly after his election in 2013, Francis traveled to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a major arrival point for migrants and refugees from North Africa seeking to enter Europe. He laid a wreath in the sea to commemorate those who have died trying to make the crossing, and he spent time in a detention center consoling those who’ve made it but now find themselves in a legal and political limbo.
In 2016, Francis one-upped himself by visiting another Mediterranean island that’s a major arrival point, the Greek island of Lesbos, and in that case he actually brought 12 Syrian refugees back to Rome with him aboard the papal plane.
That same year, Francis also visited Mexico and made a point of traveling to the U.S./Mexico border, mourning those who’ve died either in the Rio Grande or in deserts trying to make that crossing, in what was clearly a politically charged decision in an American election year.
It’s natural to wonder why Francis keeps repeating these pro-immigrant statements and gestures, since surely the point has been made by now. However, any classroom teacher will tell you that repetition is the key to effective communication - if you want people to absorb something, you have to keep saying it or doing it, over and over again, until it becomes muscle memory.
The same point applies to the Catholic bishops of the U.S., who likewise have made defending the rights of immigrants one of their top priorities.
In 2014, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston led a group of U.S. bishops to Nogales, Arizona, with the highlight being a Mass celebrated at the border fence with participants from both sides. Communion was actually distributed through slats in the fence, offering a dramatic representation of a spiritual solidarity with other people that transcends national boundaries.
Similarly, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, respectively the president and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led a group of prelates to San Juan, Texas for a border visit in 2018. Earlier this week, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, escorted a group of migrants requesting asylum across the U.S./Mexico border.
Cynics may wonder if all this is sound and fury signifying nothing, since Francis’s dramatic gestures haven’t stopped Italians from voting for the fiercely anti-immigrant Matteo Salvini, and neither Francis nor the U.S. bishops impeded Americans from electing Donald Trump.
Still, what these iconic moments have done is to at least make the Church’s position clear. Heading into another election cycle in America, the country’s bishops may need to steal a page from their boss and double down, finding new ways to make essentially repetitive gestures interesting.
Here’s just one thought, among a number of possibilities.
Suppose five bishops were to agree to make a border trip together: Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C.; Gomez of Los Angeles; Archbishop Bernie Hebda of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; DiNardo of Galveston-Houston; and Bishop Gerald Vincke of Salina, Kansas.
First, Washington and L.A. represent the East and West coasts, Minneapolis the northern border and Houston the southern, while Salina is the diocese which includes the geographic center of the United States. It would be a way of saying that from east to west, north to south, and everything in between, the bishops are united.
Thinking graphically, one could draw horizontal and vertical lines over an American map to show where the participating bishops are from - and presto, you’ve got a cross superimposed over the United States, an instant reminder of the crosses that immigrants often bear.
Finally, each of the five bishops has a story to tell about immigration and cultural diversity in America. Gregory is African-American, Gomez the most senior Hispanic prelate in the country, Di Nardo the descendant of Italian immigrants, Hebda comes from Polish immigrant stock, and Vincke grew up as part of a German immigrant farm family.
With these five prelates as the catalyst, other bishops and prominent Catholic leaders could be drawn to the event, much like what happens with the annual March for Life and the vigil Mass the night before to show a united front on abortion. A side benefit for U.S. prelates might be improving their relationship with Pope Francis and his team, which has been distinctly tepid at times.
Granted, some prelates may be tempted to think that this is not the time to be trying to make grand social and political statements, given the damage done to the Church’s moral authority by the clerical abuse crisis. However, as any sports coach will tell you, the only way to get back into the game is by getting back into the game.
Whether such an assembly is feasible is anybody’s guess, but the point is that the U.S. will need to think creatively about how to keep getting their message across - especially, perhaps, at a moment in American history when a sizeable share of the population doesn’t seem eager to hear it.