When Catherine wrote this article about refugees in 1981, she didn’t need to "identify" with them. She herself was a refugee.
During the Russian Revolution, she and her husband, like hundreds of thousands today, had to leave everything they had and flee for their lives.
On a donkey, holding a baby in her arms and occasionally touching the hand of Saint Joseph, Our Lady and her Son wended their way to Egypt.
They were the first refugees. Oh, there had probably been many refugees before them, and certainly millions of them afterwards.
But these three were exceedingly special. There was the Mother of God, there was his foster-father, the husband of Mary, and there was He. I wonder, I just wonder, how she felt.
Why do I wonder? Because it seems to me that I felt like she did. And I think that thousands of us, refugees all over the world, felt like she did. She was torn from her country—true, by an edict from God.
An angel came to visit St. Joseph, and told him to take his foster-child and the Mother to Egypt. This resulted in the incredible thing that it really was: that there was no room for Jesus in his own country.
In a sense, the country rejected him, and he was a refugee. What goes into that word? What agony! What tragedy! What incredible pain!
There, in one’s human hands cupped together lies the very essence of faith.
True, they rejected him in his country. He was crucified. But at a tender age—we don’t know exactly when—but at a tender age, in the arms of his Mother, he was a sort of forerunner for the thousands and thousands that came … from where?
Only God knew the whys and the wherefores of it all. And only God knew the tremendous pain of it all. To be a refugee, to be a stranger in a strange land, to take such a long time to acclimatize oneself to it, and some cannot do it.
Is it a wonder that being a refugee myself, I pondered time and again over that Holy Family who came on a donkey.
He was a carpenter. He probably got himself a job right away. How long did he stay? I don’t know. Perhaps some learned theologians know but I don’t know.
But the Lord was several years older before he returned to his own land. Thousands, millions, billions never did, never could return to their own land.
The only way we could find peace, perhaps even solace, was to understand that even in this world you can enter into the Communion of Saints. Then you cease to be a refugee, because the Communion of Saints belongs to everyone, and anyone can enter.
True, at the door as it were of that Communion of Saints, someone asks, "Have you forgiven all those who hurt you? Have you loved your enemies?" And if the answer is yes, then the doors open wide.
You cease to be a refugee, and you belong, now, today, to the Communion of Saints because God really meant that we should all be saints. For a saint is simply a person who loves—loves and forgives. That’s all.
However, let’s look around. Let’s look around at all those who come within our countries. Truly, in Canada and the U.S.A., if the truth be told, all of us are refugees or at least immigrants. Perhaps to the Indians alone belongs this land of plenty. But we took it away from them.
Since then, we have taken so much away from so many. We have given them poor jobs. We have let them work for a mere pittance. In a way, we have killed them, not with kindness, but with hard work that no one else would like to take up.
Yes. That’s the way it used to be. That’s the way it still is. What is a refugee? It is someone who has to spend their lifetime listening to being called a dirty Polack or a Mick or a Kike, or some strange names given to people, names that leave deep and lasting wounds in the hearts of many.
Some adapt themselves. Some change their way of life somehow. But they don’t have to. Instead, they could bring to this Communion of Saints their own beautiful customs and ways.
But these are usually disregarded for a strange uniformity that really isn’t uniformity at all. Because to exchange a beautiful Polish costume or Ukranian costume for a bikini, to walk about on the city streets, doesn’t add anything, except a little bit more pain to an already overflowing torrent of pain.
What is a refugee? Yes, some adapt. Some enter into the life of the country. And the strange part is that they love it, they love it deeply and profoundly, and are intensely grateful for the crumbs fallen from the table at which Lazarus ate. Some are very grateful.
I know. My son said to me when I gave him permission to enlist at 18 in the Second World War—he said: "Mother, Canada has given us life, renewed it. Now we must give our life for Canada."
That was all right. That was what I expected him to do. But does anybody have to give their lives to create new refugees again? That’s what happened.
What is a refugee? It’s a person that understands you but will never be satisfied.
To be an immigrant is one thing. To desire to come to a new country for its opportunities or whatever is one thing.
To come because one has to, because there is no other place to go—that’s a refugee. Notwithstanding all things that are so difficult in the nitty-gritty way of life, or ordinary life —notwithstanding all this, deep gratitude wells from the heart of the refugee.
It did to me anyhow. I was filled with it. It carried me across chasms and torrents of hatred, dislike, prodding of all kinds and what have you.
It was there, that gratitude, and it was lifted up every day to God for that country, whatever it may have been, that received us and allowed us to feel at home again.
A refugee is the essence and the reality of gratitude, or should be. At the same time, to be a refugee is to have a wound that can never be healed. For one is not torn away from one’s country and thrown into another just like that. Tremendous changes occur.
So what is a refugee? A refugee is a beggar who above all begs for the comfort of a kind word. All the rest is secondary.
In a word, a refugee is one of the Holy Three who long ago and far away came from Israel to Egypt and who like all the refugees must have had this sense of deep gratitude and this strange wound.
So when we come so close, when we who are refugees come close to despair, we must never forget that we are in good company, that the Holy Three are with us: Our Lady, her Son and his foster-father.
—Adapted from Restoration, September 1981
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