Request to resettle Syrian refugees presents moral dilemma for pastor

Fr. John Gerritts
Fr. John Gerritts

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald Staff

A major decision is looming for the pastor and parishioners of St. Patrick, Hudson.

In August, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the parish to sponsor the resettlement of 21 Syrian refugees – four families and one adult female – in Hudson.

Currently housed in a refugee camp in Turkey, the Syrians are some of the 10,000 refugees the U.S. government has agreed to resettle in this country. The USCCB is taking responsibility for resettling a portion of those people.

According to information distributed by Fr. John Gerritts, pastor of St. Patrick, the Syrians chose Hudson because they have a relative living in the city. St. Patrick is one of the first parishes to be contacted through the USCCB’s resettlement program; as there are no Catholic service agencies in the city, the parish was contacted directly.

The families have been cleared for entry by May or June 2017; before that time, the parish must decide whether to sponsor them.

Sponsorship would entail connecting the refugees to local resources: food, housing, schooling, transportation, language and cultural orientation classes, employment assistance and more, Fr. Gerritts explained. The parish would be responsible for case management and helping them access local services as needed.

Refugees must undergo extensive background checks before they are allowed to enter the U.S., although, due to privacy protections, the parish will not be given more details about the refugees unless they agree to the sponsorship.

Now, they must decide.

Moral dilemma

As he wrote to Pope Francis in a letter seeking guidance, Fr. Gerritts is torn.

“If I do not say ‘yes,’ that we will do everything possible to bring these refugees to our town, it seems I would not be following Christ’s teaching, not following your teaching, and not fulfilling my responsibilities as a Catholic and pastor,” the priest wrote in August. “Further, if I say ‘no,’ I don’t know how I will ever again preach on passages of Scripture, such as Matthew 25:31ff- for when he was hungry I gave him no food, thirsty and I gave him no drink, a stranger and I did not welcome him? How can I preach a message I am not willing to live?”

However, Fr. Gerritts is aware that following Christ requires sacrifice.

“Yet if I lead our parish in bringing refugees from Syria to our town, I know I will personally be the cause for division in our parish and greater community,” he continued. “Many good and loving people are sincerely concerned bringing refugees to our country will put their own families in considerable danger. I so much want to help our parish grow in faith and bring more people to Mass. I want our Catholic School to grow as well. I am scared saying ‘yes’ could be devastating to our sense of unity. Some parishioners I know will be supportive, some indecisive, and some strongly opposed. I fear saying ‘yes’ could bring irreparable harm to our parish and to the faith of many.”

In recent homilies, Fr. Gerritts has asked parishioners to fast and pray as they consider whether to open their city to victims of war.

“While we wrestle with this difficult question, there are blessings that have already come to us. The blessings include that I have had the opportunity to visit with many people who I otherwise would not have, we have all prayed a little more, many are more educated on issues related to refugees and Syria, and several have taken a harder look at their faith and the demands our faith can often place on us,” he said in his Oct. 23 homily. “I think many realize more than ever that our faith can be a difficult road, or as I said last week – a mighty tough sycamore tree to climb.”

1 thought on “Request to resettle Syrian refugees presents moral dilemma for pastor”

  1. Thank you for the story. It seems like it comes down to well informed consciences and each parishioner’s education in moral theology. Catholic decisions are rarely choices based in opinion unless that opinion is keenly united to the will of God.

    Self preservation gone too far brings on fear and isolation. JPII and Jesus tell us, fear not, little flock.

    We live in a world of real terrorism.

    At World Youth Day in Krakow, this summer, we heard from young residents of Mosul and Bagdad and met Syrian young adults (whose group t shirts were simple white shirts with black sharpie that read, “save Syria”). One girl said that 8 in their group were moving on to Germany after WYD to find new homes. The rest had to go back because they were responsible for younger siblings and grandparents and had to go to college. One student from a war torn land said that your life is short in these areas. She worked at an after school program for children. She said you never get used to the fact that every week one of your students is shot or blown up on the way to or from school. They can be shot on their way to Mass.

    That doesn’t happen in Hudson.

    That said, we are obedient to God because we love Him. If he tells us to take action, through our bishops, we say, yes. If the people have been vetted and approved, then yes.

    Hopefully the USCCB and Catholic Charities will come up with needed funding to help St Patrick to re-home the families. Great support is found in St Paul through refugee agencies.

    We can’t take everyone. We share responsibility in the world. I hope the bishops can send a family or two to Rhinelander.

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