Whenever we have been at our best, as Christians, we have opened our churches as sanctuaries to the poor and the endangered. We have a long, proud history wherein refugees, homeless persons, immigrants facing deportation and others who are endangered take shelter inside our churches. If we believe what Jesus tells us about the Last Judgment in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, this should serve us well when we stand before God at the end.

Unfortunately, our churches have not always provided that same kind of sanctuary (safety and shelter) to those who are refugees, immigrants and homeless in their relationship to God and our churches. There are millions of persons today, perhaps the majority within our nations, who are looking for a safe harbour in terms of sorting out their faith and their relationship to the Church. Sadly, too often our rigid paradigms of orthodoxy, ecclesiology, ecumenism, liturgy, sacramental practice and canon law, however well-intentioned, have made our churches places where no such sanctuary is offered and where the wide embrace practised by Jesus is not mirrored. Instead, our churches are often harbours only for persons who are already safe, already comforted, already church-observing, already solid ecclesial citizens.

That was hardly the situation within Jesus’s own ministry. He was a safe sanctuary for everyone, religious and non-religious alike. While he didn’t ignore the committed religious persons around him, the Scribes and Pharisees, his ministry always reached out and included those whose religious practice was weak or non-existent.

Moreover, he reached out especially to those whose moral lives where not in formal harmony with the religious practices of the time, those deemed as sinners. Significantly, too, he did not ask for repentance from those deemed as sinners before he sat down at table with them. He set out no moral or ecclesial conditions as a prerequisite to meet or dine with him. Many repented after meeting and dining with him, but that repentance was never a pre-condition. In his person and in his ministry, Jesus did not discriminate. He offered a safe sanctuary for everyone.

We need today in our churches to challenge ourselves on this. From pastors, to parish councils, to pastoral teams, to diocesan regulators, to bishops’ conferences, to those responsible for applying canon and Church law, to our own personal attitudes, we all need to ask: are our churches places of sanctuary for those who are refugees, homeless and poor ecclesially? Do our pastoral practices mirror Jesus? Is our embrace as wide as that of Jesus?

These are not fanciful ideals. This is the Gospel which we can easily lose sight of, for seemingly all the right reasons. I remember a diocesan synod in which I participated some 20 years ago. At one stage in the process we were divided in small groups and each group was given the question: what, before all else, should the Church be saying to the world today?

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