Welcome the guest – Fr David Holdcroft SJ

07 August 2018

sparklers line up for guestsHospitality and the sharing of bread and wine has a long tradition in our faith – something to remember on Migrant and Refugee Sunday on 26 August.

I once worked at a winery, Yalumba, just near Angaston in South Australia, for a vintage, the period of about four months where the grapes are picked, pressed and crushed. There was not much romance in this; in reality it was a lot of heavy manual labour but, despite all, there was something wholesome about working there; you felt near the earth and I was the recipient of much warm local hospitality from the families of fellow workers.

Vineyards and wineries hold a special place in our imaginations. They symbolise good health, human warmth, a shared meal with friends and family, and hospitality, given and received.

It is perhaps no coincidence then that wine and meals in general figure so much in scripture. Jesus’ first miracle was to become a divine wine maker. He was often depicted at dinner, and indeed he was criticised at times for eating and drinking with the wrong kinds of people.

Finally  he used a meal, with its bread and wine, to symbolise and eventually become his own body and blood. By our own celebration of the Eucharist we also enter powerfully into this mystery.

Part of the genius of the church is that anybody can participate in the Eucharist; the extent of this participation is up to us and our conscience. The community and its priests do not control who attends mass: the gathering each Sunday comprises people we know well and those we hardly know at all.

Know we belong

Conversely, we can go into any Catholic Church anywhere – even whose language we don’t know ­– and participate more or less fully, knowing and feeling we belong. This is indeed the sense of our universal Catholic community sharing the journey and walking together. Our first reading today recalls this sense of God’s calling us as a people on an earthly pilgrimage towards the divine.

In the last year, I sense that most of us have become tired of the refugee issue. People have entrenched positions and, although we live with unprecedented levels of refugees internationally,  there is little agreement on a way forward, certainly at a national level.

The way our public debate runs about refugees can be at times terribly impersonal, as if we were talking about a sack of potatoes kept outside the back door. If we leave them long enough they go seedy and rot and then we can discard them. We need to think more deeply of where God is calling us at this time as well as to think of new ways of thinking about the issue.

One such way could be through the lens of hospitality. Hospitality, the art giving of oneself and one’s space to another, has a long tradition in our faith, with Abraham’s welcome of the three mysterious strangers at Mamre a paradigmatic moment in the formation of the religious identity of the Jewish people.

The politics of space

Hospitality is a little like justice – it theoretically has no upper limit. However, we know in our lived reality that, while its practice can always be expanded, it does have human limits. For it to exist, the host and her guest must have difference. Thus the host must always have a space, psychological and spiritual as much as geographical, into which the guest can be invited. And the act of welcome is always at a level personal and maintained over time; it can never be conceived merely as a legal process.

For her part, the guest embarks on a path towards eventual integration; she cannot maintain her status as other, yet both host and guest recognise that this is a complex and lifelong process, which will have its setbacks as well as its times of progress and joy.

Key to this process is an openness to change. Once a guest is accepted, neither host nor guest can ever expect to remain the same as before. The risks in negotiating this process of venturing into a shared unknown are of a nature that only God can guide.

Can hospitality allow the rejection of a potential guest? No, but it can say that this potential guest lies beyond the limits of what can be offered at a specific time. But this refusal cannot be made in a manner that does violence to the guest-candidate. Once again, the discernment that helps guide this is approached with humility, openness and recognition that we are all on the same journey living a kind of exile here on earth.

Recognising Christ in refugees

Pope Francis tells us that: ‘Jesus Christ is always waiting to be recognised in migrants and refugees, in displaced persons and in exiles.’ This underlines the sacredness of our duty to consider these questions with great seriousness, knowing that any hospitality, however flawed, that we can offer comes from the experience of having received from God a limitless hospitality that has welcomed us, weak and sinful as we are, into a wonderful embrace, as a prelude to God’s ultimate welcome into our heavenly home.

Photo by Michael Nunes on Unsplash