On Sunday, worshippers packed the front pews of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, for a service that included prayer in Spanish and a mournful hymn in Arabic.
A few dozen faithful from the merged parish of St. Charles Borromeo-Our Lady of Fatima in Bensalem, Bucks County, dwarfed by the ornate Italian Renaissance-style dome 200 feet overhead, crammed in front and hoisted a small banner depicting the two saints of their congregation.
This was not a typical Sunday mass — it was a special prayer service for immigrants and refugees, presided over by Archbishop Charles Chaput.
Following a Lenten Gospel about ministering to society’s cast-offs, the archbishop made a point of criticizing both recent anti-immigration policies and the divisive tone of the United States’ current debate on the subject.
“Good people exist on both sides of this debate, and following the example of Jesus, we need to resist the temptation to demonize those with whom we disagree,” he said, noting disagreement exists among Catholics as well as the country as a whole. “Unfortunately, those who oppose immigration have weaponized the conversation against immigrants.”
As a way forward, Chaput called for both the enforcement of immigration laws and comprehensive reform of the country’s immigration system.
“We believe that good government should welcome immigrants out of charity and respect for the human. We believe people have a right to immigrate,” he said. Chaput also said he supported priority enforcement against criminals and asserted the country’s right to an “orderly” immigration process.
Sister Sonia Avi, who is originally from Peru, came with the group from St. Charles Borromeo-Our Lady of Fatima. She said she appreciated Chaput’s balanced message.
“I thought it was clear,” she said. “The church is for welcoming the stranger, but we are also for security, national security.”
At least 200 people attended the service, reflecting a range of backgrounds and corners of the archdiocese. Groups came not only from Bensalem, but from Avondale and Phoenixville in Chester County.
“The message I got from it was not what I was expecting. I was thinking it would be more political, but it’s out of politics, it’s just a basic human right,” said Samson Kuti, who has lived in the U.S. for 19 years but was born in Nigeria.
In the lead-up to the service, the Archdiocese sent out an alert urging legal residents and citizens to show up to the service in support of unauthorized immigrants who may not come, for fear of being targeted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In the past, Chaput has been critical of President Barack Obama’s immigration enforcement, as well as then candidate Donald Trump’s statements on the topic during his campaign.
After President Donald Trump issued executive orders on immigration this January, some members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops immediately condemned the president’s actions. Pope Francis has reiterated support for immigrants, urging leaders to build bridges, not walls.
According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. Catholics are more likely to be immigrants or children of immigrants than the general public is. More than 1.4 million people belong to the Philadelphia Archdiocese, according to that body. Recent estimates say there are 50,000 people living in Philadelphia who either entered the U.S. illegally or had authorization at first, but have stayed on after that expired.