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Monday, 18 November 2013 21:32

Don't forget the poor

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Religious men and women are only too aware of the 'joys and hopes, the griefs and anxities' of the poor in the world. Among those who urgently need our voice in protest and advocacy are refugees and aslyum seekers who are being treated with shameful disregard by the Australian Government, writes CRA President Sister Annette Cunliffe rsc.

In a recent article in The Tablet, Robert Blair Kaiser, reflecting on the 50 years since the second Vatican Council, wrote:

By the end, among the most influential figures at the Council, we encountered two humble souls, one a woman, Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who wasn't allowed to speak to the assembled bishops at Vatican II (no woman was), and a bird-like figure, Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Recife, in Brazil. Both of them went around Rome telling individual bishops and those who were putting together the Council's crowning document, Gaudium et Spes: please don't forget the poor.

The Council did not forget, as these words from Gaudium et Spes illustrate:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

The reminder, "don't forget the poor", immediately calls to mind Pope Francis' reason for choosing his patron, St Francis of Assisi. His countless powerful words and actions on behalf of the poor since then do not allow us to forget them either.

Sadly, religious men and women are only too aware of the "joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties" of so many throughout the world at this time.

We are called to witness in a special way to the Church's option for the poor and to serve those who are most in need. Though different orders and congregations focus on various aspects of this, it is the call of all Christians.

We have been saddened this month by the devastating effects of the typhoon on the people of the Philippines. No doubt, as in almost every disaster, the poor bear the brunt of the suffering. Australia immediately offered practical support and we all applaud this.

Yet simultaneously, our country is treating with shameful disregard the needs of those who have been driven from their homelands by war, persecution and disadvantage. Perhaps of even greater concern is the concerted effort to deny Australians access to information about asylum seekers and the legitimacy of their efforts to seek our assistance.

Recently the Refugee Council of Australia invited groups to sign "A joint appeal to the Prime Minister about the use of the term "illegal maritime arrivals". This letter was signed by 128 organisations, including Catholic Religious Australia and over twenty groups of Religious or organisations associated with them, together with Catholic and other faith based groups, local community groups and professional groups such as lawyers and doctors.

The letter made the point, so often neglected in the portrayal of these issues, that seeking asylum is not illegal under the Refugee Convention of 1951 to which Australia is a signatory. It stated "Nations which value freedom must ensure that those fleeing persecution have the opportunity to get to a place of safety and have their cases considered fairly."

As Australians we have always taken pride in upholding freedom. After World War II, Australia became home to large numbers of migrants who made great contributions to our culture and country. But our values are being seriously undermined in the current situation, where cases of those seeking refuge are not even being considered. As Catholics we are called to heed Pope Francis' warning against a "globalisation of indifference". As Australians we are called to remember what we sing in the second verse of our national anthem, "We've boundless plains to share."

By prayer and action, religious stand with people of good will throughout this country and beyond to respond to the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of those in need, and never to remove from them any hope for a future that recognises their human dignity and God's love for every person, wanting them "to have life and have it to the full."

Read CRA President Sr Annette Cunliffe's letter to parliamentarians on her support of the joint appeal initiated by the Refugee Council of Australia.