The other day, while flipping through the 2,000 or so cable channels I receive, I came across “The Godfather, Part II,” which many critics consider better than its classic predecessor.
The movie starts in Sicily, where 9-year-old Vito Corleone’s entire family is murdered by the local Mafia boss, who, fearing Vito will want revenge when he grows up, wants him killed as well. He is smuggled out of Sicily aboard a cargo ship bound for America. When he arrives at Ellis Island in 1901, he is quarantined for three months due to smallpox. Although the film doesn’t go into details about what happens immediately after that, we next see him as young man who had been adopted by a family in New York’s Little Italy, where he works in the family’s grocery store.
This brought to mind the thousands of young children fleeing violence in their homelands in Central America who have come to America recently, only they haven’t been treated the same way young Vito was. Buses carrying them to temporary housing have been greeted by protesters waving American flags with signs saying “Return to Sender,” “Stop Illegal Immigration,” and “Wake Up America.” In other words, they want these kids to go back where they came from.
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I know our nation’s attitude toward immigration has changed over the years. I also understand that Ellis Island of 1901 is not the Mexican border of today. What should not have changed, however, is our compassion for the poor, huddled masses fleeing tyranny or, in the case of the Central American children, violence.
That’s why I have to applaud Bishop Robert Lynch, who presides over the five-county Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. On his blog post earlier this month, he called on Catholic Charities to do what it could to temporarily house some of these refugee children.
“I have asked our Catholic Charities to consult with Migration and Refugee Services division of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to see how many of the unaccompanied children mostly from Guatemala and Honduras we might be able to temporarily resettle,” Bishop Lynch wrote. “As you know, parents of those two countries are doing everything they can to send their children to the United States to escape possible death, torture, and abuse in their hometowns and cities. Gang violence is so bad in those situations that even if the children do escape but are captured and sent back, they are highly subject to even greater risk of death just for having attempted to escape.”
Lynch compared his effort with “Operation Pedro Pan,” when Cuban parents sent their children to the United States to escape Fidel Castro’s tyranny. Former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez was a beneficiary of the program, which helped care for the children until family reunification became possible.
And why do I get the feeling that if these children had arrived by boat from Cuba, they would be welcomed and treated much differently?
The Catholic Church was also very active in assisting the young Vito Corleones in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The church established orphanages for children who had lost one or both parents, or were simply poor. Lynch is carrying on that tradition.
And the man is practicing what he preaches. Last October, he spoke at a rally in downtown Tampa to urge Congress to pass legislation leading to a pathway for citizenship for the millions of undocumented people living in the United States, calling Americans who opposed immigration reform hypocrites.
“It is at best hypocrisy to say today, ‘I love God,’ but all the while hating or detesting or fearing our sisters and brothers who came here seeking a more certain economic future for their spouses and children,” said Lynch.
Congress will continue to avoid the immigration issue, but Bishop Lynch and his Catholic Charities are bypassing politics and heading straight for compassion, which they have always done. He took aim at those who would ignore innocent children for political reasons.
“Shame on those elected representatives in our country who for seemingly reasons of political gamesmanship and an upcoming election turn a deaf ear to the cries of these kids,” wrote Lynch. “Their parents want them back but until then, will we be willing to be the hands of a compassionate and loving Lord?”
To paraphrase the older Vito Corleone, he’s making us an offer we shouldn’t refuse.