Ever since becoming Pope in 2013, Francis, the son of migrants, has sought to awaken the consciences of people worldwide to the plight of migrants and refugees, which is the result of the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II and now involves, according to the United Nations, some 70.8 million people who are forced to leave their own country, including 30 million refugees.
The painful reality of this crisis came to our local community during 2019 when a direct provision centre for asylum seekers was opened in the town. We had little awareness that this was about to happen and there were murmurs of discontent and suspicion from some quarters when it became public that almost 30 people from various countries were now living at a former hotel in the town square.
A small group of locals came together to discuss how to make our new residents welcome and help to integrate them to their new community. A welcoming night was held in our local parish centre and there was standing room only.
Since then, various initiatives have taken place and I believe we are making slow but positive progress.
Four of the new residents joined our parish choir. One of the new choir members made a unique contribution to our Christmas celebrations – May Soun is a devout Muslim from Bethlehem. Like another child of the City of David, she too has had to leave her native city and is not allowed to return.
I invited her to bring the infant Jesus in procession on Christmas Eve and as we walked up the aisle I overheard a child ask his mother: “Is that Fr Martin’s new wife?”
Instead of a homily, May Soun shared something of her story at all of our Christmas Masses. Her mother had to leave Bethlehem to get medical treatment in Canada ten years ago. Her father accompanied her but they were not allowed to return home.
The same with her sisters who went to study in England.
May Soun spoke of a day when she went with her Muslim friends to pray in the mosque and it was closed by the Israeli soldiers”
As a result May Soun has not seen her family for a decade. Like many others, she has come to Ireland to attain a status which will eventually allow her to travel and be reunited with her loved ones.
She also wants to work, is highly intelligent and qualified and since coming to Ireland last year has completed a Masters Degree. May Soun also spoke of growing up in Bethlehem and the wonderful relations she enjoyed with her Christian neighbours. She spoke of a day when she went with her Muslim friends to pray in the mosque and it was closed by the Israeli soldiers. As they prayed around the perimeter of the mosque their Christian friends spontaneously formed a protective ring around them.
It may not have been a traditional Christmas homily but the testimony of the young woman from Bethlehem touched the hearts of many.
At the final Mass of Christmas Day, May Soun spoke directly to her parents in Canada who were joining us via the church webcam. I have no doubt that her eloquent and emotional words opened a few more eyes and minds to the plight of those who have come to our shores to seek the precious freedoms we all enjoy and take so easily for granted.
An Epiphany: the real King of Kings
Three kings came to see King Herod and asked him where the new king was born. But Herod told the three kings that he didn’t know where the second king was. His advisors looked in the Bible – though not in first or second Kings – and found that the second king was to be born in Bethlehem.
So the first king told the three kings to find the second king and tell him, the first king, where the second king was, because the first king thought the second king was one king too many.
However, when the three kings found the second king they realised that he was actually the number one king – the King of Kings – and that, compared with him, the other king and all other kings were really not kings at all.