Our Catholic Language of Hospitality: Lessons from my Mother

These past weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to be with priests, religious, parishioners, civic leaders and academics. I heard stories of how they value faith and love our Church. Many have said that they, too, come from immigrant families: German, Irish, Polish, Italian and Lebanese, among others. Many shared with me their desire to be more welcoming to our immigrants in the Vietnamese, Bosnian, African and Hispanic communities.

Their stories reminded me of how rich our Catholic faith is, and how much our Gospel values call all of us to grow in our hospitality to one another, especially the stranger.

As I pray about the complex issues involving immigration and our Christian vocation to welcome the stranger, I remember my immigrant mother, Mari­a. She came from a small village in Durango, Mexico, where she grew up in a poor household. I can recall visiting the house where she was raised and remember being amazed at the simplicity.

Her poor beginnings and limited formal education did not deter her from reaching out to others in sharing her wisdom and love. Living in a Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago meant that she not only had to learn how to get around a big city, but had to find ways of relating to people of different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. And despite her minimal English, she managed to engage a diverse group of people.

She was proud to share that after 30 years in the United States she could order coffee and pancakes for breakfast in the local diner, and do so in English. Most laudable was the way others who did not know Spanish seemed to relate to her: They not only called her by name but gave you the impression that they really knew her person and personality! I share these familial anecdotes because they provide insights into our common language of hospitality. In many ways, all of us learn what is good and bad from our parents. And as we respond to issues arising from immigration, I think our family and faith values can help us along the way.

What lessons have I learned from my mother? First, I learned that a smile to strangers can make a positive difference. Often it is a simple smile in our streets, our shopping malls and our churches that leaves a lasting impression of who we really are. Second, I learned that our hands and arms can be the first instruments God uses to reach others. We may not have the time or ability to join a long-term service project, but we can respond to short-term opportunities by shaking someone’s hand with kindness or giving someone a comforting embrace in the midst of struggles, suffering or tragedy. Thirdly, I learned from her that having a sacred heart means placing compassion, first, over our sinful prejudices and judgments.

As I continue to discern my own feelings and opinions on immigration, I believe that my mother’s wisdom has much to teach me. Like Jesus in the Gospel stories, my mother showed me that smiling to strangers, lending a helping hand or a loving embrace to those who are suffering and cultivating a compassionate sacred heart can make a positive difference. These simple gestures may not readily change immigration policies and societal prejudices, but they begin to make visible my family and Catholic values. I invite you to look at your own family and faith values, so that they can be shared boldly with our world. The world needs examples of good Catholic hospitality.

F. Javier Orozco

First published October 20, 2010 in the St. Louis Review