As winter approaches in Europe, the refugee crisis is showing no signs of letting up. But in response, European dioceses and their parishes are playing a vital role in the care of the men, women and children fleeing war, poverty and oppression. Over 700,000 refugees and migrants have arrived by boat on southern Europe’s shorelines so far this year, while half a million, mostly from Syria, have requested formal asylum, according to the European Union’s Eurostat agency.
Although heads of government from the EU’s 28 member-states agreed in late September to assign national quotas, these have been resisted by some countries and protested by anti-immigrant groups. Others, though, have answered the call.
“Although some groups have objected to this huge influx, there’s also been a great wave of sympathy,” said Bernhard Kellner, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising in southern Germany. “We haven’t been able to track all the offers of shelter and accommodation from local parishes. But we can say for certain that the whole refugee aid system here would collapse without the Church’s engagement.”
Church sources estimate that 22,000 refugees are being housed in parish buildings and religious institutions in Germany alone, helped by at least 100,000 Catholic volunteers, while the German Church’s 27 dioceses have disbursed $110 million in refugee aid so far this year, compared to $81 million in 2014. In Munich-Freising, the former see of Pope Benedict XVI, more than 1,000 refugees are being sheltered in Bavarian parishes, which also have arranged jobs, courses and language training for the families. In Munich’s St. Gabriel Parish, refugees have been given counseling, legal advice, sports opportunities and help with shopping, while an Egyptian instructor even gave swimming lessons to Muslim women after several asylum-seekers drowned in nearby lakes.
Farther east in Germany’s Diocese of Dresden-Meissen, anti-Muslim rallies have been staged by a newly formed movement called Pegida. Here too, however, refugees have been taken in by city parishes, using funds raised by Catholic youth groups.
At Zwickau’s St. Francis and St. Johann Nepomuk parishes, 230 are being housed in local apartments and provided with educational support and medical help. Catholics say priests kept the local population informed and coordinated their initiatives with government aid bodies. This encouraged public involvement and helped the refugees gain acceptance.
In neighboring Austria, up to 12,000 refugees are being sheltered temporarily in Catholic parishes, while the Church’s Caritas charity is helping 5,000 more who have sought permanent residence under the country’s Grundversorgungs programme.
The bishops’ conference has opened a website, Asylhilfe (Asylum-Help), and set up a special coordinating group.
“Help for people on the run is a non-negotiable Christian duty,” the conference, headed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, declared after meeting this summer at Mariazell. “The human right to asylum is a valuable asset and an obligation under international law. It thereby allows for no compromises.”
At least 100 of the 660 Catholic parishes in Cardinal Schönborn’s Archdiocese of Vienna have taken in refugees, with volunteers often working in shifts around the clock.
At the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in the city’s Schonbrun-Vorpark district, at least 50 refugees from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan are sleeping in the church’s main hall, while extra accommodation is being rented and parish offices vacated to make room.
“Many have had traumatic journeys, with water up to their necks,” said the parish’s refugee coordinator, Petra Wasserbauer. “And while their harrowing reports sadden us, it’s also wonderful to see their happiness at the help they’re now receiving. Isn’t this the most beautiful testimony we can give as Christians?”
Elsewhere in Austria, the dioceses of Feldkirch and Linz have taken in 2,100 and 1,300 respectively, while in Sankt Polten, a dozen refugees are being housed in the bishop’s residence. “While there’ve been all kinds of reactions and some fears expressed, Catholics have generally shown great solidarity,” Johannes Pernsteiner, an editor at the Austrian Church’s Kathpress newsagency, told Our Sunday Visitor. “But people with no church connections have also joined in these parish efforts, both for refugees who are here long-term and those just in transit.”
In traditionally Catholic Croatia, where 264,000 refugees arrived during October alone according to the Interior Ministry, Church efforts have been concentrated on the Archdiocese of Djakovo-Osijek in eastern Slavonia.
At least 50 parishes have provided food and rest here to refugees as they pass through, while Catholic volunteers are now running a major reception center at Opatovac. In late October, the Church’s Caritas charity launched a nationwide campaign, “Helping is Easy,” to encourage burden-sharing.
In St. Juraj’s parish at Bapska, Father Pavao Kolarevic organized food and clothing for Syrians arriving from Serbia, and told the Croatian Church’s Glas Koncila weekly he’d taken in children suffering from frostbite and adults walking barefoot, often looking for relatives lost along the way.
A new winter camp is to open shortly at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Brodsko Vinogorje, near Slavonski Brod, according to Boris Peterlin, a Caritas director. Peterlin said local priests were encouraged by Archbishop Djuro Hranic’s promise to reimburse their cash-starved parishes for funds disbursed. However, local people were sympathetic anyway, remembering how Catholic Croatians themselves sought refuge in Eastern Slavonia during their country’s 1991-93 war with Serbia.
“Seeing huge numbers of people struggling along the roads with heavy bags brought back painful memories,” Peterlin told OSV. “It also aroused strong feelings of solidarity and encouraged local priests and parishioners to be proactive in treating those on the roads and in camps with human dignity, as befits a Christian country.”
The mission of Catholics
With thousands still crossing the frontiers daily, and millions more likely to follow, the crisis looks set to continue — and with it the challenge for Europe’s Catholics. Johannes Pernsteiner, the Kathpress editor, said Catholics everywhere have been heartened by the example set by Church leaders like Cardinal Schönborn, who opened a home for refugees next to his cathedral in Vienna’s central Stefansplatz.
Bernhard Kellner, from the Munich-Freising archdiocese in neighboring Germany, agreed. His own archbishop, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who also is president of Germany’s bishops’ conference, has spoken out all over Europe on behalf of the refugees and provided firm leadership when it comes to Christian responses.
In years to come, the actions of Catholic parishes during this great humanitarian challenge will say much about the strength and vitality of Europe’s Christian spirit.
“Acceptance and integration are key issues for our societies — and Catholics have a special mission in this area,” Kellner told OSV. “Although we don’t know how many refugees will have reached our countries by the end of this year, we can be sure most will stay — probably for life. This makes it essential to think and act compassionately and wisely.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.