The annual Migrants Mass offered a timely opportunity to celebrate the contribution of migrants and refugees to our capital city and champion their rights. A joint initiative of the Dioceses of Westminster, Southwark and Brentwood which together encompass London, the Mass took place at St Antony’s, Forest Gate on Monday 1 May, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. The Rt Rev Alan Williams, Bishop of Brentwood, presided with Bishop Paul McAleenan, Lead Bishop for Migration Issues for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The event was organised by Caritas Diocese of Brentwood, Justice and Peace representatives from the three dioceses and the Ethnic Chaplaincies, with input from Citizens UK. It reiterated and emphasised the messages of the Bishops’ recent document ‘Love the Stranger’, with a homily from Fr Dominic Howarth, Episcopal Vicar for Youth Ministry and Pastoral Care, and reflections on the Living Wage and migrant justice. Mgr John Armitage paid tribute to Neil Jameson, the founder of Citizens UK, who died recently.
Combined choirs from St Antony’s Primary School, St Angela’s Ursuline School and St Bonaventure’s Secondary School sang during the service under the aegis of director Nathan Chan. Charity delegates from Aid to the Church in Need, Calais Light, Justice & Peace and CSAN, rubbed shoulders with parishioners from the three dioceses at the event. Many priests concelebrated and the bidding prayers were spoken in many different languages.
In his homily, Fr Dominic Howarth (right) said: “The Church in London is blessed, enriched, and given fresh insights because of every person here, and every community and nationality that you represent.”
Mentioning Pope Francis’ Encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, which means we are all brothers and sisters, he continued: “One of the most profound truths of our faith is that every person is made in the image and likeness of God.”
The coming together in church at the Migrants Mass, he added, was a “vibrant, visible and vital sign that everyone is cherished, honoured and welcome”.
Recently, he said, the Catholic Bishops’ document ‘Love the Stranger’ endorsed this truth and encouraged everyone to take its vision to heart. But, said Fr Dominic, the journey from stranger to friend is not at all easy. “There are people here today who feel outsiders in their own communities, towns and parts of London.”
He highlighted the significance of a letter from Pope Pius XII, written 50 years ago, and entitled ‘the exiled family of Nazareth’. Said Fr Dominic: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt, understand so deeply the journeys that many of you have gone through, or journeys made by your parents or grandparents.”
He added: “If you are ever completely overwhelmed, in tears because of the racism of work colleagues or people in your part of London, or what you see on the news, lift your sobbing heart to the Holy Family, the exiled family of Nazareth.”
Pope Francis, meanwhile, he said, reminds those on the other side of the equation, that “every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age”.
Fr Dominic finished by talking about St Joseph the Worker and the inspiration and comfort he can provide. Just as Pope Francis does, he said, “Give your problem to the intercession of St Joseph the Worker and let that give you the clear heart and hope that means you, too, can sleep.”
Mgr John Armitage, parish priest at Canning Town, then paid tribute to Neil Jameson, of Citizens UK, who died recently. “I give thanks for our brother. His insight was prophetic – he said that working together is what changes our world and that it is in our differences that we are united. He truly understood what Catholic Social Teaching meant and made a huge contribution to life in our city.”
The congregation then heard from others involved in the Living Wage campaign and in migrant justice. A care worker from Holy Family, Dagenham talked of her work and her inspiration with the Telco Action Group to drive change in her sector. “Care workers are a light to people who are at their most vulnerable but for us to be that light we cannot be overwhelmed or exhausted by the burden of work. We need the right number of staff, to work the right number of hours and be paid a living wage so that we can care well for those in need and have time to care for our families and communities too. A living wage means that the light of God’s care can burn brighter for everyone.”
A Citizens UK campaigner for migrant justice then made a powerful plea for support: “As Christians, we should be concerned about the Government’s plans to detain refugee children seeking safety. Together we can stop child detentions. As Pope Francis says, every stranger is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ. Citizens UK is working with Catholics like you to speak to MPs and the House of Lords about this, living out the values of Catholic Social Teaching, and we need your help to protect every child’s dignity. Join us in loving the stranger, welcoming, promoting, protecting and integrating migrants and refugees.”
Read Fr Dominic’s homily in full: Mass for Migrants 2023 homily