Ireland’s “Immigration Bishop” Visits Philadelphia
As he prepared to say a Requiem Mass for the souls of the faithful departed at Philadelphia’s Irish Center on Tuesday night, Dr. Seamus Hegarty, the Bishop of Derry, Ireland, paused to acknowledge the living who are far from peace.
The chairman of the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants, in Philadelphia briefly on a multi-city tour to meet with immigrants, was clearly moved by the stories he heard from undocumented Irish who had lost loved ones in Ireland and were forced to grieve alone, far from family and friends, because they could not return home. Illegal aliens can’t risk returning to their country of origin for fear that they will not be allowed back in the United States where they may have American-born children.
“It’s one of the things that really got to me,” said the Bishop, who has served the Derry diocese since 1994. “It’s a double tragedy for people who have lost someone and then aren’t able to go home and grieve with their families. I lost my own mother when I was seven, so I know how they feel.”
Bishop Hegarty spent part of the day at the Irish Immigration Center in Upper Darby. But not far from his mind were the immigrants he’d met in Boston. “They’re hurting very badly there,” he said. “I met many people who were bereaved and unable to go home and they were just devastated.”
He used the message of the Gospel to urge those in attendance to put pressure on the political powers-that-be to pass comprehensive immigration reform bills that would create legal pathways for the undocumented to become citizens. In Matthew 25:31-45, Jesus promised that those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison will sit to the right of him in heaven “because whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
“The attitude that ‘as long as I’m allright, I don’t care about you, is not the Irish way,” he said in his homily. “We had nothing and we shared our nothingness with each other. You need to forge a community here that carries out the message that the interest of one is the interest of all. Reaching out to people is a gift and certainly will not go unrewarded.”
The Philadelphia Donegal Association and the Derry Society participated in the Mass and the reception that followed. Bishop Hegarty also renewed old acquaintances, including Mary McHugh of Lindenwold, NJ, who knew the bishop as a youngster in Kilcar, County Donegal, where he was born. “I was born and raised in Scotland, but my mother grew up in Kilcar and my father was from the next village, so I spent my summers there,” she said. “The bishop is actually related to me through my mother. When you grow up in these little towns and villages, you keep the connections.”
Bishop Hegarty was on his way to Washington, DC, to meet with US legislators about immigration issues and was clearly aware of the effect the visit of one Irish bishop would have. “I’m sure they’ll be very gracious and as soon as I’m gone they’ll forget all about it,” he said to laughter. “That’s why you need to pressurize them. . . You can do something. We are all responsible for one another’s welfare. Use your voice in a responsible and constructive way to try to improve the welfare of immigrants.”
Siobhan Lyons, executive director of the Philadelphia Irish Immigration Center, was Bishop Hegarty’s host for much of the day.
“We were delighted to welcome Bishop Hegarty to Philadelphia.,” she says. “The Irish Apostolate has been a strong supporter of the Irish diaspora and we deeply appreciate the work they do on behalf of the Irish community in the United States. I particularly welcome their efforts in the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform and wish the bishop the best of luck in Washington DC.
“But Bishop Hegarty is right when he says we can’t sit back and wait for other people to solve our problems,” Lyons says. “We must use our voices and our votes to advocate for the most vulnerable in our community, and that includes the undocumented. I hope everyone will listen to his message and make sure their representatives know that the Irish community supports comprehensive immigration reform. “