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Moments in Time

The champion of refugees


In a time when the world is facing a flood of refugees that may well swell still further in response to the continued conflicts in the Middle East, it would be wise to consider the example of Bishop Deogratias of Carthage who ransomed and cared for the refugees from the sack of Rome in the fifth century. The story is beautifully told in the History of the Persecutions in the Province of Africa:

“When the multitude of captives reached the shores of Africa, the Vandals and Moors divided up the vast crowds of people; and, as is the custom with barbarians, separated husbands from wives and children from parents. Immediately Deogratias, the Bishop of Carthage, so full of God and so dear to Him, set about to sell all the gold and silver vessels of service, and set [the people] free from enslavement to the barbarians, in order that marriage might remain unbroken and children be restored to their parents. And since there were no places big enough to accommodate so large a multitude, he assigned two famous churches, the Basilica Fausti and the Basilica Novarum, furnishing them with beds and bedding, and arranging day by day how much each person should receive in proportion to her or his need.

“And since many were in distress owing to their inexperience of a voyage by sea and to the cruelty of captivity, there was no small number of sick people among them. Like a devoted nurse, that saintly bishop went the round of them constantly with doctors and food, so that the condition of each was looked into, and every person’s need supplied, in his presence. Not even at night did he take a rest from this work of mercy; but he kept on going from bed to bed in his anxiety to know how each was doing. In fact, he gave himself up to the task so entirely as to spare neither his wearied limbs nor the weakness of his old age.”

Little need be added to such a powerful example. Let us hope our churches respond as generously as the church of Carthage whenever and wherever the need arises.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003