Feast of the Holy Family: Caring for the anawim (vulnerable)

“We can often lose sight of the need to build healthy, loving relationships with those right here in our midst who have viewpoints different from our own about immigrants and refugees, as well as about many other issues,” writes Cambria Tortorelli.

During our recent celebrations for the feast of the Holy Family, Matthew reminded us of the violence and persecution that families have always faced throughout history – even if you have a child who just happens to be the son of God.

From birth, Jesus’s life is marked by the threat of violence, and it is the vindictive wrath of Herod which forces Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt. What we don’t hear proclaimed in this reading are the three verses describing how Herod massacred every baby boy aged two and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity – a monstrous and appalling act of inhumanity by a despot of the ancient world.

Our modern world has more than its fair share of despots who too often turn their pitiless attention on children and families: maiming, murdering, bombing, gassing, raping, torturing, and trafficking them.

Millions of Yemeni, Afghan, Salvadoran, Syrian, Kurdish, Honduran, Rohingya, and Guatemalan children, some alone and some with their families, are forced to flee unendurable conditions to find asylum in safe countries.

Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us how the Holy Family was received by the Egyptians, but it does tell us that they were able to remain in Egypt until it was safe for them to return to Nazareth. Tragically, in our modern times, it has become increasingly difficult for refugees and asylum seekers, children as well as adults, to find refuge in safe countries, including our own.


One of the beautiful legacies we have inherited from our Jewish ancestors in the faith is the concept of caring for and extending hospitality to the anawim. Anawim is a Hebrew word used to describe the poor and outcast, who have only God to turn to. In Jesus’s time, like in our own, the anawim included the single mother; the orphaned, abused or abandoned child; the sick; the prisoner; and, of course, the immigrant and the asylum seeker.

You just have to look at who Jesus ministered to in order to realise that he was steeped in this prophetic tradition of solidarity with the vulnerable and the marginalised We live in a society in which even our communities of faith are torn asunder by polarised views on how to respond to those who seek refuge within our borders.

There are many in our families and work-places, among our friends, and in our parishes, who have been made to believe that immigrants are to be feared and that they bring with them the very danger, lawlessness, and criminality that those seeking refuge here are trying to escape.

It is heartbreaking to see how fear has replaced the abundant, welcoming, and inclusive love of Jesus Christ in some Christian hearts. What is our collective responsibility in responding to the gospel call to care for the vulnerable and those on the margins, especially families and children, particularly when the response from the faithful can be so polarised?

What we have tried to do at my parish, Holy Family Church, is to make it possible for our parishioners to hear the stories of our recently immigrated brothers and sisters, and to connect with them in ways that encourage interaction and relationship.


We have been blessed to have had a sister parish relationship with Dolores Mission in East Los Angeles for over two decades, which has allowed a two-way flow of grace between our parishes in so many ways and on so many levels. But it is the stories that have the most impact.

Stories from DACA students who face deportation after living all their lives in Los Angeles open hearts by making their situations tangible. Stories from newly arrived families who were separated at the border under horrendous circumstances and are now trying to rebuild their lives put faces to what are otherwise statistics.

Building solidarity between communities that are very different, and yet have so much in common through our shared faith and humanity, is essential to making our hearts bigger and more understanding of one another’s struggles.

After all, it is through healthy, loving relationships that grace is unleashed in the world. Build relationships What we can often lose sight of is the need to build healthy, loving relationships with those right here in our midst who have viewpoints different from our own about immigrants and refugees, as well as about many other issues.

Whatever our point of view, being harsh and judgmental about our differences creates an environment in which it can feel impossible to “put on love” and “allow the peace of Christ to control our hearts,” as Paul urges us to do.

But what a transformation takes place if we take to heart his message to the Colossians to “bear with one another in heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience”. If we start from this spiritual locus, stepping outside of our egos and need to be right, we are much more able to engage with one another in ways that encourage dialogue rather than acrimony.

As disciples of Christ, we are called to serve those in need and to advocate for justice on their behalf in a way that, to quote Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, makes “the word of God a blessing rather than a bludgeon”.

One of the hardest lessons of spiritual maturity is that souls and hearts change slowly. All the force in the world can’t replace the power of dialogue and education to change a person’s heart. Where better than in our parishes to learn the virtues and skills of living and growing together as a community of prophetic solidarity in the one body of Jesus Christ?

Cambria Tortorelli has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and Literature from Somerville College, Oxford University, and a Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Mount St Mary’s University in Los Angeles.

Ms Tortorelli has had a career in non-profits spanning more than 27 years, including 15 years in non-profit leadership and previously worked as the Parish Life Director at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, California for 13 years, where she was the first lay person to lead the parish.

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