Refugees: From Bethlehem to America

The following blog was contributed by Adam P. Zoeller, a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky.

The liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season coincides with the beginning of our secular new year. One of the definitions for ‘epiphany’ according to Merriam-Webster is a sudden manifestation of the meaning or essence of something. The turning of calendars provide an opportunity for reflection, growth, and change in light of our own personal epiphanies associated with our role within Church and society.  

As the city of David awaits its Messiah, the Christ child is born. Yet the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape what is known as the “slaughter of the innocents.” When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi” (Matthew 2:16). This synopsis of the Christmas story calls us to recognize Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, caretakers of the Word Incarnate and lastly as refugees. According to The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” Considering that Herod believed that his kingship was being threatened by the birth foretold by the magi, Jesus and His family fleeing due to impending violence due to religious prophecy appears to be an accurate representation of their experience as refugees.  

The authors of the sacred scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The beauty of this divine inspiration is that the lessons do not merely relate to the audience in the first century, but continue to resonate throughout salvation history and into the experiences of our modern world. Biblical exegesis focuses on the interpretation of sacred scripture through a variety of means including but not limited to: contextually, morally, and anagogically. Did the caravan of refugees fleeing “O little town of Bethlehem” include more than the Holy Family? Was this event the first documented case of Mary’s heart being pierced as a mother as she begins to understand the words of Simeon (Luke 2:25)? How does this application of the flight to Egypt inspire Jesus’ teaching on the Judgment of Nations such as, “a stranger and you welcome me” (Matthew 25:35)?

Displacement of peoples due to oppression is not unique to the 21st century either. In October 2020, CBS News reported that President Trump’s administration refugee resettlement hit a historical low, citing that, “Mr. Trump has reduced refugee spots year after year, radically departing from the 110,000-person cap President Obama set in his last year in office. Mr. Trump slashed refugee spots to 45,000 in fiscal year 2018; to 30,000 in fiscal year 2019; and to 18,000 in fiscal year 2020.” In 2019, USA Today ranked the United States of America as the eleventh richest country in the world while the New York Times reported in 2020 that the United States of America is the richest country with the biggest wealth gap. What type of country do we want to reflect to the world, economically rich or rich in kindness?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God.  He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him who “first loves us.” (CCC, 1828). By our faith, Christians are called to charity which in turn provides hope for the hopeless.  Recognizing human dignity is at the forefront of Jesus Christ’s mission of inclusion which reaches its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. This inherent dignity of the human person has a history of being not valued individually and/or collectively. Therefore, the United Nations created the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to challenge and hold accountable nations that do not recognize the dignity of the human person. For example, the importance of recognizing the dignity of refugees is reflected in Article #2 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Nations have responsibility for solidarity. Healthy relationships between citizens are contingent upon honest communication, mutual respect and empathetic understanding. Under these standards, a metaphorical bridge for citizens can be built within and between nations to promote human dignity. In conclusion, the words of Pope Francis from the 50th World Communications Day in 2016 challenges the faithful to reflect upon not only our actions, but our words: “Communication has the power to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society. How beautiful it is when people select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony. Words can build bridges between individuals and within families, social groups and peoples. This is possible both in the material world and the digital world. Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred.”


Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (2002). Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference.

Epiphany. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from

Ewing, Jack. (September 23, 2020). The United States is the richest country in the world, and it has the biggest wealth gap. Retrieved from

Francis – (2016) “Message of the Holy Father for World Communications Day” Retrieved from

Montoya-Galvez, Camilo. (October 1, 2020). The Trump administration sets the refugee cap at 15,000, a new record low.  Retrieved from

Suneson, Grant. (July 8, 2019). These are the 25 Richest Countries in the World. Retrieved from

The New American Bible. (1991). New York, NY: Catholic Book Publishing Co.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). Retrieved from

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (2015). Retrieved from 

About the Author

Adam P. Zoeller is a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, KY.  He earned his B.A. in religious studies and B.A. in clinical psychology from Spalding University (Louisville, KY) and his M.Ed. in educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH). He holds a Master’s Catechist Certification from the Archdiocese of Louisville. He has presented workshops for the National Catholic Education Association, been published by the Catholic Journal of Education, and worked on educational materials for Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story from Journey Films. Adam can be reached at