An odd characteristic of Advent this year, which of course only occurs every few years, is that effectively it is only three weeks. The fourth week of Advent will end shortly after it has begun and we will then fall straight into Christmas Eve. This makes some of our reflection a bit more compressed than usual, like many other things in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Clergy whingeing about the commercialisation of Christmas and the near disappearance of Advent outside the ranks of churchgoers (except in relation to calendars: a nice German one is shown here) has become another Christmas tradition so I will spare you this today.

One feature of Advent is the need to look to our consciences and help those in real need, so it is fortuitous this year that Advent Sunday coincides with the date set aside in this country as the Day of Prayer for Migrants and Refugees, the feast of the great Jesuit missionary priest St Francis Xavier (shown here).

Each year for this day the pope issues a special message and Pope Francis’ theme this year has been Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless (full text here). He explains here why the plight of child migrants is such a pressing issue:

‘I feel compelled to draw attention to the reality of child migrants, especially the ones who are alone. In doing so I ask everyone to take care of the young, who in a threefold way are defenceless: they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves. I ask every-one to help those who, for various reasons, are forced to live far from their homeland and are separated from their families.

 Migration today is not a phenomenon limited to some areas of the planet. It affects all continents and is growing into a tragic situation of global proportions. Not only does this concern those looking for dignified work or better living conditions, but also men and women, the elderly and children, who are forced to leave their homes in the hope of finding safety, peace and security. Children are the first to pay the heavy toll of emigration, almost always caused by violence, poverty, environmental conditions, as well as the negative aspects of globalization. The unrestrained competition for quick and easy profit brings with it the cultivation of perverse scourges such as child trafficking, the exploitation and abuse of minors and, generally, the depriving of rights intrinsic to childhood as sanctioned by the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.

 Childhood, given its fragile nature, has unique and inalienable needs. Above all there is the right to a healthy and secure family environment, where a child can grow under the guidance and example of a father and a mother; there is the right and duty to receive adequate education, primarily in the family and also in the school, where children can grow as persons and agents of their own future and the future of their respective countries. Indeed, in many areas of the world, reading, writing and the most basic arithmetic is still the privilege of only a few. All children, furthermore, have the right to recreation; in a word, they have the right to be children.

 And yet among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group, because as they face the life ahead of them, they are invisible and voiceless: their precarious situation deprives them of documentation, hiding them from the world’s eyes; the absence of adults to accompany them prevents their voices from being raised and heard. In this way, migrant children easily end up at the lowest levels of human degradation, where illegality and violence destroy the future of too many innocents, while the network of child abuse is difficult to break up.’

The Holy Father goes on to call for urgent measures to protect child migrants, policies to enable them to integrate into host communities, and long term solutions. At a time when there are so many negative messages around concerning migrants and foreigners, the Pope’s message is important, and reflecting on what he says is a good way to start Advent. The coming of God into the world in the form of a defenceless child, one destined to be a refugee and a migrant, has a real message at this time for suffering humanity. We will only be able to share the joy of Christmas in three weeks’ time if we take the pope’s message to heart.