The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has called for the government to consider an amnesty for illegal immigrants in the UK.
Speaking at a colourful and moving May Day Mass for migrant workers at Westminster Cathedral, the Cardinal said that while the Church did not endorse entering the country illegally, it could not ignore the plight of people without legal status.
He also used the occasion to back calls for a ìliving wageî for Londonís lower-paid workers.
The plea for a significant change of tack on immigration by the government has already been welcomed by the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia, by a leading citizensí organisation and by migrant workers themselves.
More than 3,000 migrants from the three Dioceses packed the aisles of the Cathedral, bursting into applause after the Cardinal's homily and at various points in the Mass, according to Independent Catholic News. Many were in tears.
The Archbishop of Westminster concelebrated the Mass with the heads of the other two London dioceses, Archbishop Kevin McDonald of Southwark and Bishop Tom McMahon of Brentwood.
"We hope that this Mass will communicate to you that, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, you are Londoners," the Cardinal told them. "We want you to feel welcome in our parishes and our schools and our ethnic chaplaincies. We want you to know that you belong."
"While our nation benefits economically from the presence of undocumented workers, too often we turn a blind eye when they are exploited by employers," he said.
"Is it not time to consider, as other countries have done, ways of regularising their situation ? those who are working in the country and do not have a criminal record - to the benefit of our economy and to enable them to play a fuller part in society?" continued the Cardinal.
ìThis is a brave and necessary call for compassion and sanity in the face of unpleasant anti-immigration rhetoric on the part of the main parties, as well as extremist groups like the BNP,î commented Simon Barrow, director of Ekklesia.
The multilingual Mass on the Feast of St Joseph the Worker was supported by London Citizens, a community-based alliance of 85 institutions which seek to strengthen London's public life.
The Mass began with a procession of parishes and faith groups, and included music from Africa, Latin America and Poland. Intercessions were read in six different languages, including Malayalam, Lebanese, Spanish, Lithuanian and Chinese. The First Reading was read in the Philippino language Tagalog.
At the end of the Mass the vicar-general of Brentwood Diocese, Mgr John Armitage, announced that the chair the Cardinal was sitting on was the same one Cardinal Manning was using when he signed the agreement bringing to an end the Great Dock Strike in London in 1889.
"At the beginning of our campaign for a Living Wage, that chair was empty," Mgr Armitage said, before adding to applause: "Now, we are proud to say, it is occupied."
Writing in last week's Tablet, the Cardinal likened the current influx of migrant workers to the arrival of poor Irish labourers in London following the Potato Famine. Cardinal Manning's call then for just wages was influential on the Church's first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891).
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor and the other bishops joined the London Citizens rally afterwards, sharing the platform with the deputy general-secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Jack Dromey, to call for a "living wage" for London's workers.
The Mayor of London's Living Wage Unit has recommended an hourly rate of £6.70 an hour to ensure a minimum human standard of living in the capital. The rally also saw the launch of the London Citizens' Workers' Association.
Neil Jameson, Director of London Citizens, told the BBC's Sunday programme that the Association would offer "solidarity, some protection for groups of workers, legal advice and English classes so that the vast number of people out there who are currently unprotected can get some protection, with a view to them joining a trade union when they are ready."
"We wouldn't be asking the question of whether they were illegal or not," Jameson said. "We don't take a position on that."
The three London bishops have commissioned a major study into the social, economic and pastoral needs of migrants, thought to be the first of its kind in Europe.
The 'Ground of Justice' project is being carried out by the Von Hugel Institute, a Christian think-tank in Cambridge.
The research, which will be published in September, is being coordinated by Francis Davis, senior researcher at the Institute. He told the BBC that there may be more than 250,000 migrants in the capital who are baptised Catholics working in the lowest-paid jobs in the capital as cleaners and caterers.
He said he had spoken to a Sri Lankan shop worker who was paid £4 an hour for a 74-hour a week on condition that he rented a room in his employer's house for £80 a week plus £20 for meals.
"The Church in England and Wales needs to dig deep into its historical memory and moral reserves to meet these new pastoral and political challenges," he wrote in last week's Catholic Herald.
In an interview with the BBC Sunday programme, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor answered criticism from Migration Watch UK that he was encouraging illegal immigration.
"It is for the Government ? and we would support the Government ? to ensure that illegal immigration is not allowed. That is their responsibility. But once they're here, as a Christian I have to say: 'I stand with you.' Even if they're here illegally, it's not for me as a Christian to say, 'I am going to make sure you're deported tomorrow.' It's for me to say: 'what are your immediate needs? How can I stand with you and help you?'"
He added: "If the economy, if the conditions in Europe and worldwide mean that there is going to be greater immigration of peoples, that is a fact The situation demands a closer look at the kind of Britain we are, with great ethnic variety. I've said to the Prime Minister that the Catholic community in the parishes where I go are a microcosm of what London is and is going to be more and more."
Asked what he meant by "regularisation" of illegal immigrants, the Cardinal said he wanted the Government to consider how people who are working in Britain for many years and do not have a criminal record can be legalised for the benefit both of them and of the country.
"These are our fellow citizens, who have a right because they work to decent wages and decent conditions," he said.
The Cardinal said he wanted to know more about migrant workers in order to stand with them. He said he wanted to use the research to inform people in the Church as well as wider society.
Concluding his homily at yesterday's Mass, the Cardinal said he was happy that migrants were here.
"We are grateful for the vital role that you play in our economy. We want you to play as full a role as possible in the life of our Church. We want our Catholic people to see in you the face of Christ. We want you to be welcomed such that you are strangers no longer."
He said: "And though you may be far from your homes, we want you to know that here, in the Church in London, you have a home."
[With thanks to Independent Catholic News]
Also on Ekklesia: Asylum and Immigration by Nick Spencer; Are immigration controls moral? by Vaughan Jones; Bishop attacks xenophobic bidding war over asylum and immigration; Catholic bishops in US say they will break immigration law; World churches criticise UK policies on asylum and immigration; Call for paradigm shift in immigration debate; Methodist add warning over election treatment of asylum issue; Howardís 'false' anti-immigrant claims defy UN and churches; Churches join US rallies to support justice for migrants.