Pope Francis made a historic visit into the heart of the migrant crisis in Europe in last week when he visited the Moria refugee camp, located on the Greek island of Lesbos. He spoke of empathy and mercy, and then took 12 Muslim refugees from Syria with him to settle in the Vatican.
The pope said in a speech that “I want to tell you that you are not alone.” The action of relocating the emigrants to Rome is “to call attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution.”
Along with leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches, Pope Francis is striving to foster compassion for migrants in the wake of hardening world attitudes against them. “We as religious leaders hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity,” the pope said.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians, speaking to the refugees at the camp reminded Europeans and the world in general that “we will be judged by the way we have treated you.”
Pope Francis, who is the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, reiterated that “all refugees are children of God.”
The new Syrian immigrants are three families, two from Damascus and one from Deir-Zour, whose homes were destroyed in the Syrian war. Six of the migrants are children. According to the Vatican, “The pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees.”
In Rome, the charitable organization Sant’Egidio will help care for the families and try to find them work.
Pope Francis’ first papal trip in 2014 was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, to call attention to the refugees arriving from Libya who were drowning before reaching shore. During his February visit to Mexico the pope prayed beneath a cross erected in Ciudad Juárez, near the United States border, and then celebrated Mass where he spoke about immigration.
Across the world, the mood has changed against migrants as many countries have closed or restricted their borders due to the fear of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. Anti-immigrant sentiment is growing.
Accompanied by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, the three religious leaders greeted around 300 refugees in Lesbos, one by one. Pope Francis and the two Orthodox leaders later threw wreaths into the sea to commemorate those who died trying to make it to Lesbos.
By appearing with the two Orthodox Christian leaders, Pope Francis is also taking another small step to healing the rift between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.
The arrival of the new emigrants to the Vatican brings to about 20 the number of refugees living in the Vatican, which has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. Last year the pope appealed to every Catholic diocese in Europe to take in a refugee family. The pontiff’s gesture is one way to show Europe and even the entire world that we should accept refugees.
In an interview with journalists on the plane after leaving Greece, the pope urged all nations to take in refugees as it is their responsibility to do so. The pope’s title as pontiff comes from the Latin word “pontifex“ a word that comes from the Latin root words pons (bridge) and facere (to do, to make) and have the literal meaning of “bridge-builder.”
His final words were, “I have always said that building walls is not a solution. We saw walls during the last century and they did not resolve anything. We must build bridges. Bridges are built with intelligence, dialogue and integration.”
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.