VATICAN CITY — “I hope people understand the meaning of this gesture,” Pope Francis told his aides after arriving in Lampedusa yesterday.
In what the Vatican newspaper described as the first pastoral trip of his pontificate, Pope Francis knew his arrival would create the climate of a celebration, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman. But that wasn’t the point.
“For the pope, the most important thing was and remains — as he said in his homily — the important and significant gesture of ‘weeping for those who died seeking a better life,’” the spokesman told reporters after the pope had returned to Rome.
To emphasize he was there to mourn the dead and to encourage everyone around the world to examine their consciences about how they directly or indirectly contribute to the world’s immigration flux, to making immigrant journeys more difficult and to withholding a welcome that recognizes their human dignity, Pope Francis wore the purple vestments of repentance and used the prayers from the Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins, Father Lombardi said.
The Jesuit said the locals had laid out a feast for the pope’s lunch — “with everything under the sun,” but the pope “took three or four little things, a sandwich, and was ready to leave. His simplicity never changes.”
While the visit was to an Italian island where thousands of refugees and migrants have landed over the past 25 years — and which an estimated 20,000 have died trying to reach in that period — the pope’s words of solidarity and encouragement were not limited to those who cross the Mediterranean or the Italians who help them once they arrive. Nor did he limit his strong words about immigration policies to the Italian government or the leaders of the European Union.
The Lampedusa trip allowed the pope — the son of immigrants to Argentina — “to express to the whole world in an immediate and effective way, in a visible way, his deep concern” for the plight of immigrants everywhere, Father Lombardi said.
Whether they cross an ocean, a sea, a desert or a river — and especially when they often feel forced to pay exorbitant fees to unscrupulous traffickers — immigrants deserve a dignified welcome and assistance in building a better life for themselves and their families, Father Lombardi said.
The Catholic Church does not question the right and responsibility of nations to regulate immigration, but it also insists that people have a right to seek safety, survival and improved living conditions outside their country of birth.
Father Lombardi said the pope saw his visit to Lampedusa as a way to call the world to “solidarity with all those who suffer” while migrating; “solidarity and encouragement for those who are committed to welcoming them and helping them start over on the path to a better life; and of strong encouragement for those, especially on a leadership level, who can find ways to create the conditions needed so that these people who have suffered so much really can have this better life.”
The pope’s visit came just 10 days after the U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez urged the House of Representatives to do the same. In a speech in Denver earlier in June he had said, “For me, our national debate about immigration is a great struggle for the American spirit and the American soul. Immigration is a human rights test of our generation.”
Citing statistics that showed more than 1 million people have been deported from the United States during the past four years, Archbishop Gomez added: “We’re talking about souls, not statistics. We’re talking about fathers who, without warning, won’t be coming home for dinner tonight — and who may not see their families again for a decade. We’re talking about women suddenly left as single mothers to raise their children in poverty.”
A statement today from Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based umbrella organization for national Catholic charities around the world, highlighted a joint effort by a variety of faith-based organizations to ensure greater protection of refugees and to remind people of faith of their religious obligation to welcome the stranger.