By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY — With passion in Cyprus and reason in Greece, Pope Francis continued to articulate and adjust his teaching on migration.
Since his first trip out of Rome as pope — his visit in 2013 to the Italian island of Lampedusa — Pope Francis has made the plight of migrants and refugees a central concern of his ministry.
For more than eight years, he has argued against closed borders and closed hearts.
But during his visit Dec. 5 to the Mavrovouni refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos and in remarks to reporters flying with him back to Rome the next day, Pope Francis also made it clear that in calling for outstretched hands he was not ignoring the complexity of the migration issue or the limits of what some governments can do.
In other words, he does not expect people to look at migration with rose-colored glasses, but he does expect them to look at the actual migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers as brothers and sisters.
The tie of kinship is what should tip the balance when a community or a country weighs whether it has the resources needed to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” the newcomers.
A focus on the people, not the numbers has been constant since the beginning of Pope Francis’ papacy, said Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
“Pope Francis keeps on denouncing the despicable violations of human dignity carried out in the name of a misguided view of national security and tolerated by a culture of indifference,” the cardinal told Catholic News Service.
Meeting with migrants Dec. 3 in a Catholic church in Nicosia, Cyprus, Pope Francis’ passion and compassion were on full display as he repeatedly departed from his prepared text.
“How many desperate people have set out in difficult and precarious conditions but did not arrive?” he asked those who had crossed the Mediterranean and made it to Cyprus. “We can think about this sea, which has become a great cemetery. Looking at you, I see the suffering caused by your journey; I see all those people who were kidnapped, sold, exploited and who are still on the journey, we know not where.”
The tragedy is not hidden, he said, even if people prefer to look the other way.
“We see what is happening, and the worst thing is that we are becoming used to it. ‘Oh yes, today another boat capsized, so many lives were lost,'” people say to themselves. “This ‘becoming used’ to things is a grave illness, a very grave illness, and there is no antibiotic for it,” the pope said. “We have to resist this vice of getting used to reading about these tragedies in the newspapers or hearing about them on other media.”
In the end, he even apologized for going on so long and in such detail, particularly about what he described as “lagers” — government-run detention centers in Libya where many migrants pushed back from Spain, Malta or Italy end up.
“Excuse me if I have spoken of things as they really are,” he said, “but we cannot remain silent and look the other way amid this culture of indifference.”
Those words were not much different from what he had said eight years earlier in Lampedusa, when he mourned the thousands who had died trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a dignified life for themselves and their families, Cardinal Czerny noted. The pope had said: “We are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another!”
Pope Francis stuck closer to his prepared text Dec. 5 when he visited Lesbos for the second time, even though before giving his speech, he had spent half an hour walking through the camp, past the tents and pre-fab shelters, greeting hundreds of asylum-seekers.
“I am here to see your faces and look into your eyes: Eyes full of fear and expectancy, eyes that have seen violence and poverty, eyes streaked by too many tears,” he told them.
In the presence of Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and both Greek and U.N. officials, Pope Francis said the global community has rallied to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change — though perhaps without much success — but it has done very little to come together to assist migrants and the countries hosting them.
“Yet human lives, real people, are at stake!” he said in Lesbos. “The future of us all is at stake, and that future will be peaceful only if it is integrated. Only if it is reconciled with the most vulnerable will the future be prosperous. When we reject the poor, we reject peace.”
While the pope was on the shores of the Mediterranean, it was clear his gaze was broader, and his concern went much further, especially northward where thousands of hope-filled migrants are shivering in a Belarus winter hoping to cross a newly barbed-wired border into Poland.
“Today it is the fashion to put up walls and barbed wire and concertina wire to impede migration,” he said.
Certainly, governments have a “right” to say how many migrants they can take in, the pope said. But they do not have a right to condemn them to exploitation and even death.
“Migrants must be welcomed, accompanied, promoted and integrated,” Pope Francis said. “If a government cannot take in more than a certain number, it must enter into dialogue with other countries who can take care of the others, all of them.”