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Pope Francis and his Ten-Year Journey with Displaced People

Michael Schopf, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Tue, Mar 14th 2023

Refugees from Ukraine welcomed by JRS in Romania (photo: Sergi Cámara / Entreculturas – Alboan – JRS).

“Each one of you, dear friends, has a life story that speaks to us of the tragedies of war, of conflicts that are all too often linked to international politics. Yet, above all, every one of you bears a wealth of humanity and a religious sense, treasures to welcome rather than to fear. Many of you are Muslim or members of another religion. You come from various countries, from different situations. We mustn’t be afraid of differences! Fraternity enables us to discover that they are riches, gifts for everyone! Let us live in fraternity!”[1] With these words, Pope Francis addressed the refugees in Centro Astalli’s soup kitchen, back in 2013. Centro Astalli is the Jesuit Refugee Service in Italy and one of the first projects that Fr. Pedro Arrupe SJ set up in the early 1980s.

At the same gathering, Carol, a refugee woman from Syria who had just arrived in Italy, explained: “Syrians in Europe feel very strongly the responsibility of not being a burden. We want to be actively involved in a new society. We want to offer our help, and the skills and knowledge we bring with us, as well as our culture, in the building of a more just and hospitable society toward those who, like us, flee war and persecution. We adults can still bear more suffering, if this serves to guarantee a future of peace for our children. We ask that they may be able to  go to school and grow up in a peaceful environment.”

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has modeled and preached a God of justice and mercy. He has made the hardships facing migrants and refugees worldwide a key focus not only in words but also in action. A recent example has been his visit to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in February 2023, where he met community leaders and displaced people.

His message for the 2018 World Day of Peace addressed “Migrants and refugees: men and women in search of peace.” In his characteristically direct fashion, he asked “Why so many refugees and migrants?” and recalled how several years before, Pope St John Paul II had pointed to the “increased numbers of displaced persons as one of the consequences of the ‘endless and horrifying sequence of wars, conflicts, genocides and ethnic cleansings’.”[2] Pope Francis also recognized that human beings have a natural desire to seek a better life, and that poverty and environmental degradation are also factors leading to migration.

This emphasis on social justice is profoundly Christ-centered. Francis in no way ignores the work or theology of his immediate predecessors, Popes St John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who made important and lasting contributions to Catholic theology during their pontificates,  particularly to its social teaching. In fact, they laid down much of the theological foundation on which Pope Francis has been able to continue to build. For instance, Pope Francis’ 2018 World Peace Day message, mentioned above, took inspiration from the words of Saint John Paul II: “If the ‘dream’ of a peaceful world is shared by all, if the refugees’ and migrants’ contribution is properly evaluated, then humanity can become more and more a universal family and our earth a true ‘common home’.”[3]

Sadly, in recent years, due to a marked increase in conflicts and other aggravating factors such as climate change, many nations and peoples have been overrun with many people entering their lands in search of peace and security. Sometimes, a misplaced sense of self-preservation has led to an obsession with keeping migrants away from national borders and this has closed hearts and minds to the reality of the hopes, fears, and aspirations of some of the world’s most needy people. Pope Francis suggests that we who live in comfort and security need to hear their story and appreciate the complete picture of their journey. He has, over the years of his pontificate, consistently maintained his engagement and has set forth a clear and radical vision for an alternative and more humane approach to the challenges of involuntary migration.

Lampedusa, July 2013: the globalization of indifference

At Lampedusa, Francis said: “‘Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death.’ That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart.”[4]

In July 2013, as the first trip of his pontificate, the Holy Father traveled by boat to the island of Lampedusa, off the southern coast of Sicily. The timing and context of his visit were significant. Libya was engulfed in violence and instability. Poorer Africans, attracted to the work available under Gaddafi’s economic expansion were now looking elsewhere, and specifically across the Mediterranean. While in Lampedusa, Pope Francis celebrated Mass to commemorate the thousands of migrants who had died crossing the Mediterranean. He also delivered a now famous homily where he explained that he felt compelled to come “to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated. Please, let it not be repeated!” He then reflected on the first two questions that God asks humanity in Scripture: “This is the first question which God asks man after his sin. ‘Adam, where are you?’ Adam lost his bearings, his place in creation, because he thought he could be powerful, able to control everything, to be God. Harmony was lost; man erred and this error occurs over and over again also in relationships with others. ‘The other’ is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and my comfort.”

Pope Francis has used the narratives of Adam and Cain as analogies several times, including in his treatment of integral ecology in the 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (LS). “How many of us,” he asked before the migrants at Lampedusa, “have lost our bearings; 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!” For the pope, “when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed. […] We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: ‘poor soul…!’ and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, any feeling of guilt assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people (…) offers a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference.”[5]

Reflecting on Lampedusa reveals how the pope’s response to a specific example of  human tragedy began as a heartfelt gesture rooted in Biblical principles and Catholic social teaching and evolved as he absorbed the lived experiences of others and drew from a large range of sources. In the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), Pope Francis was later to share that “Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself mother to all. For this reason, I exhort all countries to a generous openness” (EG 210). The Judeo-Christian teaching that the earth is not humankind’s final destination means that the Catholic faith is in its essence migratory – we are all migrants, “passing through.”

One of Pope Francis’ distinctive contributions to addressing the question of migration has been to insist on making “personal journeys” with migrants and refugees, or “gestures of closeness”: to see, to listen, to welcome; to protect; to assist and integrate; to pursue long-term solutions. It draws from Jesus’ own words, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). In Evangelii Gaudium the pope explains this approach: “Realities are greater than ideas… The principle of a reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization… This principle impels us to put the word into practice to perform works of justice and charity that make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it a reality is to build on sand, to remain in the world of pure ideas” (EG 2013).

This pontificate coincides with the growth of globally displaced numbers to their highest levels since the end of World War II, in what many have termed a “refugee crisis.” The term is actually problematic. It implies firstly that the displaced seeking refuge are the cause of their own flight. This is simply not the case. Laudato Si’ highlights the scale of climate and poverty induced migrants and those fleeing war and poverty. Interestingly, Pope Francis has brilliantly shifted the emphasis by insisting that we should recognize the crisis as a crisis of solidarity. His Lampedusa speech sowed the seed for his teaching on the “globalization of indifference,” meaning the callousness with which individuals and communities treat persons on the margins. What does he prescribe? It begins with us; to paraphrase from his Lampedusa speech – we who have “become used to the suffering of others,” we “who think only of ourselves,” we who are “insensitive to the cries of other people.” The essence of this teaching, we believe, calls on all of us to reflect on ourselves and experience a metanoia, a change of heart that will demand positive, humane responses to these desperate movements of people.

Lesbos, April 2016: the culture of encounter

Following the major flows of mainly Syrian and Afghan refugees into Europe in 2015 and 2016, on 16 April 2016, Pope Francis visited the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. This time he took an ecumenical approach, appearing together with His Beatitude Ieronymos, Archbishop of Athens and of All Greece, and His Holiness Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. His intention has been to ignite a worldwide movement of awareness to change the tragic course of events, to alert those who hold the fate of nations in their hands. He told the assembled refugees and migrants that: “I have come here with my brothers, Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos, simply to be with you and to hear your stories. We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution. As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”[6]

As with his visit to Lampedusa, the evolution of Pope Francis’s thinking on migrants, refugees and human trafficking flows from actual encounters. Here, he clearly confronts the great risk of indifference, and of exploitation. But he also highlights the unacknowledged kindness and goodness that many people show when encountering migrants in desperate need. As if this encounter were a hidden treasure, he excavates further and emerges with the idea of the “culture of encounter.” “We all know from experience how easy it is for some to ignore other people’s suffering and even to exploit their vulnerability. But we also know that these crises can bring out the very best in us. You have seen this among yourselves and among the Greek people, who have generously responded to your needs amid their own difficulties. You have also seen it in the many people, especially the young from throughout Europe and the world, who have come to help you.”[7]

Moria camp was set afire in 2020 by some of the resident refugees themselves in a desperate attempt to draw the attention of the international community to their horrendous living conditions and hopeless prospects. This, together with many other instances, is, still today, a sign of the lack of global capacity to manage migration. In his address to the prime minister, to the Greek authorities, and to the Catholic community in Greece, Pope Francis raised the critical issue of tackling root causes as the solution to migration: “To be truly united with those forced to flee their homelands, we need to eliminate the causes of this dramatic situation: it is not enough to limit ourselves to responding to emergencies as they arise. Instead, we need to encourage political efforts that are broader in scope and multilateral. It is necessary, above all, to build peace where war has brought destruction and death, and to stop this scourge from spreading. To do this, resolute efforts must be made to counter the arms trade and arms trafficking, and the often hidden machinations associated with them; those who carry out acts of hatred and violence must be denied all means of support. Cooperation among nations, international organizations and humanitarian agencies must be tirelessly promoted, and those on the frontlines must be assisted, not kept at a distance.”[8]

The Migrants and Refugees Section

Right after his visit to Lesbos, the Holy Father created a new Migrants and Refugees Section (“M&R Section”), linked to the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. It was established to be “competent particularly in issues regarding migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture.”[9] Personally led by Pope Francis, the M&R Section was particularly directed at achieving his vision: “At Lampedusa and Lesbos, major transit points in Italy and Greece, Pope Francis wept with the migrants and refugees huddled there. On the plane back from Lesbos, he brought some Syrian refugee families to live in the Vatican. ‘When we heal the wounds of refugees, displaced persons, and victims of trafficking,’ he said, ‘we are practicing the commandment of love that Jesus has left us … Their flesh is that of Christ.’[10] What the pope teaches and does himself, he wants the M&R Section to help others say and do throughout the world.”[11]

Since then, the M&R Section’s mission has been to assist the Church (i.e. the bishops, the faithful, the clergy, Church organizations) and every person of good will, to “accompany” those who are departing and fleeing, those in transit or waiting, those who are arriving and seeking to integrate, and those who return. One of the major achievements has been to assist with nurturing and growing the seeds planted by the pope in his Lampedusa intervention. The Section has been particularly closely engaged with helping to develop further the theological and intellectual basis for a clearer Catholic approach to human displacement. In 2020, it published an extensive collection of Pope Francis’ teaching on the pastoral care of migrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking, entitled Lights on the Ways of Hope. On a more practical level, the Section was involved in realizing the Holy See’s proposal of Twenty Action Points for the Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees, and the Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking.

A program for the nations and for civil society

Just as his predecessors, Pope Francis has drawn from core elements of the Christian faith and Catholic social teaching to develop a clear vision for an alternative and more humane approach to the challenges of involuntary migration.

In February 2017, the Holy Father addressed the International Forum on Migration and Peace meeting in Rome. He declared that the response to the challenges of contemporary migration should be shared among the political community, civil society and the Church, and it should be articulated in terms of four interrelated actions: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.[12]

The M&R Section subsequently published the above mentioned Twenty Action Points as a contribution to the drafting, negotiation and adoption of the Global Compacts on Migrants and on Refugees by the end of 2018. These consultations were done by listening to Bishops’ Conferences and Catholic organizations working in the field, and thus included profound reflection on the Church’s best practices that have been developed over the years.

The Twenty Action Points are founded on four actions – to welcome, to protect, to promote, and to integrate – which underpin Pope Francis’ vision for an improved and more humane approach to human displacement. The Holy Father groups his recommendations for the 2018 Global Compacts as follows:

“Welcoming calls for expanding legal pathways for entry and no longer pushing migrants and displaced people toward countries where they face persecution and violence. It also demands balancing our concerns about national security with concern for fundamental human rights. Scripture reminds us: ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’

Protecting has to do with our duty to recognize and defend the inviolable dignity of those who flee real dangers in search of asylum and security, and to prevent their being exploited. I think in particular of women and children who find themselves in situations that expose them to risks and abuses that can even amount to enslavement. God does not discriminate: ‘The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the orphan and the widow.’

Promoting involves supporting the integral human development of migrants and refugees. Among many possible means of doing so, I would stress the importance of ensuring access to all levels of education for children and young people. This will enable them not only to cultivate and realize their potential, but also better equip them to encounter others and to foster a spirit of dialogue rather than experience rejection or confrontation. The Bible teaches that God ‘loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.’

Integrating, lastly, means allowing refugees and migrants to participate fully in the life of the society that welcomes them, as part of a process of mutual enrichment and fruitful cooperation in service of the integral human development of the local community. Saint Paul expresses it in these words: ‘You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people’.”[13]

Human trafficking, the internally displaced and climate displaced people

A clear evolution in the Holy Father’s approach to migration has been his recognition of the evils of human trafficking and the need to tackle it when dealing with migration. Migrants are highly vulnerable to human trafficking given that they flee in precarious conditions; they frequently risk their lives in trying to enter a country of destination and are afraid of deportation. In 2014, the Holy Father described human trafficking as “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ.”[14] In 2018, Pope Francis stressed that “the routes of migration are also often used by traffickers and exploiters to recruit new victims.”[15]

Pope Francis also recognizes something deeper, as seen in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. He speaks of a “throwaway culture,” in  which the human being is seen as a “consumer good,” which can be used and thrown away (cf. EG 53). “This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity” (EG 211).

At the beginning of 2015, Pope Francis dedicated his annual Message for the World Day of Peace to human trafficking, stressing that “We are facing a global phenomenon that exceeds the competence of any one community or country,” and calling for “a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.”[16] In 2016, he urged the eradication of human trafficking and smuggling, considering these new forms of slavery “crimes against humanity.”[17]

Two of the three encyclical letters written by Pope Francis to date – Laudato Si’ (LS), May 24, 2015, and Fratelli Tutti (FT), October 3, 2020 – consider human trafficking. It may come as a surprise for some to know that in Laudato Si’, within the focus on respect for the natural world, the pope refers to the indifference about human trafficking. His is a holistic view of God’s creation. Pope Francis points out how care for nature cannot exist separately from care for the human person: “It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted” (LS 91).

During 2018, the M&R Section hosted two consultations with Church leaders, scholars and experienced practitioners – many religious congregations, especially women’s congregations, have been key actors for years. Six months of consulting, listening, discussing and drafting resulted in the Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking, approved by the Holy Father in 2019. The document engages with what human trafficking actually is, investigation of its underlying causes, the importance of acknowledging the reality and dynamics of this evil business and puts forward recommended responses to human trafficking and the recovery of survivors.

Another group of forgotten people are the internally displaced persons (IDPs), those who do not cross borders but flee their homes due to the same causes as refugees – conflict, persecution, human rights violation, extreme poverty, or a mixture of several of these or other complex causes. There were 59.1 million IDPs across the world at the end of 2021, such as in Syria, Venezuela, Ethiopia and Myanmar.[18]

As it did with human trafficking, the M&R Section held consultations with ecclesiastical representatives and partner organizations, leading to the Pastoral Orientations on Internally Displaced Persons, which were published in 2020. The Orientations are meant to guide the Church’s ministry to IDPs at the local level, in planning and practical engagement, in advocacy and dialogue.

The theme for the 106th World Day for Migrants and Refugees, on September 27, 2020, was “Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee. Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating internally displaced persons.” This World Day is dedicated to raise awareness to the plight of vulnerable people on the move, to the many challenges they face, and to highlight the opportunities that migration offers.

In 2021, Pope Francis called international attention to the plight of those displaced by the climate crisis, and in 2022 the Migrants and Refugees Section gathered the knowledge and experience of local Churches worldwide, publishing the Pastoral Orientations on Climate Crisis and Displacement.

Refugees and migrants at the center of an interconnected world

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has often spoken about migrants, not only showing deep compassion, but seeking to develop a radical vision that provides an alternative approach to the mainstream, putting the marginalized people in the center of the response: “A just policy is one at the service of the person, of every person involved; a policy that provides for solutions that can ensure security, respect for the rights and dignity of all; a policy concerned for the good of one’s own country, while taking into account that of others in an ever more interconnected world.”[19]

Humanity understood as “family” and the planet Earth as “home” calls us morally toward a constant commitment to take care of, defend and work for them. These themes can be seen as the thread of the apostolic exhortation?Evangelii Gaudium?and are found within the encyclicals?Laudato Si’?and?Fratelli Tutti.

The rediscovery of the original project of God for the world and humanity, revealed in Jesus Christ, translates to a series of specific commitments in the areas of economy, ecology, politics and solidarity. Repositioning refugees and migrants at the center, together with the less bright and “useful” for the world: the sick, the elderly, people with a disability. Pope Francis calls us once and again to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” migrants and refugees, as a core common mission: There is only one humanity which takes care of those who are fragile, transforming them in the center of their attention, and choosing leaders who have a longer view, ahead of national interests. There is only one family who is seriously concerned about the common home, the causes to prevent migration, with the conviction that the only home we have requires urgent care, and a new world economy founded on justice.

Pope Francis has been able to transmit to the local Churches his concerns and has also been able to go beyond the Catholic audience, inspiring women and men of other faiths or non-believers, who have discovered in the Christian message many shared values. One of these  values is clearly the need for “encounter” as the way to rightly interconnect the dislocated parts of the world where refugees are invisible into a reconciled world where relationships and community bring them to the center.

It is this physical, close relationship with those on the margins which will not only convert each of us but it will ultimately lead political and social leaders toward “a better kind of politics,” as explained in Laudato Sí: “There is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centers of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49).

In his journey with displaced people, Pope Francis seems to tell us how they offer us an opportunity to discover hidden parts of humanity and deepen our understanding of the complexities of this world. It is through migrants and refugees that we are invited to meet God and find a just model for our societies that provides a future for everyone, “even though our eyes find it hard to recognize Him.”[20]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.3 art. 10, 0323: 10.32009/22072446.0323.10

[1]. Francis, Visit to the Centro Astalli, September 10, 2013.

[2]. Ibid., Migrants and Refugees: men and women in search of peace. Message for the 51st World Day of Peace, January 1, 2018.

[3]. Ibid.

[4] Francis, Homily in Lampedusa, July 8, 2013.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Francis, Visit to the refugees, Lesbos, April 16, 2016.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Francis, Meeting with the people and the Catholic community. Memory of the victims of migration, Lesbos, April 16, 2016.

[9]. Francis, Apostolic letter Humanam progressionem, August 17, 2016.

[10]. Francis, Address to Participants in the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants, May 24, 2013.

[11]. M&R Section, 2017.

[12]. Francis, Address to the participants in the International Forum on Migration and Peace”, February 21, 2017.

[13] Francis, Migrants and Refugees: men and women in search of peace, op. cit.

[14]. Francis, Address to participants at the international conference on human trafficking, April 10, 2014.

[15]. Cf. Francis, Angelus, July 29, 2018.

[16]. Francis, Message for the 48th World Day of Peace, January 1, 2015.

[17]. Cf. Francis, Address to participants in the meeting on human trafficking promoted by “Renate”, November 7, 2016.

[18]. Data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), 2022.

[19]. Francis, Homily in the Holy Mass for Migrants, July 6, 2018.

[20]. Francis, Message for the 106th World Day for migrants and refugees, of May 13, 2020.

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