Pope Francis champions refugees and migrants

The images from the Holy Father’s trip to Lesbos this weekend, where he visited a refugee camp, were so moving that you could feel your heart climb into your throat. The pictures of the three families of refugees climbing the stairs onto the papal plane took one’s breath away. The photo showing the Holy Father standing, flanked by the Greek Archbishop and the Ecumenical Patriarch, as they prayed and tossed wreathes into the water, that photo also bespoke a changed reality in the way the Christian Church encounters the culture in the age of Francis.

See NCR Vatican correspondent Joshua J. McElwee's coverage:

The refugee crisis has bedeviled Europe’s political leaders for some time. Having failed to do anything to stop the murderous regime of Assad in Syria, and unable or unwilling to stop the yet more murderous attacks by ISIS, the governments of Europe (and the U.S.) are complicit in the refugee crisis from the war torn regions of the Middle East, to say nothing of the 300,000 Syrians who have died in the conflict. Now, Europe turns its back on the consequence of the war it did nothing to stop or ameliorate: the displaced refugees and people, fleeing from violence and hunger, seeking a better life. Now, Europe sends them back, and offers cash to Turkey to settle them.

I understand the political challenge faced by Europe’s political leaders. A strong anti-Muslim sentiment has touched a latent xenophobia and the kind of political parties we have not seen since the 1930s appear to be gaining adherents. Europe, having placed excessive hopes on the promise of the European Union to overcome jingoistic nationalism and racialism, seems remarkably unprepared to integrate immigrants. Just so, the leaders of the countries of Europe face a choice: Do the humane thing and let the migrants and refugees in, and play catch up on how you integrate them unto society, or cave to the fear-mongering of the right, which falsely claims that these refugees pose a terror threat to Europe. Here in the U.S. too, we have seen not just Donald Trump but all the Republican candidates, save John Kasich, conflate the real threat of terror with the influx of helpless refugees.

The pope cut through all of that with his decision to visit Lesbos. Where others see political problems, he sees fellow human beings in need. “We must never forget ... that migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have faces, names and individual stories,” Pope Francis said in Lesbos. “Europe is the homeland of human rights, and whoever sets foot on European soil ought to sense this, and thus become more aware of the duty to respect and defend those rights. You, the residents of Lesbos, show that in these lands, the cradle of civilization, the heart of humanity continues to beat,” he continued. “A humanity that before all else recognizes others as brothers and sisters.”

The pope’s challenge to Europe’s leaders is not political. It is ethical and it is deeper than ethics, touching on anthropology. There is no more important premise of the democratic governments of Europe than this: All people are created equal. And, the refugees are people. Any political policy, or economic policy, that negates this core anthropological belief places these governments at war with themselves, with their own most basic values. Like an Old Testament prophet, Pope Francis is calling on Europe to be true to itself by being decent and humane to the refugees and migrants.

The pope signed a joint statement with Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos. It read in part: “The tragedy of forced migration and displacement affects millions, and is fundamentally a crisis of humanity, calling for a response of solidarity, compassion, generosity and an immediate practical commitment of resources,” they state. “From Lesbos, we appeal to the international community to respond with courage. We call upon all political leaders to employ every means to ensure that individuals and communities ... enjoy the fundamental right to live in peace and security.”

More than the words, however, it was the pictures that captured the desperation of the migrants, their joy at finding a champion in Pope Francis, the compassion of this wonderful pope casting for however brief a time, a ray of hope into the lives of people who have known precious little of that most human commodity.

Will any of it make a difference? On EWTN, Raymond Arroyo complained that the pope seemed unnecessarily wishy-washy in discussing the situation of the divorced and remarried, but he was plenty strident when discussing “secondary issues like immigration.” Obviously, for Pope Francis, migration is not a secondary issue. And, more to the point, for the migrants themselves, migration is not a secondary issue. But, if you are mostly concerned about maintaining your Jansenistic purity and ability to look down on those who don’t measure up, I suppose migration is not a first-tier concern. The leaders of the Church in the United States need to ask themselves: What can they do to spread the message Pope Francis delivered in Lesbos as that message pertains to our social and political situation here in the United States? They need to convert some of the faithful to understand that this issue is not “secondary.” And, they need to be seen defending the next generation of Roman Catholics, not from the scourge of insurance that covers contraception, but from the scourge of deportation. Will the bishops display the courage Pope Francis has displayed?

A couple weeks back, we heard in the Acts of the Apostles about the infirm in Jerusalem, placing themselves so that the shadow of Peter might fall upon them. This weekend, we watched Peter again, his shadow falling upon those who are in need. The popularity of this pope is not based on his pithy comments. It is this, his resemblance to Peter, that astounds and invites.



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