It certainly was a busy and momentous week for Pope Francis. It culminated with his much anticipated pastoral visit to the refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. To set a good example, Pope Francis took 12 refugees back with him to the Vatican. These refugees were taken from the camp in Lesbos and will be housed by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome. A spokesman for the Vatican said, “The pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including children. Two families come from Damascus and one from Deir Azzor (in the area occupied by ISIS). Their homes had been bombed. The Vatican will take responsibility for bringing in and maintaining the three families.”
All 12 of those who traveled to Rome are Muslims.His trip and gesture are in response to new European Union’s policy of sending migrants and refugees back to Turkey. And against voices who warn that allowing these poor wretched families into one’s country could be allowing terrorists to sneak in with them. Lesbos has been the first port of call for the hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe. But it has also been in the past two weeks the place where hundreds of deportations have taken place under the new plan by the EU to deport them back to the places that they risked their lives to flee.
This trip also had ecumenical dimensions as Pope Francis joined with two Greek Orthodox patriarchs, one from Greece and one from Istanbul in Turkey, the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The pope has made closer ties with the Orthodox Church a priority of his pontificate. In their joint declaration the three leaders said, “We, Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece, have met on the Greek island of Lesbos to demonstrate our profound concern for the tragic situation of the numerous refugees, migrants and asylum seekers who have come to Europe fleeing from situations of conflict and in many cases, daily threats to their survival.”
Pope Francis was met with the desperate pleas of those interned in the Moria detention facility. As he crossed the barbed-wired wall that contains the refugees, cries of “Freedom! Freedom!” rang out from the crowd. As he walked through the camp many people knelt at his feet, weeping uncontrollably. One of his translators told him, “They’re looking for your mercy.” Pope Francis said to the people, “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need!” And he told them he had come to tell the Moria residents that “you are not alone!”
Before departing from Rome to Lesbos, Pope Francis met with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is campaigning to be the Democratic presidential candidate and was invited to speak at a Vatican conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, “Centesimus Annus,” a document that, as Sanders said, “gave a clarion call for human freedom in its truest sense: freedom that defends the dignity of every person and that is always oriented toward the common good.” He added, “The church’s social teachings, stretching back to the first modern encyclical about the industrial economy, ‘Rerum Novarum’ in 1891, to ‘Centesimus Annus,’ to Pope Francis’s inspiring encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ this past year, have grappled with the challenges of the market economy.”
He also quoted Pope Francis frequently in his address, and said, “As Pope Francis has stated: ‘Man is not in charge today, money is in charge, money rules.’” Sanders added, “We have new idols.”
Locally, Jews, Catholics and Muslims are striving to combat the root of the suffering of so many by addressing the problem of religious extremism and religious ignorance that leads to human suffering and tragedy on epic scales. Please come and join us for Breaking Bread Together, a panel discussion including Rabbi Lewis Eron, Imam Morshad Sami Hossain and myself on the topic, “Defeating Extremism: Jews, Catholics and Muslims Working Together in the Spirit of Nostra Aetate,” on Sunday, May 1, at 2 p.m. at Christ Our Light Church, 402 Kings Highway, Cherry Hill. Admission is free and the program is followed by refreshments and fellowship. Please come out and join us.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.