VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Before saying a word publicly, Pope Francis made the sign of the cross and tossed a wreath of white and yellow flowers into the Mediterranean Sea in memory of the estimated 20,000 African immigrants who have died in the past 25 years trying to reach a new life in Europe.
Just a few hours before Pope Francis arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa July 8, the Italian coast guard accompanied another boat carrying immigrants to the island’s port.
The 165 immigrants, one of whom said they were originally from Mali, had spent two days at sea making the crossing from North Africa; the immigrants were accompanied to a government reception center, a locked facility where 112 people — half under the age of 18 — already were being housed. Most will be repatriated, although a few may receive refugee status.
In his homily at an outdoor Mass, Pope Francis said he decided to visit Lampedusa, a small island with a population of 6,000 and just 70 miles from Tunisia, after seeing newspaper headlines in June describing the drowning of immigrants at sea.
“Those boats, instead of being a means of hope, were a means of death,” he said.
Wearing purple vestments, like those used during Lent, and using the prayers from the Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins, Pope Francis said the deaths of the immigrants are “like a thorn in the heart,” which spurred him to offer public prayers for them, but also to try to awaken people’s consciences.
“Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours?” the pope asked in his homily. “All of us respond: ‘It wasn’t me. I have nothing to do with it. It was others, certainly not me.'”
“Today no one feels responsible for this,” he said. “We have lost a sense of fraternal responsibility” and are acting like those in the Gospel who saw the man who had been beaten, robbed and left on the road half dead, but they kept walking.
“Maybe we think, ‘Oh, poor soul,’ but we continue on our way,” the pope said.
“The culture of well-being, which leads us to think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of others,” Pope Francis said, adding that the globalization of the world’s economy in many cases has led to “the globalization of indifference.”
Still, the pope praised the many Lampedusa residents, as well as the volunteers and public security officers who do what they can to help the migrants who reach their shores.
Traditionally fishers and tourism operators, the people of Lampedusa have spent decades dealing with the impact of immigrant arrivals and political battles over immigration policies.
When the seas are calm, especially when there are wars and political upheaval in northern Africa, the desperate pay traffickers to give them a place on a boat bound for Europe. Usually the boats are rickety and dangerously overcrowded.
After getting off the coast guard boat that took him to sea, Pope Francis personally greeted more than 50 immigrants. One of them, speaking in Arabic, told the pope that he and his fellow travelers had dealt with several traffickers before reaching Italy.
Pope Francis told the crowd at Mass that the traffickers “exploit the poverty of others” and are “people for whom the poverty of others is a source of income.”
The Mass was filled with reminders that Lampedusa is now synonymous with dangerous attempts to reach Europe: the altar was built over a small boat; the pastoral staff the pope used was carved from wood recycled from a shipwrecked boat; the lectern was made from old wood as well and had a ship’s wheel mounted on the front; and even the chalice — although lined with silver — was carved from the wood of a wrecked boat.
“Who among us has wept” for the immigrants, for the dangers they faced and for the thousands who died at sea, the pope asked. “The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep.”
“Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty in the world, in ourselves, and even in those who anonymously make socio-economic decisions that open the way to tragedies like this,” Pope Francis said.
Explaining why he chose a penitential liturgy, the pope said, “we ask forgiveness for our indifference toward so many brothers and sisters” and for the ways in which well-being has “anesthetized our hearts.”
In addition, the pope prayed for the forgiveness of “those, who with their decisions at the global level, have created situations that lead to these tragedies.”
The United Nations has criticized Italy for conditions at the Lampedusa reception center, which it says can hold 190 people. The United Nations also has questioned the quick pace of Italian processing, which sees only a handful of immigrants being given refugee status and the rest being flown back to Libya — the usual embarkation point — within a matter of days.
At the same time, other European countries have complained that Italy does not patrol the European borders well enough to keep out immigrants who do not have legal permission to enter their countries.
Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa’s mayor, told reporters he hoped Pope Francis’ visit would “change history. Europe, with its migration policies, has avoided the problem up until now, pretending not to see the immense tragedy of the voyages of hope across the Mediterranean.”
The pope, she said, “has made the invisible visible, restoring to the migrants the dignity which countries always have denied them.”
— By Cindy Wooden Catholic News Service, Contributing to this story was Paul Haring in Lampedusa.