The pope who threw his doors open to refugees (clue: it's not Francis)

The pope who threw his doors open to refugees (clue: it’s not Francis)

The pope who threw his doors open to refugees (clue: it’s not Francis)

Pope Francis smiles as he browses through drawings at the Vatican, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016. Pope Francis has had lunch with a group of Syrian refugees who were brought to Italy from the Greek island of Lesbos thanks to the pope’s intercession. (Photo: L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Francis, who has reserved to himself direct authority for refugees, is not the first pope to throw open the doors of the Vatican to those fleeing hardship. As history shows, some prerogatives remain Peter's.

For anyone paying attention, there was a surprise in Pope Francis’ announcement last week of the new dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Appointing the much respected Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana to be the new head of the newly reorganized dicastery to defend the rights of marginalized peoples and “attend to the inestimable goods of justice, peace, and the care of creation,” Francis threw a curveball. The Pope reserved to himself the direct responsibility, at least for the time being, for refugees.

Cardinal Turkson is a good man and, if he is capable of handling the other offices, he is clearly capable of being the point person for the Church’s response to refugees. Francis knows that Turkson, by virtue both of his origins and previous office, understands the needs of refugees, and has a natural empathy with them from his own background.

So why this significant exception to his new office?

In part, it may well be because last Wednesday morning at about 3:30 am Francis was awoken from his sleep by a tremor. Many in Rome described a rumble at about that time. Books fell from their shelves. Many awoke and stayed awake, expecting aftershocks, and stayed awake the following night too — just in case.

Francis woke, and learning of the devastation in central Italy, cancelled the normal order of a Wednesday. Rather than the usual catechesis at his audience, he led the Rosary for all who had died and were left homeless by that earthquake, whose epicenter was Norcia. The world was turned upside down for a day.

This is not the first time that a pope has felt his room move. Nor is Francis the first pope to respond to an earthquake. In 1908, for example, Pius X awoke to the news that Messina, one of Italy’s largest cities at the time, had been destroyed at a cost of 77,000 lives.

Pius’ response was simple, elegant, and effective. His own home, with its frescoes by Raphael, its ancient Roman statues, and its grand staircases by Bernini, were all thrown open to those fleeing the Messina earthquake, who made their temporary homes there. The Apostolic Palace became a refugee camp.

Those who had lost everything spent their nights recovering under the splendid frescoes of the Vatican’s loggias while they contemplated what had happened, and hoped for a life beyond those walls.

The response of Francis is in a tradition worthy of St. Pius X — and of St. Teresa of Calcutta who found Christ in just such a distressing disguise.

Cardinal Turkson may be more than capable of handling the Vatican’s response to the global refugee crisis, and he must know that Francis staying in charge of that one area is no slight to him.

Francis needs to respond, as the Church has in the past, from the Chair of Peter itself.

Just as St. Pius X looked after as many Sicilians from Messina as could fit in the Apostolic Palace, Francis is reaching out to those who find themselves at their weakest, least, and most desperate, to bring them to the fold of God’s love, grace, and peace.

From the savannahs of Africa, to the deserts of Syria and Iraq and the high seas of the Mediterranean — from where he brought back refugee families to live in Rome — to the European parliament, Francis calls to the refugees of the world, be they Christian, Muslim, Animist, Buddhist, or of no faith.

It is clear that for Francis, whether they belong to his flock or not, they are sheep in need of a shepherd. None escape his pastoral care. This is the concern of a pastor.

Just as the one sheep lost out of one hundred is Christ’s concern in the Gospel, Francis is clearly signaling that those who feel like they are without a flock, and as such left alone and hopeless, and more importantly left as refugees, should be directly the concern of the pope.

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