FLORENCE, Italy – Due to acute knee pain, Pope Francis will be skipping this Sunday’s foray into the Italian city of Florence, where he was scheduled to close a summit that brought together bishops and mayors of the Mediterranean to discuss migration.
The announcement, made by the Vatican’s press office, came minutes before a previously scheduled press conference in Florence with a handful of those taking part in the Feb. 23-27 symposium titled “Mediterranean, border of peace.”
“I could hear a two-folded pain from him: For his knee, but also for having to miss this encounter,” said Cardinal Gualiero Basetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference that is organizing the summit.
Francis will also miss next week’s Ash Wednesday celebration.
At this point, it is unclear how the pope’s absence will affect the program, or if he will send the speeches which, according to Bishop Antonino Raspanti, vice president of the Italian bishops, have already been prepared. Francis was set to meet with around 60 bishops from 20 countries and a similar number of mayors. He was also scheduled to meet a group of migrants and celebrate Mass before heading back to Rome.
Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, archbishop of Florence, urged those who have tickets to still take part in the celebration: “This will be a sign of our affection for the Holy Father. It was with him that we wanted to pray and we will pray with him, albeit with a contact of the heart and not with the gaze that sees him physically close to us. But he is no less close to us, with his person and his concern for the Mediterranean, especially in this moment of great crisis.”
The challenges of the Mediterranean region
Spanish Cardinal Cristobal Lopez, Archbishop of Rabat, Morocco, said that people often find it easy “to speak about our rights, yet it is difficult for us to speak about our duties. We speak about having a right to an education, but we do not fulfill the duty to provide that education.”
The church he leads is incredibly small: There are estimated 50,000 Catholics in Morocco; most of whom are foreigners coming from Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. “We are a church made of foreigners, but we do not want to be a foreign church.” Having said this, he identified five duties that arose so far during the summit and are applicable both in the community he leads and in the rest of the region.
The cardinal said the first duty was being incarnate: “Like God, who, having decided to save us, became incarnate, became in all things equal to us, except in sin.” He said this incarnation means getting to know and love the local culture, language and history, as well as the challenges, the religious intolerances and the situation of migrants.
The second duty he identified is that of being “servants of hope,” particularly for young people. The third duty is to “make the experience of walking together, to see life as a pilgrimage together, involving others, with a truly welcoming spirit, with a church that goes out to others.”
The fourth duty for Catholics in the Mediterranean, according to Lopez, is being promoters of fraternity and to live the sacrament of encounter.
“Finally, these four challenges have to come together in a fifth one: education,” the cardinal said.
“It is absolutely necessary to welcome migrants, but we also have to awaken the conscience of Christians about the economic situation of the world. As long as the economic laws and the world’s financial system do not change, the migration situation won’t change either,” he said.
The role of the Mediterranean in keeping Europe together
During the morning sessions, Dario Nardella, mayor of Florence, argued that “more and more, we have the feeling that Europe, the greatest political project of peace and unity that emerged from the dramas and iniquities of the second world war, is losing its awareness of the history and strength of this geographical area.”
He criticized the absence at EU summits of a concern for the Mediterranean region.
“Without an enlightened policy and a concrete commitment of the European institutions in favor of the development and cohesion of the nations and peoples of the Mediterranean, Europe will be weaker and more divided,” said Nardella.
Faced with arrogance, the “strong” answer of prayer
Nardella also spoke about the humanitarian emergency that is erupting due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, urging the EU to come together and plan how to welcome the millions who are expected to flee the war in upcoming days.
Poland alone is expecting anywhere between 1 to 4 million people.
Archbishop Gintaras Grusas, of Vilnius, Lithuania, and president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conference, said that his country has already begun welcoming refugees, and close to 100,000 are expected to arrive in the next week. “This plays well with the theme of our meeting: Mayors and bishops across the country are coming together to see how we will provide them with temporary accommodation, until they can safely go back home.”
Asked about the situation on the border between Lithuania, Poland and Belarus, where the first two have banned migrants from entering their territories, Grusas argued that the two situations are very different.
“Migration from Belarus was seen as an act of war by Lithuania and Poland, which took a position of national defense, because the people felt [Belarusian President] Alexander Lukashenko was pushing migrants as a weapon of war,” the cardinal said. “This situation is different: these are war refugees, and Lithuanians are all willing to help them get settled.”
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who is “hopefully,” knee permitting, supposed to welcome Francis to Malta in early April, said that at this tragic time, it is necessary for European nations to be in solidarity with those who are suffering.
“I heard that ‘the response to the arrogant must be prayer,’ and this really touched me,” he said. “There are those who say that prayer is a weak response, but it is not weak to place hope in prayer. War is always a tragedy, and to speak of war in Europe in 2022 is a tragedy of our culture: we have learned nothing. How can we think that one country has the right to invade another?”