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FLORENCE, Italy – During a freezing morning in Florence, there was little the hundreds of pilgrims who were attending Mass could do to keep warm. The square was half empty, with seats kept apart due to COVID-19 regulations.
The closing Mass of the Feb. 23-27 Symposium on the Mediterranean was originally scheduled to be led by Pope Francis, but he had to cancel due to doctor’s orders because of a painful knee.
“We came because well, it’s Mass, and you don’t go cherry-picking priests, the mystery of the Mass is the same, regardless of who is celebrating,” said Maria, one of the attendees, huddled under a layer of thick coats. With a smile on her face, she adds: “I won’t deny, every time the wind blows I ask myself why did I come to this Mass, and not to one of the many in the much warmer churches in the city!”
Pressed as to why she’s here, she had a simple answer.
“I’m here for Ukraine,” she said, dropping all signs of joy. “My father told me stories about the war. My mother taught me to pray for peace. There’s not much I can do for the war to end. But we believe nothing is more powerful than prayer, right?”
Daniella, in her 70s, came wrapped in the Peace Flag. She’s braving the weather because, “I believe in peace. And I believe in the mission of the bishops and the mayors who have gathered these days in my city. Peace is built by people of goodwill. So you can tell your readers that me being here is a sign of peace.”
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, was tasked with replacing Pope Francis at the Mass.
(The pontiff didn’t send the remarks he had prepared for the summit, and sources told Crux that his absence, along with that of other Vatican officials, is related not only to his knee pain but also to the presence of former Italian minister Marco Minniti, President of Med-Or Leonardo, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers.)
Bassetti began his homily with the unavoidable situation in Ukraine: “On this Sunday, unfortunately marked by the terrible news coming from Ukraine, the Word of God illuminates our lives. It does not alienate us from reality, but on the contrary, asks us to go to the heart of the problems and thus lay the foundations for a better world.”
The cardinal quoted Pope Francis’s often repeated message of peace: “Every war leaves our world worse than it found it. War is a failure of politics and humanity, a shameful surrender, a defeat in the face of the forces of evil.”
“While a mad war breaks out in Ukraine bringing death and destruction, the clock of history does not want to stop its hands in Florence, rather it wants the hour of peace and dialogue to resound continuously,” said Bassetti addressing the summit’s participants – the bishops and mayors of the Mediterranean region.
Referring to the Symposium on the Mediterranean, the cardinal said there is an “all-Mediterranean wisdom” that the peoples of the region should learn anew, that of “constant encounter.”
“The Christian faith, too, is not indoctrination or self-conviction but listening to those who have gone before us and comparing ourselves with other fellow travelers,” Bassetti said. “We need to continue to compare ourselves with the Lord and with others: Locked up in our solitude, as individuals, as churches and as peoples, we risk finding inappropriate, if not destructive, solutions.”
Addressing one of the core issues of the meeting – migration – Bassetti said that no one can “remain indifferent” to the great migratory flow that has characterized the Mediterranean for some years now.
“The Mediterranean, in fact, as Pope Francis recalled, has become the largest cemetery in Europe,” Bassetti said, “In recent years, thousands of men, women and children have lost their lives plowing through this sea in search of a better life or fleeing a war. This dramatic emergency deeply challenges us as Christians and as human persons.”
The prelate said migrants must be helped, but there’s also a need to “overturn the paradigm and the narrative of migration: They should be seen not only as a problem but as a great opportunity, an opportunity to transform our cities into places of welcome and hospitality.”