WASHINGTON — Exactly three years after Pope Francis cast a wreath into Mediterranean waters remembering the thousands of immigrants who have perished there, a group of immigrant advocates in Washington remembered other lives lost, and lives that thrived, in another part of the world.
On July 8, the Washington-based Faith in Public Life center organized a vigil that aimed to recall the pope’s visit in 2013 to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which serves as a major entry point into Europe for migrants and refugees, principally from Africa and the Middle East.
Sara Benitez, the group’s Latino program director, reminded those who attended of the pope’s words then, particularly when he warned of the “culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people.”
Benitez said the group wanted to “lift up the message of the pope,” to pray for him and to remain concerned as he is, about the lives of immigrant brothers and sisters and “shake ourselves out of our complacency.”
At Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Benitez and the rest of the group prayed the rosary in English and Spanish, and in between prayers, they read stories chronicling the conditions that immigrants from Latin America face as they seek refuge — including violence and wars — situations similar to those faced by immigrants who head to Lampedusa.
Lidia Rivas, a Salvadoran immigrant who attended the event, said she wanted to be present to give thanks for the people who have made her feel welcome in the United States, a place she has called home for the past 11 years.
But she also wanted to pray, she said, for those in her native country who are facing violence and who are trying to find a way escape it. El Salvador was named the most dangerous country in the world earlier this year after figures from the country’s Institute of Legal Medicine tallied 6,656 homicides last year, or 116 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
The violence has fueled an exodus of women and children out of the country.
Monsignor Vito Buonanno, the basilica’s director of pilgrimages, welcomed the group and spoke of his Italian family’s tale of immigration. He urged the group to pray for politicians and for others to find mercy in their hearts for immigrants, reminding them that the Catholic faith encourages understanding and solidarity with others.
The group carried yellow and white flowers — the same colors as the wreath the pope cast off in a now iconic moment at the port of Lampedusa. The group placed a bouquet of flowers at the base of a statue of St. Frances Cabrini, an Italian who made the United States home in the late 1800s and is patroness of immigrants.
Known as “Mother Cabrini,” she was the first naturalized U.S. citizen who became a saint.
Buonanno encouraged the group in their effort and told them to “bring back courage, bring back hope, and bring back love” from the day’s experience.