ROME — Today the Catholic Church is led by arguably the most pro-immigrant pope in its more than 2,000-year history, a son of migrants to Argentina who fled hunger and war in Italy in the early 20th century.
Pope Francis has become a global voice for tolerance and integration; on Thursday, he selected the theme of “Migrants and refugees challenge us: The response of the Gospel of Mercy” for the Vatican’s 102nd annual World Day of Migrants and Refugees, to be held Jan. 17, 2016.
At the moment, the pope’s new backyard in Europe is reeling from a massive wave of migrants and refugees, with more than 100,000 people, mostly from Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, washing up on its shores in July alone. In that context, it’s worth taking stock of the extent to which Europe’s bishops are taking their cues from the pope in terms of how the Old Continent reacts to its new arrivals.
Arguably, the strongest comments have come from the Italians, which is perhaps no surprise given that Italy is where most boatloads of migrants and refugees making their way across the Mediterranean Sea first arrive.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genova and president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, said in mid-August that when “thousands of people, human beings, men, women, children, face death trips to escape their countries for reasons we all know, we can only conclude that this problem is a human emergency, a human tragedy.”
Speaking after meeting with the migrants living at a diocesan seminary in the city of Liguria, Bagnasco wondered aloud if international organizations have seriously tried to solve this “human tragedy,” particularly the United Nations because “it brings together not only political, but also financial power.”
Answering Francis’ appeal to open seminaries, convents, and other Catholic properties, the Italian Church so far has provided more than 7,000 beds for migrants. The mobilization has been made possible with the help of the Catholic charity Caritas and in coordination with the Italian government.
“It’s not enough just to save migrants at sea in order to soothe the national conscience,” Bishop Nunzio Galatino, secretary of the Italian bishops conference, said in an Aug. 11 interview with Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana.
“Requirements for requesting asylum take far too long,” Galantino said. “We just park immigrants here and there. If there was at least a provisional residency permit, then they could work, so people wouldn’t see them loitering and wouldn’t say that they’re eating up resources at the expense of Italians.”
Although Galantino has gotten into hot water over his rhetoric on immigration, including calling Italian politicians “peanut vendors” who say “stupid things,” he nonetheless has emerged as a strong voice for welcome and integration.
Speaking to Avvenire, the paper of the local bishop’s conference, Galatino also appealed for a “victory over indifference.” He called the appeal a key aspect of Pope Francis’ own outreach, which he said is “often misunderstood, or understood only as a political or partisan” message.
“[Francis’] teaching is taking us back to the very core of the Christian message, which prevents, for those who want to accept it and live it, turning their backs on the needy,” Galatino said.
Germany is playing a key role in Europe’s debates over immigration policy, and its bishops, too, have been outspoken.
“We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!” said German Cardinal Reinhard Marx in April, quoting an address by Pope Francis to the European parliament from last November.
Ahead of an emergency summit of European Union leaders, and speaking as president of the Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the EU, Marx said that leaders can’t postpone tackling the problem indefinitely.
“Politics in Europe has often deplored the deaths of refugees without drawing conclusions,” Marx said. “This tragedy now pushes European countries to take drastic measures against this dramatic situation. Europe’s response will be a litmus test for European values.”
In a statement posted in the website of Germany’s Bishops Conference last July, after an attack against a building that was being turned into a hostel for migrants, Marx noted that there have been 150 attacks against centers for refugees and asylum seekers in the first half of 2015.
On this, Marx said that Catholics who remain silent and look away betray “our right values.”
The Church, he said, must make clear its opposition to such hatred and violence.
“Some groups are trying to poison the climate in our society and to sow hatred,” he said. “We must never tolerate this.”
“No ifs and buts,” Marx said at the time. “These refugees, many of them traumatized, are entitled to have protection and care.”
“There is not a shadow of a doubt,” Marx said. “Where refugees are threatened, the Church is at their side.”
Assemblies of bishops have also joined the debate.
Gathered in Madrid last May, a mixed commission of bishops and others from the Mediterranean, Europe, and North Africa appealed to national governments and the European Union to promote global policies for migration and asylum, and to assign the needed resources for humanitarian rescue.
Thirteen bishops, five priests, two laymen, and a nun from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, France, Portugal, Italy, and Spain called for the “full respect and defense of the dignity and fundamental human rights, including the right to the integrity of life, of migrants.”
In June, all the bishops and cardinals of France signed a declaration expressing their “shame” over the treatment of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and at the northern French port city of Calais, from which thousands of people try to cross the English Channel toward the United Kingdom.
The bishops recalled that there are many Catholics committed to welcoming “their foreign brothers” and trying to give them “decent living conditions.”
“We welcome this commitment and urge all Catholics in France to become neighbors, to overcome their prejudices and their fears, and dare to encounter [the migrants],” the bishops said.
The French hierarchy said Catholics can’t remain closed in on themselves, ignoring the misery of so many men, women, and children. They urged the entire French community to take action.
“We must be aware,” the bishops wrote, “that, unfortunately, this situation will continue to deteriorate and that the entire national community, the whole society should pay attention. We urge our political leaders to intensify the international cooperation to meet the challenges.”
England’s top Catholic cleric, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, said in July that migrants bring fresh life to “weary western culture.” He also said that new waves of migrants are giving “new resilience and enthusiasm” to the faith rather than dividing society.
“[Catholic life] is enormously enriched by those who come here … the faith is a huge point of social cohesion, that people from different strata in society and different cultural backgrounds come together” Nichols said.
Spanish Cardinal Ricardo Blázquez Pérez also raised his voice. Addressing a Plenary Assembly of the Spanish bishops last April, he called for the Catholic Church to join forces with local governments to assist in programs that care for migrants.
He, too, quoted Pope Francis’ to make his point.
“[Who among us] has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters? Who has wept for the people who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who wanted to support their families?” Blázquez said, quoting Francis from his visit to the Italian city of Lampedusa, Italy in 2013.
Francis’ one-day trip on that occasion was a response to a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants.
“We are a society that has forgotten the experience of weeping, of ‘suffering with,’” the pope said then. “The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”