Pope Francis has asked Catholic facilities across Europe to open their doors to migrants and refugees, but he’s also repeatedly called on the Church to do a better job of listening to laity and making decisions on the basis of consultation.
One wonders, therefore, what Francis might make of the decision of one Italian pastor to hold just such a consultation, taking a vote in his parish on whether to welcome a migrant family into an unused residence, with the result being a resounding “no.”
It happened in Montegrazie, a small town that’s part of the Imperia area in northwestern Italy near the border with France. The town features a sanctuary called Our Lady of Graces, dating to 1450, and the pastor is Father Paul Kerner.
Kerner told media outlets that in late October, he was approached by local police to see whether the church might be willing to take in a migrant family. The church has an unused residence for canons, dating to an era when most Catholic churches in Italy had not only a pastor but several other resident clergy.
Because they wanted a quick answer, Kerner said, he felt he needed to get a rapid reading of how his people would react. As a result, he used the noon Mass on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, to ask for a show of hands of who would be in favor and who against, and, according to people who were there, the result was overwhelmingly negative.
One parishioner described the scene to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale.
“The pastor simply presented the request that came from the police to host a refugee family in the residence, which is presently free, in a balanced way and without taking sides. By show of hands, at least 95 percent of those present declared themselves opposed.”
According to the parishioner, only three people voted in favor.
Cristiano Oddo, an agritourism operator and a parishioner who wasn’t present for the vote, told the newspaper he regretted the outcome.
“Maybe at the time of the vote we were all a little tired, a little afraid,” he said. “But Italians are a migrant people, and we can’t take back our welcome, especially if we’re talking about children.”
“What I hope,” he said, “is that people arrive with a desire to integrate, but we can’t discriminate against people who are fleeing places with more than valid motives for getting out.”
Also disappointed in the result was the local bishop, Guglielmo Borghetti, who called the result an “own goal” for everybody in the region.
“It means we lack mental openness,” he said. “These Christians go to Mass, but they don’t know anything about Jesus Christ. It’s all a religion of appearances, [because] if you don’t have an open heart, you don’t know what it means to go to Mass.”
For his part, Kerner told another local newspaper that the vote doesn’t have to be read as a statement against hospitality for migrants and refugees, but could simply reflect the fact that parishioners felt the unused residence is unsuitable.
“I lived there for two years,” he said. “It’s cold because there’s no heating and it’s not wired for electricity.”
Asked if it could be restored, Kerner said, “Sure, if somebody comes up with thousands of Euros to spend on it.”