ROME — Because Pope Francis is seen as a maverick, there’s a tendency to assume everything he does is groundbreaking and novel. In reality, while he certainly has his own unique flair, much of this teaching and advocacy is solidly grounded in the legacy of the popes who came before him.
We got a reminder of the point on Tuesday, when Francis came back to the topic of immigration and refugees, this time drawing on the teaching of his predecessors.
The pontiff called for an end to the “trafficking of human flesh,” denouncing that one group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources while entire peoples have a right only to “gather the remaining crumbs.”
Rejection of refugees, he said, is “rooted ultimately in self-centeredness and amplified by populist rhetoric.”
All are concerns he’s voiced before. The twist this time was in the fact that his address was also a reminder that the migrant crisis is not new, nor is the Church’s call to help those forced to flee their countries.
During remarks delivered to the participants of the VI International Forum on Migration and Peace, Francis quoted previous Church texts 19 times. Five were addresses or encyclicals written by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and four by St. John Paul II, including his messages for World Migrant Day in 1986, 1987 and 1995. Two came from the Compendium of the Church’s Social Teaching published under John Paul.
Francis opened his address by noting that migration is not a new phenomenon, but that it’s actually left a mark on every age, fostering encounter between peoples. In the third millennium, he said, much of the time this movement is forced by conflict, natural disasters, persecution, climate change, violence, extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions.
Faced with this “complex panorama,” the challenges to the political community, civil society and the Church are great, amplifying the urgency for a “coordinated and effective response.” The shared response, he said, could be articulated by four verbs: to welcome, to protect, to promote and to integrate.
Under “welcoming,” Francis called for a more personal approach instead of an “enormous gathering together of persons seeking asylum and of refugees,” since this has not produced positive results, creating instead new situations of vulnerability.
“For those who flee conflicts and terrible persecutions, often trapped within the grip of criminal organizations who have no scruples, we need to open accessible and secure humanitarian channels,” the pope said.
He was perhaps thinking of initiatives such as the humanitarian corridors being organized by the Sant’Egidio community and which have helped resettle 500 refugees in Italy in the last year, including the 12 Syrian asylum seekers the pope brought to Rome from the Greek island of Lesbos.
With the other three verbs, Francis illustrated their import with quotes from his predecessors.
He justified the need to “protect” immigrants using Benedict’s words for the 2005 Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, in which the German pontiff highlighted the fact that “the migratory experience often makes people more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence.”
“Defending their inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedoms and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted,” Francis said, calling for a prioritization of constructive processes over immediate results when it comes to juridical instruments and political choices.
He also offered assurances that the Church will always be one of the actors implementing timely and human programs in the fight against “the trafficking of human flesh which profits off others’ misfortune.”
Speaking about “promotion” of an integral human development of migrants, exiles and refugees, Francis once again quoted Benedict’s message for migrants day, this time from 2012, and also the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, released in 2004, at the request of John Paul II.
According to Church teaching, the pope said, development is an “undeniable right of every human being,” and as such it must be guaranteed. Here too, coordinated efforts by all the parties involved are needed.
Quoting Benedict, he said that the human promotion of migrants begins in their communities of origin, and it should be guaranteed, joined “to the right of being able to emigrate, as well as the right to not be constrained to emigrate.”
A person, he said, should be guaranteed the right “to find in one’s own homeland the conditions necessary for living a dignified life,” for which programs of international cooperation, “free from partisan interests,” must be encouraged.
When the time came to explain what he meant with “integrate” migrants and refugees he said it’s not about assimilation nor incorporation, but a two-way process rooted in the mutual recognition of the other’s culture. Here, he quoted two different messages from John Paul II, one from 1986 and one from 1987.
He used the latter to say that for the Christian community, “the peaceful integration of persons of various cultures is, in some way, a reflection of its catholicity, since unity, which does not nullify ethnic and cultural diversity, constitutes a part of the life of the Church.”
According to Francis, conjugating these four verbs is a “duty of justice, of civility and of solidarity,” and here once again, the pontiff used his predecessors to explain what he meant.
For instance, talking about this being a duty of civility he cited a 1995 message from John Paul II who stated that an “irregular legal status cannot allow the migrant to lose his dignity, since he is endowed with inalienable rights, which can neither be violated nor ignored.”
Pope Francis is often praised by many, criticized by others, for his strong protection of migrants and asylum seekers. Tuesday’s remarks offered a reminder that he’s not the first pope to care for them, nor will he be the last.
If he’s even more outspoken than his predecessors, it may be a direct result of the fact that today’s migrant crisis is widely considered the worst since World War II. A point illustrated, perhaps, by the fact that as he was speaking, rescuers working in western Libya announced the recovery of the bodies of 74 migrants.