ROME – Perhaps the Italian prelate most identified with Pope Francis’s outreach to the peripheries, especially migrants and refugees, says that failure to welcome “the other and the least among us” is “the greatest sin I could commit.”

Cardinal Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento in Sicily, which contains the island of Lampedusa visited by Francis in July 2013, where he met migrants and refugees who crossed the Mediterranean Sea in an effort to reach Europe, said that for Christians, concern for immigrants is a “matter of faith.”

“The Church has a fundamental contribution to make, because for us, the Gospel is the compass we have to follow,” he said. “Therefore, the idea of welcome becomes a matter of faith, not just of the heart.”

“If I don’t welcome the other and the least among us, I’m not welcoming Jesus,” the 71-year-old Montenegro said. “As a believer, that’s the greatest sin I could commit.”

Montenegro spoke exclusively to Crux during a break in a Rome conference on care for people with psychiatric disabilities in Catholic health care facilities.

The cardinal’s remarks take on extra significance coming just days ahead of hotly contested March 4 general elections in Italy, in which the question of whether to reverse the relatively accommodating position of the outgoing center-left government is a key bone of contention.

The issue became even more explosive after a right-wing extremist shot and wounded six migrants from countries including Ghana, Mali and Nigeria, in the town of Macerata, in central Italy, earlier this month.

Current polls favor a right-wing coalition led by 81-year-old media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who’s made a harder line on immigration and security a central element of the coalition’s electoral platform.

In a national TV interview immediately after the Macerata shooting, Berlusconi emphasized the threat he believes is posed by the country’s immigrant population.

“Those 600,000 migrants who are here are a social bomb, ready to explode because they live on expediency and crime,” Berlusconi said.

Montenegro appealed for a different approach to the challenges posed by migrants and refugees.

“Let’s hope that hearts get ever bigger, and, above all, that a strong faith makes us see the presence of Jesus in anyone who’s suffering,” he told Crux.

Montenegro was made a cardinal by Francis in February 2015, and is generally considered one of the pontiff’s closest allies in the Italian episcopacy.

As Francis prepares to mark the five-year anniversary of his election in March, Montenegro said that outreach to people on the peripheries is the “center” of his message.

“I think it’s the center of what he’s proposing to the world. I had a chance to touch that with my own hands when he made his first outing as pope to Lampedusa, which is in my diocese,” Montenegro said. “He’s showed us that the conversation he opened up at Lampedusa isn’t finished. It’s a conversation that is still going on, reaching out to situations of suffering and disease, and getting close to people who are uneasy.”

“He’s helping us to re-read the Gospel, and therefore to give more attention to those people in society who seem to count for less,” he said.

Montenegro said the pope’s emphasis on the peripheries is becoming increasingly relevant.

“The periphery isn’t just a place,” he said. “Certain kinds of people are becoming a periphery.”

“In a society that elects to put its ‘best’ out front and all the others are left behind, the others start to become a periphery, and for exactly that reason they merit attention,” Montenegro told Crux.

The daylong conference on psychiatric disabilities was sponsored by the department of the health care pastoral for the Italian bishops’ conference, and was designed to put psychiatric professionals and Church leaders in conversation about the best way to harness the resources of both mental and spiritual health experts.

“I think it’s very important, among other things because the number of people with psychiatric problems is increasing, and everybody’s help is needed,” Montenegro said. “Through structures and also through the ecclesial community, where there’s an experience of welcome and sharing, the Church is trying to give a response, to promote prevention, and to not leave these people feeling alone in a society that often marginalizes them.”

In a typical Francis flourish, Montenegro wears a simple wooden pectoral cross, referring to the chain around the neck with a cross that’s one of the symbols of a bishop’s office, as opposed to silver or gold sported by many other prelates.

“It’s just a cross, that’s it, nothing more,” he said, explaining the choice. “It’s made of wood. It could be silver or gold, but it’s still a cross, so maybe it’s better to get it natural!”