NEW YORK — As heads of state prepare to travel to Morocco this December for the anticipated adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, no individual’s participation is being sought after more fervently than that of Pope Francis.

Although he is best known as shepherd to more than one billion Catholics around the world, the pope is also head of the Vatican, and as Crux has previously reported, the Holy See has been lauded by countries and civil society alike for its role in pushing through the Global Compact amid extraordinary global tensions over migration.

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The Global Compact, which was finalized last month after two years of consultations and negotiations, offers best practices for migration that member states around the world are supposed to draw upon in implementing their own policies.

As the compact, which is non-legally binding, heads into its implementation phase, many involved in the process believe that if Francis travels to Morocco for its adoption, his presence could give other member states the necessary moral energy to ensure its long-term application.

An “Experimental” Visit

Last spring, King Mohammed VI formally invited Francis for a state visit to the country — an invitation viewed by many Vatican watchers as setting the stage for Francis’s presence at the U.N. gathering.

While neither the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations nor the Vatican’s office for Migrants and Refugees would comment on the possibility of the pope’s participation in the event, multiple sources have told Crux that an official invitation from the U.N.’s Secretary General is imminent.

Should Francis choose to accept that invitation, he would become the second pope to travel to the country, which John Paul II visited in 1985. The late pope’s visit to Morocco over 30 years ago drew headlines, as it was the first time a Roman pontiff had been invited to visit a Muslim country by the head of state, not the local Church.

At the time, John Paul II spoke frankly about the risks of such a visit, noting that it was an “experiment” — a description that some say is an adequate way to characterize Francis’s potential 2018 visit, but one which advocates believe is wholly necessary for the sake of pushing forward one of the signature issues of his papacy.

Kevin Appleby, who participated in the Compact’s negotiation process through the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN), told Crux that there is likely some concern about the unknowns of how the compact will be implemented down the road and that tying Francis to it involves certain political risk that may make some Vatican diplomats cautious.

Nevertheless, Appleby believes the potential benefits far outweigh the risks, and that Francis, who is known for audacious and bold gestures — such as bringing back a dozen Syrian refugees to Rome after his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016 — knows that such a move could be necessary to bolster the compact’s future.

In 2017, before official negotiations were underway, the United States pulled out of the process. Just days after the final agreement was reached, Hungary followed suit. Australia has hinted that they could eventually do the same, leaving some U.N. delegates anxious about the compact unraveling before it even has a chance to be implemented.

Appleby believes that if Francis travels to Morocco, “he could counter any movement led by the United Sates to undermine the compact by keeping nations committed to it.”

“If he throws his weight behind it, it is less likely to unravel,” he told Crux. “It would make all the difference, and would make governments around the world — who may put the compact as a third-tier issue — look up and listen. It would call attention to this document and give it life, which is what it will need going forward.”

A Pastoral Priority

During the 1990s, the moral authority of Pope John Paul II proved to be a decisive factor at several high-profile United Nations gatherings. At both the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, the Holy See served as a crucial force in preventing efforts by the Clinton administration to enshrine reproductive rights as part of international law, and although the pope was never physically in attendance at those events, his presence was certainly felt.

Yet if two decades ago the Holy See was using its influence to block the efforts of the international community, the Global Compact presents an opportunity for the Vatican to bolster the ongoing collaboration of countries on an issue that is close to this pope’s heart.

“With his election as pope coinciding with the great crisis and chaos that have characterized the massive movements of people across international borders estimated to be around 265 million, Pope Francis has put the care for migrants and refugees among his top pastoral priorities,” Archbishop Bernardito Auza, who serves as the papal nuncio to the United Nations, told Crux.

Such concern is the reason why that in multiple interviews with country delegates that participated in the compact’s negotiations, their responses have been unanimously positive when discussing the possibility of the pope’s presence in Morocco.

While speaking to Crux on background in order to continue to operate at the United Nations in a neutral manner, various responses from international delegates to the prospect of the pope’s participation in the Global Compact adoption ranged from “huge” to “the signal the world needs.”

“Not so many other leaders stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable, and among the most vulnerable can be migrants,” one delegate told Crux.

Enthusiasm from the international community is matched by civil society — whose leaders sees this as a moment that could crystalize years of work on the migration front.

“His physical presence would be extraordinary,” said Monsignor Robert Vitillo, Secretary General of the Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission. “Francis’s witness to this, especially his focus on the human person, is most appreciated.”

“No State can address migration on its own”

In December 2015, representatives from 196 states gathered in Paris, where they drafted a landmark agreement on climate change. While Francis did not physically show up for its passage, the Holy See worked behind the scenes for years to help broker the agreement, and Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, is widely credited as helping pave the way.

While the Paris Agreement took place as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, under-secretary of the Vatican’s office of Migrants and Refugees, told Crux the Global Compact on Migration is neither a convention nor a treaty.

“It is something new: A non-legally binding cooperative framework,” said Czerny. “There’s an underlying conviction: No state can address migration on its own.”

“The compact should also make cooperation easier and more effective, for example, between Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the difficulties of the Rohingya people, or among South American countries receiving many Venezuelans, or for Uganda hosting over a million from South Sudan,” he added.

Such an underlying conviction, as described by Czerny, certainly aligns with Francis’s vision for migration where he has repeatedly called for collective and communal action.

Since President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has threatened to jeopardize that process, some believe that Francis’s presence in Morocco could ensure a stronger implementation so that it would not suffer a similar fate.

“The Holy Father understands it’s a new day and there needs to be more proactive advocacy on some issues from the Holy See,” Appleby told Crux. “Statements and encyclicals have their place, but there needs to be more active advocacy and defense of migrants in the world.”

“Having the Holy Father come to that meeting and speak to member states would be instrumental in them moving forward in implementing these objectives,” said Appleby.

“It would give the process and the Compact a shot in the arm and it would give the Compact the international attention that it may not have received to date, and it would make people sit up and see that it’s an important document that deserves our serious attention and our best efforts,” Appleby said.

“His presence and his voice will signal that this is probably the most pressing social issue that the world is facing today,” he concluded.