ROME – Once upon a time, the ancient Romans referred to the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea,” expressing a sort of proprietary claim on the body of water and the lands that surround it, which today include roughly 30 independent states in Southern Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.

The Roman Empire in its day had what one might call a “Mediterranean strategy,” in the sense of projecting military, political and economic dominance over the region.

Today, Rome once again has a “Mediterranean strategy,” though in this case it’s the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, and the agenda is less a matter of supremacy than solidarity, especially on three critical themes: Migration, the environment and inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.

Yesterday, to mark the 10th anniversary of his historic visit to Lampedusa, Francis summarized the strategy in a charge to the people of this Mediterranean island now synonymous with the fate of migrants.

“I urge you not to remain imprisoned in fear or by partisan logic, but to be Christians capable of fertilizing this island, located in the heart of the Mare Nostrum, with the spiritual riches of the Gospel, so that it may once again shine in its original beauty,” he said.

As befits a papacy of lay empowerment, the informal patron of this Mediterranean strategy isn’t a cleric or a vowed religious, but a lay Italian mayor from the 1950s and 60s, who today is a candidate for a halo: Giorgio La Pira, an anti-fascist and devout Catholic dubbed by the people of Florence, who elected him three times, the “holy mayor.”

The next key moment in this unfolding strategy will come Sept. 17-24 in Marseilles, France, for the third of what are known as the “Mediterranean Meetings,” bringing together civic officials, youth and religious leaders from the 30 nations that make up the Mediterranean region, including an estimated 120 Catholic bishops.

Some observers believe that the event is basically a warm-up act for what will eventually be a Synod of Bishops on the Mediterranean summoned by Pope Francis at some future point, though with his two looming synods on synodality the calendar is a bit crowded.

The Marseilles gathering will be the third Church-sponsored summit on the Mediterranean, following previous editions in Bari, Italy, in 2000, and Florence in 2022.

As one sign of how important the initiative is to Francis, he’s vowed to be present again to impart his personal blessing on the initiative. He was in Bari in 2000 and had planned to be in Florence in February 2022 until intense knee pain forced him to pull out of both that trip and also Ash Wednesday services.

After the 2022 event, Catholic bishops and mayors of Mediterranean cities signed what’s known as the “Florence Charter,” setting out common commitments which, in some ways, read like a quick summary of Francis’s own social agenda:

  • Strengthening intercultural and interreligious relations.
  • A universal right to health and social protection.
  • Integrated solutions to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • Migratory policies in the Mediterranean and at borders must always respect the fundamental human rights.
  • Respect for every individual through a more equitable sharing of economic and natural resources.

When the original meeting was staged in the Italian coastal city of Bari, which has long been a meeting place for the eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean basin, it was the brainchild of Cardinal Gualtieri Bassetti of Perugia, at the time the pope’s appointee as President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, and who hails from a tiny Italian town of 3,000 souls nestled in the shadows of Florence.

In turn, Bassetti said he got the idea for a summit of bishops from the Mediterranean by re-reading documents of the “Mediterranean Colloquia,” a series of meetings hosted by La Pira in Florence between 1958 and 1964 involving political figures, religious leaders and other shapers of culture from various Mediterranean nations.

The idea was born in 1956 when King Muhammed V of Morocco visited Florence, meeting La Pira, who then traveled to Morocco himself the following year, among other things making a point of visiting three great desert monasteries in the country.

The first colloquium was staged in Florence Oct. 3-6, 1958, to coincide with the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, who legendarily crossed battle lines during the Crusades to meet Sheikh al-Malik al-Kamil. The main agenda item in Florence was the press for Algerian independence; so committed was La Pira to dialogue that he helped arrange for leaders of the independence movement to obtain false Tunisian passports to get into Italy, and, when immigration authorities protested, La Pira promised to have police officers on bicycles monitor their movements.

The conversations at that first Mediterranean Colloquium were credited with helping to pave the way for talks between France and the Algerians, which culminated in the 1962 Evian Accords that ended the war.

Despite La Pira’s best efforts, not all of the Mediterranean Colloquia were success stories. In 1960 he staged a meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which even the great Martin Buber attended, but it obviously did not result in a lasting peace.

Yet La Pira persisted, always keeping Pope John XXIII and the powers that be in the Vatican abreast of his efforts. In 1961 he staged a third colloquium on the Mediterranean and Africa, where he prophetically declared that “one would have to be deprived of historical intelligence, not to mention historically deaf and blind, not to understand the essential role these people are destined to play at every level of the individual and collective life of the world.”

The last colloquium came in June 1964, and once again was ahead of its time, discussing independence movements in both Angola and Mozambique, the transition away from Franco in Spain, and the end of apartheid in South Africa – all of which would eventually come, with the Florence sessions lending some early momentum.

Born in Sicily in 1914, La Pira would later say he had a mystical experience at the age of 10 at the Easter Mass: “It was the dawn of a new life,” he wrote in his diary. “I will never forget that Easter 1924, in which I received Jesus in the Eucharist: I felt an innocence so full circulating in my veins, that I could not hold back the immeasurable happiness.”

La Pira went on to become a Third Order Dominican and a leader in Catholic Action, and was a close collaborator of Father Giuseppe Dossetti, a priest-politician who helped draft Italy’s post-war constitution. After his terms as the mayor of Florence and also a member of the Italian House of Deputies, he devoted himself full-time to the cause of peace. He died in 1977 not long after his last overseas trip, which had been to Hanoi to help negotiate an end to the Vietnam War.

La Pira was declared “venerable” by Pope Francis in 2018. There’s no question that for La Pira, his political life was always grounded in his faith.

“I’m not a mayor,” he once wrote, “just like I’m not a deputy or an under-secretary. I only have one vocation: Even with all the deficiencies you want, by the grace of God I’m a witness to the Gospel.”

It remains to be seen, of course, what might result from the gathering in Marseilles in September. Yet whatever happens, one has to imagine that Giorgio La Pira would approve.