Pope Francis on Thursday had lunch with a group of 21 Syrian refugees, including the 12 he brought to Rome with him aboard the papal plane following a day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos in April, speaking with them about the start of their new lives in Italy.
The other nine refugees arrived in Rome at the pope’s invitation in mid-June. All are being cared for by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic movement founded in 1968 which focuses on ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue and social justice issues.
According to a brief statement Thursday from Greg Burke, the American who serves as the papal spokesman, the lunch took place at the Casa Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where Francis resides.
“Both the adults and the children had the opportunity to speak with Pope Francis about the start of their lives in Italy,” Burke’s statement said.
“The children gave the Holy Father a collection of their drawings, and the pope responded with toys and other gifts,” Burke said.
Also present at the lunch, according to the statement, were Italian Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the “substitute,” or number two official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State; Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, as well as other members of the community; and Domenico Giani, head of the Vatican gendarmes, and two other members of the gendarmes who handled the transfer of the refugees following the pope’s trip to Lesbos.
Alarm about Syria has been a constant for Francis is recent months.
Last Sunday during his traditional noontime Angelus address, the pontiff called it “unacceptable that so many unarmed persons, including many children, have to pay the price of the conflict.”
Francis said the victims of the Syrian conflict are paying “the price of a closure of hearts, and a lack of will for peace by the powerful.”
“We’re close in prayer and solidarity to our Syrian brothers and sisters,” he said, “and we entrust them to the maternal protection of the Virgin Mary.”
Francis then asked the crowd in St. Peter’s Square to join him in a moment of silence followed by reciting the Hail Mary on behalf of Syria.
On June 1 of this year, Francis asked children from around the world to use the International Day for the Protection of Children as a special day of prayer for the young people in Syria affected by the violent conflict, which broke out in 2011.
In early July, Francis released a video appeal for peace in Syria, complaining that the countries talking about bringing peace to the conflict-torn nation are also the ones supplying it with weapons.
Likewise, Francis has made concern for refugees and immigrants his top social and political concern in 2016.
During his recent trip to Poland, for instance, Francis said immigration “calls for great wisdom and compassion, in order to overcome fear and to achieve the greater good.”
Together with Hungary, Poland is perhaps the European nation that’s demonstrated the greatest reluctance to accept newcomers as Europe struggles with its greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, much of it fueled by people fleeing the violence in Syria.
Speaking the politicians and diplomats in Poland, the pontiff called for a “spirit of readiness” to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger, and “solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”