ROME—Famous for his off-the-cuff remarks, Pope Francis was at it again on Friday when he set aside a prepared address to “speak from the heart” to thousands of students from Rome’s youngest university, Roma Tre, where he revisited some of his usual concerns: war and violence, a lack of dialogue and the need for the West to acknowledge its responsibility for the migrant crisis.

Pope Francis said that the real “threat” to Europe’s Christian culture are not the migrants, defining them instead as an “opportunity to grow.”

He was answering a question posed to him by Nour Essa, a Syrian refugee who last April traveled to Rome with Francis on his return from a day trip to the Geek island of Lesbos, where he went to raise awareness of the refugee crisis.

Essa fled her country with her husband and their son, and is currently studying at the university the pope visited on Friday. Essa is also trying to have the Italian government recognize her degree in agriculture from Syria and her masters in microbiology obtained in France. At the Italian university, she’s five exams away from a bachelor’s degree in biology.

Pope Francis meets Nour Essa, part of a group of Syrian refugees arrived in Rome with Pope Francis from the Greek island of Lesbos, at the Roma Tre University in Rome, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)
Pope Francis meets Nour Essa, part of a group of Syrian refugees arrived in Rome with Pope Francis from the Greek island of Lesbos, at the Roma Tre University in Rome, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

Essa asked Francis about the fear Europeans have for migrants like herself, who come from Syria or Iraq. She noted that some wonder, “Don’t these people threaten Europe’s Christian culture?”

“I ask: How many invasions has Europe had? Europe was formed by invasions and migrations,” Francis said in reply, noting that he himself comes from a country made up of migrants, as 80 percent of the population in Argentina has foreign roots.

Argentina, he said, doesn’t have a good identity, but this is not a problem of migration, but of the country’s inability to manage things. The jokes made about Argentines, he insisted, are all fair, “but this is our sin, not a problem from immigration.”

According to Francis, there’s a need to think about the many questions migration generates, warning that simply denouncing people fleeing war and hunger is not responsible “politics.”

The ideal solution, he said, would be for there to be no wars and no hunger. For there to be no wars, Francis continued, “we need to build peace.” For there to be no hunger, “we need to make investments so they [potential migrants] have the resources to live there.”

Migrants, he continued, “are hungry because they have no jobs, and they have no jobs because they have been exploited. They flee to Europe thinking they will find a better status, but even there they are exploited.”

They are exploited, Francis added, even in the boats allegedly carrying them to a better life, but that have instead turned the Mediterranean Sea into a cemetery.

Talking about welcoming migrants, the pope urged for them to be integrated into the local cultures, with organizations that help them to learn the language of their new home country, to find a job and a place to stay.

Each country, Francis acknowledged, has to determine how many migrants it can welcome, seeing them as brothers and sisters, “men and women like us.”

Integration, he said, also means a dialogue between cultures: those who are welcomed into Europe have to keep their traditions, but share them with the home country, while at the same time, accepting new ones.

“When there is this welcoming, accompaniment, integration, there’s no danger with immigration. A culture is received and another offered. This is my response to fear,” he said.

Francis spoke off-the-cuff for 45 minutes, answering questions posed by four students.

Another was Giulia Trifilio from Italy. She asked the pontiff about the world’s violence, “always present in the history of humanity,” and what could be the “medicines” to contrast it.

“No one today can deny that we’re at war,” Francis said. “It’s a war fought in pieces, but a war. We need to tone down the rhetoric. There are many medicines against violence. First of all, the heart: Before arguing, dialogue.”

Today, Francis answered, people on the streets insult each other as if it was normal, there’s violence in the way people talk and interact. This daily violence, present also in family homes when people are too hurried to greet each other or occupied with their phones instead of interacting with each other at the table, “grows and grows and becomes global violence.”

Where there’s no dialogue, he continued, there’s violence and war.

The pontiff also regretted that there’s been a global lowering of the standards of the political class, evident on the campaign trail, when candidates allegedly debate each other but are incapable of allowing the opponent to finish their statements before they interrupt.

Universities, Francis said, are called to be places of dialogue, not “elitist, ideological institutions” that prepare the youth to become “soldiers” of a certain ideology. A place where there’s no respect for those who think differently, he insisted, is not a university.

Using the concept of liquid modernity of the sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, the pope said that a “liquid economy” generates a lack of job opportunities. “How can we think that developed countries [in Europe] have such high levels of youth unemployment?”

The liquid economy, he said, takes away the possibilities of finding a job, which leads young people not to “know what to do” and end up battling addictions, contemplating suicide or joining terrorist armies to “have something to do, give meaning to my life: it’s horrible.”

To resolve social, economic and cultural problems, Francis said, “we need concrete responses.”

This was the second time that Rome’s youngest university welcomed a pope, after St. John Paul II gave the year’s opening remarks in 2002. Since the university was founded, five heads of state have delivered similar remarks, including Chile’s Michele Bachelet.