ROME – A day after Europe hit the voting booths for the latest round of European Parliament elections, with the migrant crisis a major talking point, Pope Francis issued a message urging society to drop skepticism and prejudice towards newcomers, calling the attitudes racist.
In his May 27 message for the World Day for Migrants and Refugees, Francis said the migration issue is not just about migrants and refugees, but “it is also about our fears.”
“The signs of meanness we see around us heighten our fear of ‘the other,’ the unknown, the marginalized, the foreigner,” he said, noting that many migrants seeking a better future end up as the recipients of this meanness.
While some fear is normal and even legitimate, “the problem is not that we have doubts and fears,” he said. “The problem is when they condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps even – without realizing it – racist.”
“In this way, fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other, the person different from myself; it deprives me of an opportunity to encounter the Lord.”
Tiled “It is not just about migrants,” the pope’s message comes ahead of the Sept. 29 World Day for Migrants and Refugees, which has been celebrated by the Catholic Church since 1914.
The message comes after Europeans voted for the 751 members of the EU Parliament that saw an increase in populist and liberal parties.
The election campaign highlighted migration and climate change – both major talking points for Francis.
Europe has been abuzz with debate over the migration issue since the crisis exploded in 2015, with nations arguing over which policies would best resolve the problem. Many countries have closed their borders in a bid to clamp down on the number of migrants entering, leaving many stranded.
In the pope’s own backyard, Italian deputy Prime Minister and head of the nation’s Lega party, Matteo Salvini, who has often jousted with the Vatican over his harsh anti-migration policies, came out on top in the weekend’s elections. Though his party didn’t win as many seats in the EU Parliament as expected, they still claimed 34 percent of the national vote.
During a campaign rally in Milan ahead of the elections, crowds booed when Salvini mentioned Francis, who has been a vocal advocate for migrants’ rights, demonstrating just how the migration issue has become a lightning rod between the Vatican and Salvini.
Following Sunday’s elections, the cover of Italian magazine L’Espresso featured an image of Francis as Zorro in opposition to Salvini, indicating the sparring isn’t likely to end any time soon.
In Monday’s message, Francis said the presence of migrants and refugees, and of vulnerable people in general, is not a threat, but is “an invitation to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society.”
“That is why it is not just about migrants,” he said. “When we show concern for them, we also show concern for ourselves, for everyone; in taking care of them, we all grow; in listening to them, we also give voice to a part of ourselves that we may keep hidden because it is not well regarded nowadays.”
Francis insisted that the migration issue goes beyond politics, and touches on key human and Christian values such as charity, compassion, and a respect for humanity.
As he has in the past, the pope stressed that the progress of a nation “depends above all on our openness to being touched and moved by those who knock at our door. Their faces shatter and debunk all those false idols that can take over and enslave our lives.”
In a world that is increasingly “elitist and cruel” toward the marginalized and excluded, not only are poor nations being drained of their resources, but global wars are tearing nations apart while weapons “are produced and sold in other regions which are then unwilling to take in the refugees produced by these conflicts,” he said.
“Those who pay the price are always the little ones, the poor, the most vulnerable,” he said, and urged society to take to heart the Gospel proclamation that “the last shall be first.”
“In every political activity, in every program, in every pastoral action we must always put the person at the center, in his or her many aspects, including the spiritual dimension. And this applies to all people, whose fundamental equality must be recognized,” he said.
Calling modern times the “era of migration,” Francis insisted that while at times uncomfortable, the presence of migrants and refugees helps to “debunk the myth of a progress that benefits a few while built on the exploitation of many.”
Pointing to his 4-point action plan for migrants and refugees, to welcome, protect, promote and integrate, the pope said these verbs describe the Church’s overall task of reaching out to those on the peripheries.
If these verbs are put into action, he said, “we will help build the city of God and man. We will promote the integral human development of all people. We will also help the world community come closer to the goals of sustainable development that it has set for itself and that, lacking such an approach, will prove difficult to achieve.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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