“Xenophobia and aporophobia today are part of a populist mentality that leaves no sovereignty to the people. Xenophobia destroys the unity of a people, even that of the people of God.”No one who has been following the activities of Pope Francis these past six or so years will be surprised by this condemnation of distain for foreigners and the poor.
The 82-year-old pope made the remarks during a long conversation with fellow Jesuits during a pastoral visit to the East African country of Mozambique in early September.
He noted that xenophobic people “are tempted by a form of sterilized sociology, where you consider a country as if it were an operating theater, where everything is sterilized: my race, my family, my culture… as if there were the fear of dirtying it, staining it and infecting it.”
‘Mixed-race society brings growth and new life’
Francis spoke out strongly against those who are trying “to stop this very important process of mingling cultures.” And he argued that, instead, racial mixing actually brings growth, new life and originality.
“The mixing of identities is what we have experienced, for example, in Latin America,” he said.
“There we have everything: Spanish and Indian, the missionary and the conqueror, the Spanish lineage, people’s mixed heritage,” continued the pope, himself a native Argentine born of Italian immigrants.
In his conversation with the Jesuit community in Mozambique he also took the opportunity to repeat, once more, a leitmotif he inherited from John Paul II – the call to build bridges of inclusion instead of walls of exclusion.
“Building walls means condemning yourself to death,” Francis said. “We can’t live asphyxiated by a culture as clean and pure as an operating theater, aseptic and not microbial.”
Although the pope did not say so specifically, one can assume that he was referring – at least in part – to what he sees as a disturbing and sinful attitude towards migrants and refugees.
The right pope for this moment of mass migration
While previous popes have also raised their voices on behalf of these displaced and migratory peoples, none has done so with the force and passion of Francis.
There is a good reason for this. Not only is he a child of immigrants, he also finds himself at the helm of a global Church at a time of increasing migration patterns.
It is estimated that more than 200 million people – mostly from Latin America, South Asia and Africa – are migrants both within and across continents. And the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is projecting the number to more than double to 405 million by 2050.
A number of national leaders around the world – led by President Donald Trump of the United States – have begun to loudly and forcefully implement closed-door policies that drastically limit the acceptance of migrants, including those seeking asylum or refuge for whatever reason.
Mr. Trump campaigned for the presidency with a promise to build a wall on the US-Mexican border. And he has intentionally whipped up xenophobic, racist and exaggerated nationalistic sentiments among his most loyal supporters. And he is not the only world leader to do so.
But there is no one on the global stage that has stood up against the closed-borders, “build the wall” rhetoric more than Pope Francis.
He did so from the very start of his pontificate when, on what should have been the start of his summer holidays, he traveled to the island of Lampedusa to express his solidarity with refugees and migrants making their way from North Africa to Europe.
The July 8, 2013 visit threw a spotlight on the plight of these “boat people” and the thousands of others who, over the past several years, have perished at sea while making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.
Migrants and refugees: a growing concern for the papacy
From the moment of the Lampedusa trip it became clear that Francis was determined to make the issue of migrants and refugees, with all its different contours, a top priority in his pontificate.
But he did not invent this as a pastoral concern. In fact, the Vatican has been trying to speak to the world’s conscience about these people on the move since at least the early part of the 20th century.
Back in 1914, Pope Benedict XV initiated an annual “World Migration Day” to stimulate financial and spiritual aid for Italian emigrants during the First World War.
The Vatican gave World Migration Day a broader and more international connotation in 1952 in the aftermath of World War II. It urged particular Churches around the world to choose a date to celebrate the day during the liturgical year. In Rome it was initially marked on the First Sunday of Advent.
Each year the Vatican’s Secretary of State would issue a message in the pope’s name to mark the occasion. But in 1985 that changed significantly when John Paul II began penning the annual message himself to express his “solicitude and concern” for what he called “one of the most complex and dramatic events in history: migration.”
John Paul II raises the profile
The Polish pope had already written Laborem exercens (Through work), the first of his three social encyclicals. And he devoted an entire section of that 1981 document to the rights and dignity of those who emigrate permanently or seasonally for employment opportunities
The Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, which became a pontifical council in 1988, went to great efforts to promote the pope’s annual message for World Migration Day. Each year John Paul would focus on a different aspect or category of migrants.
Then in 2003 he issued the first message for what would, from then on, be called the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
It was a summons to eradicate racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism. And it is extraordinary in reading it some 16 years later how much it presages the words and attitudes of the current pope.
Francis takes a further step
The popes had never celebrated a special Mass to mark the occasion, but limited themselves to reminding people of the World Day during the Sunday Angelus. Since 2005 that was always in mid-January on the Second Sunday after Epiphany.
But at the request of various bishops’ conferences, Pope Francis decided to move the celebration of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees to the last Sunday of September.
And to mark the occasion he decided to preside at a multi-lingual Mass outdoors in St. Peter’s Square. It is only the second time that there’s been a papal liturgy on the World Day. The first was in January 2018.
There are striking features to this year’s celebration, including the opening hymn in Spanish, the Gloria in Lingala (Congolese) and an offertory hymn in Sinhalese. Prayers will also be featured in Chinese, Swahili and Arabic, among others.
“It’s not just about migrants.” That’s the title of Francis’ written message for this year’s commemoration. The pope says the issue of migration is also about “our fears… charity… (and) our humanity.” It is “a question of seeing that no one is excluded,” “it is about putting the last in first place” and a matter of seeing “the whole person, about all people.”
“Our response to the challenges posed by contemporary migration can be summed up in four verbs: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. Yet these verbs do not apply only to migrants and refugees.
“They describe the Church’s mission to all those living in the existential peripheries, who need to be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated…
“In a word, it is not only the cause of migrants that is at stake; it is not just about them, but about all of us, and about the present and future of the human family.”
Perhaps it has taken a pope from the New World, the first one ever, to see clearly the great opportunities – beyond the negative aspects – that are inherent in this vast movement of peoples across countries and continents.
He is certainly doing all in his power to share that view with others. And it is because of this that Pope Francis is loved by some and loathed by others.
Robert Mickens’ article was first published in La Croix International September 29, 2019.