Monday, July 8, 2013


Today, Monday, July 8, Pope Francis made his first major pastoral visit outside of Rome - a pastoral vist of great symbolic and social significance to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Lampedusa is one of the Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean. Governmentally it is a part of Sicily, but geographically it is closer closer to Africa than to Europe. Tourists may know Lampedusa as the site of some of Europe's finest beaches, but Lampedusa is also widely known now as one of the primary European entry points for immigrants from Africa (especially during and after the Libyan civil war). As such, sadly, it has also been associated with the sorts of human tragedies that often threaten immigrants - notably last month's sinking of an overcrowded boat bearing immigrants from Africa and the death of some eight of them. According to the UN, some 500 migrants were reported as dead or missing in 2012, and some 40 more are known to have died crossing from Tunisia to Italy this year.The Sant’Egidio Community has estimated that 19,000 migrants have died the past 15 years.

The Holy See's statement announcing the visit said that Pope Francis was “deeply touched” by the shipwreck, which it called “the latest in a series of analogous tragedies.” It announced that the Pope proposed “to pray for those who lost their lives at sea, to visit the survivors and refugees present, to encourage the residents of the island, and to appeal to everyone’s responsibility to take care of these brothers and sisters in extreme need.”

At Lampedusa, the Pope boarded one of the Coast Guard vessels used to rescue migrants in order to toss a wreath into the water in memory of those who died. He then returned to the island to meet with refugees and to celebrate Mass on an altar built from an old fishing boat and painted in Italy's national colors. In his homily during the Mass, the Pope said: "We have become used to other people's suffering, it doesn't concern us, it doesn't interest us, it's none of our business!"

That is obviously an important message at any time - but especially in this era when economic policies and ideologies are everywhere dramatically damaging traditional social structures and community networks and where even in our own affluent society we see a steady increase in economic inequality. It's an especially important message in the United States right now when sensible and humane immigration reform is being considered in Congress for the first time in years.

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