Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Pope in Lesbos

In 427 B.C., the city-state of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos provided the occasion for one of history's great debates on political morality among the citizens of Athens, a debate famously recounted by Thucydides in Book 3 of his History of the Peloponnesian War. Today, Mytilene and the island of Lesbos were in the news again - and once again in connection with a political issue of profound moral significance. The occasion this time was a visit by Pope Francis to call attention again (as he did at Lampedusa in Italy in 2013) to the plight of immigrants to Europe.  On Lesbos, the Pope also met up with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and Greek Orthodox Bishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II, whose guest the Pope was in Greece.

The divisions between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are old and deep. Even so, the Pope, the Patriarch, and the Archbishop came together to form a united front in the face of this contemporary humanitarian, political, and moral calamity.

"We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for resolution," the Pope said at the Moria Detention Center. There he told the assembled refugees that he wished to join the voices of people of faith "to speak out on your behalf," as he challenged the world to "respond in a way worthy of our common humanity." With comparable force, the Greek orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos spoke of the need to stop the "depreciation of the human person."

In fact, of course, when it comes to solving political problems, the Pope's "divisions" (to cite Stalin's famous line) are obviously limited in their practical force. But it is usually the hope that the Pope's symbolic attention to an issue - and especially his personal presence in a place of suffering - will heighten awareness and concentrate public attention in a way which will lead those with actual political power to do something useful to alleviate the suffering and start solving the underlying problems. In this instance, however, the Pope went further than usual and actually did something quite practical (and simultaneously even more hugely symbolic). Leaving Lesbos, the Pope flew back to Rome with three Syrian refugee families - six adults and six children. The Holy See has agreed to assume responsibility for the 12, who will be cared for initially by the Community of Sant'Egidio.

This was described by the Holy See's Press office as the Pope's desiring "to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees." That is obviously is, but it is also a frontal challenge to those with actual political power to chart a new direction in dealing with this tragic state of affairs.

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