Pope Francis and his ten-year journey with displaced people

13 March 2023

Pope Francis visiting Centro Astalli, JRS Italy. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Pope Francis visiting Centro Astalli, JRS Italy. (Jesuit Refugee Service)

Each one of you, dear friends, has a life story that speaks to us of the tragedies of war, of conflicts that are all too often linked to international politics. Yet, above all, every one of you bears a wealth of humanity and a religious sense, treasures to welcome rather than to fear. Many of you are Muslim or members of another religion. You come from various countries, from different situations. We mustn’t be afraid of differences! Brotherhood enables us to discover that they are riches, gifts for everyone! Let us live in brotherhood! 

With these words, Pope Francis addressed the refugees in Centro Astalli’s soup kitchen, back in 2013. Centro Astalli is the Jesuit Refugee Service in Italy and one of the first projects that Fr. Pedro Arrupe SJ set up, in the early 1980s.  

From those early days in 2013, throughout his ten years of pontificate, Pope Francis has modelled and preached a God of justice and mercy. He has made the hardships facing migrants and refugees worldwide a key focus not only in words but also in action. The most recent example has been his visit to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in February 2023, where he met community leaders and displaced people.  

In recent years, a misplaced sense of self-preservation has led to an obsession with keeping migrants away from national borders and this has closed hearts and minds to the reality of the hopes, fears, and aspirations of some of the world’s most needy people. Pope Francis suggests that we who live in comfort and security need to hear their story and appreciate the complete picture of their journey. He has, over the years of his pontificate, consistently maintained his engagement and has set forth a clear and radical vision for an alternative and more humane approach to the challenges of involuntary migration. 

One of Pope Francis’s unique contributions to addressing the question of migration has been to insist on making ‘personal journeys’ with migrants and refugees, or ‘gestures of closeness’: to see, to listen, to welcome; to protect; to assist and integrate; to pursue long-term solutions. It draws from Jesus’ own words, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ as recalled in Luke 6:31. 

Pope Francis’ pontificate coincides with the growth of global displaced numbers to their highest levels since the end of World War II, in what many have termed a ‘refugee crisis’. Interestingly, Pope Francis has brilliantly shifted the emphasis by insisting that we should recognise the crisis as a crisis of solidarity 

Just as his predecessors, Pope Francis has drawn from core elements of the Christian faith and Catholic social teaching to develop a clear and radical vision for an alternative and more humane approach to the challenges of involuntary migration. Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has leveraged his position as a spiritual and moral leader on the world stage to speak about migrants. He has shown deep compassion but has gone beyond that, putting the marginalised people at the center of the response: 

A just policy is one at the service of the person, of every person involved; a policy that provides for solutions that can ensure security, respect for the rights and dignity of all; a policy concerned for the good of one’s own country, while taking into account that of others in an ever more interconnected world. (Pope Francis, 2018, #6) 

Pope Francis reminds us that humanity is understood as “family” and the planet Earth as “home” calls us morally towards a constant commitment to take care, defend and work for the development of humanity.   

In the past decade, Pope Francis has been able to transmit to the local churches his concerns and has also been able to go beyond the Catholic audience, inspiring women and men of other faiths or non-believers, who have discovered in the Christian message many shared values. One of these values is clearly the need for “encounter” as the way to rightly interconnect the dislocated world where refugees are invisible into a reconciled world where relationships and community bring them to the center. It is this physical, close relationship with those in the margins which will not only convert each of us but it will ultimately lead political and social leaders towards “a better kind of politics”. 

In his journey with displaced people, Pope Francis seems to tell us how much they offer us an opportunity to discover hidden parts of humanity and deepen our understanding of the complexities of this world. Maybe this is, and will be, his legacy: It is through migrants and refugees that we are invited to meet God and find a just model for our societies that provides a future for everyone, ‘even though our eyes find it hard to recognize Him’ (Pope Francis, 2020, #6 citing to Homily, 15 February 2019). 

Every day, here and at other centres, so many people, mainly young people, stand in line to get a hot meal. These people remind us of the sufferings and dramas of humanity. But that queue also tells us to do something, right now, everyone, it is possible. It is enough to knock at the door and to try to say: “Here I am. How can I give you a hand?”. (Pope Francis, 2013, in his visit to Centro Astalli) 


Read the full article in La Civiltà Cattolica (also in Italian).