Barely three months after his election, Pope Francis made his first journey outside of Rome. He went to a place virtually unknown: a small outcropping in the Mediterranean named Lampedusa.
Lampedusa, the “Island of Tears” is an 8 square-mile, windswept island whose 6000 inhabitants survive by fishing, small vineyards, and tourism. As the Southernmost outpost of Europe, it has long served as the transit point into Europe for irregular immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. By 2012 their numbers had swollen to 10,000 a year, a figure that doubled the following year. Several thousand had died making the attempt. Italy had requested aid from the European Union, but the pleas had fallen on deaf ears.
It was in this context that on July 8, 2013 the waters outside the harbor were churned into white foam from a flotilla of two-dozen small fishing boats escorting an Italian Coast Guard Cutter carrying Pope Francis to make a landing. The visit, to say the least, was unexpected. One week earlier, Alitalia Airlines received a telephone call from the Vatican requesting four tickets on the regular 10:30 AM commercial flight. The Vatican bureaucracy, with its tradition of heavily scripted papal events, was thrown into disarray. So too was the Italian State. Dismayed that a head of state might travel on a commercial jet, the government hastily offered a small Italian Air Force passenger-jet for the Pope’s use.
Arriving on the island the Pope had boarded an Italian coast guard cutter that went a short distance out to sea where he dropped a wreath into the sea in memory of the thousands who had lost their lives seeking to reach Europe – most all of whom were Muslim. Upon landing, the pontiff proceeded directly to greet African men and women who had survived the journey. There was none of the usual spectacle connected with papal visits. His official reception committee had consisted of the woman mayor of Lampedusa, the local Archbishop and the pastor of the island’s only church. The Pope rode through the town in an open-sided jeep.
The Mass, celebrated on a makeshift altar set on the hull a small boat, was simple. Several boys and two girls from the local parish acted as servers– the first time that girls had ever participated in this capacity at a papal liturgy. The crowd was gathered in the town’s grass-less, bleacher-less soccer field. To protect against the blistering heat, the crowd of virtually the entire population on the island and several thousand visitors, had been provided with yellow or white baseball hats. Several hundred refugees sat on the ground at the front of the crowd. A priest giving out communion was in sunglasses and wore his hat backwards. Many men were in undershirts.
None of this seemed to matter to the Pope as he stepped up to the jury-rigged lectern to deliver his homily. For the occasion, he had chosen to preach on the Old Testament Reading of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel.
Referring to the moment in the Old Testament when God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” Francis asked the assembly: “‘where is your brother?’ This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us.”
From the beginning it was evident that the pontiff was speaking to a broader audience than the island inhabitants. Referring to the black, North African immigrants, he went on: “Brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations, to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God!”
Several months later, Pope Francis would write: “We may not always be able to reflect adequately the beauty of the Gospel, but there is one sign which we should never lack: the option for those who are the least, those whom society discards.” But that day, addressing the situation of the immigrant boat people, his words were scathing.
“Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?” he asked. “Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: ‘poor soul…!’ and then go on our way.”
As Pope Francis spoke, Red Cross workers moved along the edge of the crowd offering relief to those suffering from the temperature. A fierce sirocco wind tore at the pages of his text, causing him to remove his white skullcap, as he pressed on.
The culture of comfort,” Francis declared, “makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”
His concluding words were addressed to world leaders, pointedly accusing them of negligence. “Lord, in this liturgy, a penitential liturgy, we beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters… we beg your forgiveness for those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies. Forgive us, Lord!
Ending his discourse, he called out: “Today too, Lord, we hear you asking: “Cain, where are you?” “Where is the blood of your brother?”
The visit to Lampedusa lasted only a few hours, but set the stage for the papal visits and similar discourses that followed: Palestine, Central Africa, Paraguay, and Mexico. In the wake of the papal journey, some improvements were made on the island in migrant living conditions as the European Union hurriedly allocated several million dollars in relief funds.
But tragedy continued at sea. Three months after the Pope visit, some 500 people were killed in the waters off the island when a boat capsized. And still they came. From January to April 2015, about 1600 migrants died on the route from Libya to Lampedusa, making it the deadliest migrant route in the world. Since June of that year the Eastern Mediterranean experienced a surge boat people from the Syrian conflict, with 319 drowning deaths reported in the first two months of 2016.