By: Roxane Ramos
This year marks the 101st World Day of Migrants and Refugees, a day of reflection and thoughtful action first initiated by Pope Pius X in 1914 against the backdrop of a Europe on the move and on the brink of war.
On December 28, 1908, a massive earthquake (7.2 in magnitude) struck Sicily and Calabria in Southern Italy, followed moments later by a 39-foot tsunami. The tragedy left between 123,000 and 200,000 dead, and the cities of Messina and Reggio di Calabria as well as dozens of smaller towns completely destroyed. Those who survived were instantaneously homeless, many injured. Local Catholic churches helped as they could (since they were decimated, too) with shelter, medical care and prayer. In Rome, Pope Pius X filled the Apostolic Palace with refugees who had made their way north.
A traditionalist who rejected modernist interpretations of Church doctrine, Pope Pius X nevertheless focused not only on “word,” but “deed,” ushering in an era of renewed commitment to the pastoral role of the Church. Like Pope Francis today, Pope Pius X was particularly distressed by the plight of the poor, homeless and needy. His tenure as pope, from 1903 to 1914, coincided with the first massive population movements of the 20th-century due to natural disasters, famine and war. In January 1914, Pope Pius X instituted the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in recognition of this phenomenon. Two months later, the Vatican issued a decree directly addressing the care of migrants for the first time, and emphasizing the responsibility of local churches in responding to the needs of immigrants. Clergy were urged to study the languages and customs of their migrant communities to better serve them and offer pastoral comfort.
In a matter of months, World War I would begin, and Europe would experience unprecedented casualties and the migration of millions fleeing encroaching armies, enemy occupations, starvation and other threats. Pope Pius X did not live to see the “Great War”—he died on August 20, 1914 of complications following a heart attack, and he was canonized in May 1954. But his foresight and compassion mark an important historic moment in modern Church history, when the “stranger” and the “neighbor” were acknowledged more and more frequently as one in the same. Today, the Catholic Church continues to commemorate the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, and pastoral outreach to immigrants is common practice among local churches throughout the world.