From the beginning, Pope Francis has led through both word and example, guiding Catholics—and the rest of the world—to the basic principles of love and compassion that Jesus taught.
By Roxane Ramos
The day before Pope Francis’s meeting with President Obama earlier this year, 10-year old Jersey Vargas from Los Angeles, CA rushed up to the pontiff as he greeted the throngs in St. Peter’s Square. She told him about the plight of undocumented migrants in the U.S., and the pain of being separated from one’s family during the detention and deportation process.
Though young, Jersey could speak with authority about the heartbreak of these all-too-frequent scenarios—her father Mario was being held in a Louisiana detention facility, slated to be among the 200,000 migrants deported from the U.S. each year. Like 80% of the migrants detained in these centers, Mario, who has lived in the U.S. since the age of 16, was brought in for a minor infraction (typically, a traffic violation), and now faced the worst possible outcome—separation from his wife and daughter, possibly for years. Jersey, the youngest of a group of immigration activists visiting the Vatican that week, explained, “I went back to ask him to help us because it’s unfair that many children like me are faced with this situation, separated from our families. He blessed me, gave me a kiss and confirmed to me he would be seeing President Obama.”
Defending the rights of migrants, refugees, and other displaced people has been one of the hallmarks of Francis’s short papacy. His first pastoral visit outside the Vatican was to Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Sicily and 70 miles north of Tunisia, where African migrants congregate, waiting for boats to take them to Italy and economic opportunities in the European Union. During his visit there, the Holy Father prayed for those lost at sea at a Mass held near a “graveyard” of wrecked boats, reassuring refugees and migrants, “The Church is near to you in the search for a more dignified life for yourselves and for your families.”
Only eight square miles, Lampedusa functions as something of an unofficial Ellis Island for Europe, though the African migrants who pass through, like their Latin American counterparts entering the United States, lack what immigrants arriving in New York could rely on a century ago—a comprehensive and welcoming immigration policy that provides a legal route to citizenship.
Today’s migrants leave their homes of origin to follow much the same dreams as those Ellis Island entrants; they want to improve their lives and those of their families. Sometimes they are joining family members, sometimes they are fleeing violence, but always it is a serious decision to undertake such a journey. Migrants from both Africa and Latin America face numerous hazards (choppy seas or harsh desert terrain) as well as risks of exploitation, violence or death. In 2012, close to 500 Africans drowned en route to Europe, despite the Italian coast guard’s conscientious responses to calls for help, distressingly similar to the migrant death toll of 477 here.
And just a few short months after the Pope’s visit to Lampedusa, over 360 died when a boat carrying 300 migrants sank off the island’s coast, the highest number of fatalities from a single incident so far. Offering his condolences, Pope Francis called the tragedy “a disgrace.”
The Pope’s main agenda is three-fold: to draw attention to the suffering of migrants and refugees, the horrors of human trafficking, and the pervasive problem of poverty. The high profile nature of his office provides one of the most prominent “pulpits” in the world, yet the great moral force of his words comes from something very basic—his example of humility and his simple message of compassion and love. In this, Francis has not only captured the minds and hearts of Catholics, but of a wider world of people who are troubled by the inequities and injustices around us.
Much has been made of Pope Francis’s rejection of extravagance in his day-to-day life and on his overseas visits. (In Lampedusa, he rode in an open-top Fiat jeep loaned by a Milanese family with a summer house on the island.) Journalists seem surprised and amused by the absence of designer footwear, for example. But this particular sartorial choice resonates powerfully with the displaced peoples he champions, roaming the world with little more than the clothes on their backs. Their shoes are worn through, often held together with duct tape or reinforced at the soles with carpet remnants, as they tread long miles and endure life-threatening conditions, to seek a better life.
By removing the pomp, Pope Francis has cut through to the heart of the seemingly impenetrable problems of our day, without any embellishment or comfort for the comfortable. “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion—‘suffering with’ others. The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep.” Who better than the Pope to remind us of the word’s Latin roots: “compassion” from com/with and pati/to bear. The simple message of economic justice and tolerance is getting through. President Obama quoted Pope Francis when addressing the debate about income inequality in December. And politicians in Washington, D.C., are also invoking the Pope’s sentiments as they consider the critical issue of immigration reform. Change—or at least a push for a House vote on immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year—appears to be in the air.
For one Los Angeles family, a small change has made a great impact. Mario Vargas was released from the detention center after a cousin, seeing Jersey interviewed on the news, helped with posting his $5,000 bail. An immigration judge will determine if Mario is to be deported. For now, he is reunited with his wife and daughter and, though the future is uncertain, Mario—and millions of people around the globe seeking refuge and legal recognition—have the most steadfast of friends and an eloquent spokesperson in Vatican City.