Before the conclave that elected him successor of Pope Benedict, Cardinal Jorge Brogoglio addressed the cardinal electors, expressing his personal vision of how the Church should be. He said “The Church must come out of herself and go to the peripheries.” He criticized the Church for being “self-referent,” a condition he described as “theological narcissism” which “keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not allow Him to go out.”
He suggested that the pope which the cardinals elect should be “a man who, from contemplation of Jesus Christ…will help the Church to come out of herself toward the existential peripheries.”
Cardinal Bergoglio was elected on the fifth ballot, and took the name Francis, an indication of his concern for the poor and for all on the peripheries.
Pope Francis’ first official visit outside of Rome (July, 2013) was to the periphery, to Lampedusa, Italy’s southern-most island, the door by which hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia attempt to enter Europe.
Thousands of these immigrants have paid “people smugglers” to transport them across the Mediterranean to an immigration center on Lampedusa. Many of those who made the perilous trip and arrived safely were summarily deported to Lybia.
IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks), an independent, non-profit media organization, guestimates that “there were 278,000 irregular border crossings (into Europe) in 2014,” many of them through the island of Lampedusa.
On July 8, 2013, Pope Francis celebrated Mass on an altar made of wood from the remains of an old fishing boat, commemorating the deaths of thousands of immigrants who have died in crossing the sea from North Africa.
He prayed with and for the immigrants, both Christians and Muslims. He thanked the citizens of Lampedusa for providing hospitality for the immigrants, and urged the rest of Europe and the world to overcome any vestige of indifference, reminding them of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In his book about Pope Francis (The Great Reformer, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), author Austen Ivereigh recalls the “thousands of bloated bodies” which have washed ashore from capsized boats carrying immigrants to Lampedusa.
He wrote, “Francis learned from newspaper reports soon after his March 13, 2013, election that more than twenty-five thousand North Africans had lost their lives this way…Appalled that few seemed aware or to care, he (Pope Francis) opted to make Lampedusa, 180 miles off the coast of Africa, his first papal visit –to the peripheries of Europe. There, on July 8, he wept for the dead and made migration a pro-life issue” (p. 1).
In October of 2013, a few months after Pope Francis’s visit to Lampedusa, another boat capsized resulting in the deaths of 300 people.
IRIN reported on March 6, 2015, that “Italy’s Mediterranean search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, was discontinued late last year after saving over 150,000 lives, because other EU (European Union) countries were unwilling to share the nearly US$10 million a month cost. Meanwhile, Germany and Sweden have taken in far larger numbers of Syrian asylum seekers than other states such as the UK which has accepted only 90.”
In his exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Gospel Joy) Pope Francis wrote, “Migrants present a particular challenge for me, since I am the pastor of a Church without frontiers, a Church which considers herself a mother to all. For this reason, I exhort all countries to a generous openness which, rather than fearing the loss of local identity, will prove capable of creating new forms of cultural synthesis” (210).
Pope Francis does not just talk the talk, he walks the walk –--he is present to those on the periphery, a reaching out consistent with his vision of what a pope should do and the Church should be.