Pope Francis is calling for every European parish and religious community to take in one migrant family each, in a gesture of solidarity that he said would start in the tiny Vatican state where he lives.
The crowd in St. Peter's Square applauded as the pontiff, himself the grandson of Italian emigrants to Argentina, said: "Every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe, take in one family."
The pope's call goes out to tens of thousands of Catholic parishes in Europe as the number of refugees arriving over land through the Balkans and across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece hits record levels.
The response to the torrent of migrants has been decidedly mixed. On Saturday, Finland's prime minister offered his second home to a migrant family, while Canada's prime minister rejected appeals to increase the number of refugees allowed into his country.
The flood of refugees from Syria and other war-torn states has long since reached crisis levels – in 2013 the UN was already describing as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War – but an arresting photo of a small child, dead on the coast of Turkey, may have caught the world's attention in a way that the statistics had so far failed to do.
Indeed, it was impossible to ignore Europe's migration debate this week, from chatter among parents at a Paris playground to fervent debate across social media – including many railing against what they call manipulation and invasion of privacy in publishing the photo of the dead toddler.
Support groups for refugees have suddenly sprung up around Europe, and politicians have stepped up the pressure against each other and on far-right populists who have helped rally citizens around the notion of "fortress Europe."
Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron admitted to the BBC that “as a father, I felt deeply moved. Britain is a moral nation and we will fulfill our moral responsibilities.”
Individuals have started to act without waiting for their governments, from the more than 10,000 Icelandic citizens who offered homes and support to the Egyptian billionaire who says he will buy the refugees an island.
In his appeal, Pope Francis spoke directly to people of faith, not government agencies. Italy has more than 25,000 parishes, and Germany has more than 12,000. Many of the Syrians fleeing civil war and people trying to escape poverty and hardship in other countries say they want to end up in Germany.
The Vatican's two parishes will take in a family of refugees each in the coming days, said Francis, whose first trip after his election was to the Italian island of Lampedusa, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, where many migrants arrive by boat.
The Italian coast guard said on Saturday it had coordinated the rescue of 329 migrants who made distress calls from their rubber boats.
Francis said taking in migrant families was a "concrete gesture" to prepare for the extraordinary Holy Year on the theme of mercy which is due to begin on Dec. 8.
"Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope," Frances said.
(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)