Pope Francis greets immigrants, blasts indifference over migration deaths

On Pope Francis's first visit outside Rome, to a tiny Sicilian island that is the primary point of entry into Europe for African migrants, Pope Francis challenged everyone to take responsibility for the migrants' desperation, urging them not to have 'anesthesia of the heart.'

Gregorio Borgia/AP
Pope Francis blesses the faithful as he is driven through the crowd on the island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Monday July 8. Pope Francis traveled to the tiny Sicilian island to pray for migrants lost at sea. In Pope Francis's homily, he said, 'The culture of our own well-being makes us insensitive to the cries of others.'

Pope Francis on Monday denounced the "globalization of indifference" that greets migrants who risk their lives trying to reach Europe, as he traveled to the farthest reaches of Italy to draw attention to their plight and to pray for those who never made it.

The tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a treeless, strip of rock nine kilometers (four miles) long, is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and is the main port of entry into Europe for African migrants smuggled by boat from Libya or Tunisia.

Francis decided last week to visit Lampedusa as his first pastoral visit outside of Rome, spurred by a particularly deadly crossing in which a dozen migrants lost their lives. After the Pope's spur-of-the-moment decision, the island built a makeshift altar out of recycled wood from shipwrecked migrants boats.

Francis greeted newly arrived migrants, and during Mass on the island's sports field, thanked the residents for welcoming so many men and women over the years. He prayed for those who died trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.

"Who wept for these people who were aboard the boat?" Francis asked in his homily. "For the young mothers who brought their babies? For these men who wanted to support their families?"

"We are a society that has forgotten how to cry," he said.

Dozens of Lampedusan fishing boats accompanied Francis' coast guard ship as it pulled into port, a seaborne motorcade to honor the first pope to visit an island that often complains it has been forgotten by Europe as it processes the thousands of would-be immigrants who come ashore each year.

"Pope Francis, only you can save us," read a banner on one of the boats. "You're one of us," said a spray-painted sign hanging from an apartment building overlooking the port.

As his plane was landing, a boat carrying 162 Eritreans arrived in port, the latest in a new wave of migrants taking advantage of calm seas and warm weather to make the treacherous crossing. Officials said they were in good condition, just cold.

Francis, whose ancestors immigrated to Argentina from Italy, has a special place in his heart for refugees: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he denounced the exploitation of migrants as "slavery" and said those who did nothing to help them were complicit by their silence.

He repeated that message on Monday, denouncing smugglers who take advantage of the poverty of migrants to enrich themselves. While thanking the work of Lampedusans and volunteers who care for the newly arrived migrants, he challenged everyone to take responsibility for the migrants' desperation, urging them not to have "anesthesia of the heart."

"The culture of our own well-being makes us insensitive to the cries of others," he said. "It brings us to feeling indifferent to others, to the globalization of indifference."

He prayed that God forgives such indifference, and welcoming Muslim migrants in the crowd, wished them a good start of the holy month of Ramadan.

"The church is with you in the search for a more dignified life for you and your families," he said.

Francis has said he wants his to be a missionary church, one that goes to the "peripheries" to minister to the most marginal.

It was appropriate then that he choose Lampedusa as his first pastoral visit outside Rome, and its residents welcomed him warmly, shouting "Viva il Papa" and wildly waving the yellow and white flags of the Vatican.

"It was not even thinkable that the pope would come to an Island like this one," said resident Andrea Pavia, who came out with his tearful wife and daughter to watch the pope drive by. "I am so happy, I am so emotional. I just can't believe it."

As he pulled into port, Francis blessed a wreath of yellow and white flowers and tossed it into the sea in memory of those migrants who died. He then disembarked and greeted a few dozen migrants one by one, stopping to chat with a few.

In yet another indication of how Francis is changing the rules of this papacy, he traveled by open-top vehicle through throngs of well-wishers, shunning the bullet-proof popemobile that popes usually use when outside the Vatican.

The Mass site was located near the "boat cemetery" that houses the remains of broken migrant ships that have reached Lampedusa's rocky shores.

Recycled wood from those vessels were used for Mass: A small, painted boat was turned into the altar, the lectern was made out of a recycled ship's helm and pieces of driftwood, and a pieces of wood were crafted into Francis' pastoral staff and the chalice used at Mass. Officials have said the simple nature of the Mass was in keeping with the express wishes of Francis.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, 8,400 migrants landed in Italy and Malta in the first six months of the year, almost double the 4,500 who arrived during the first half of 2012. It's still a far cry from the tens of thousands who flooded to Italy during the Arab Spring exodus of 2011.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded 40 deaths in the first half of 2013, and a total of 500 for all of 2012, based on interviews with survivors. Fortress Europe, an Italian observatory that tracks migrant deaths reported by the media, says about 6,450 people died in the Canal of Sicily between 1994 and 2012.

Nicole Winfield reported from Rome.

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