Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that Europe craft a unified and fair immigration policy, saying the tens of thousands of refugees coming ashore each year need acceptance and assistance, not self-interested policies that risk lives and fuel social conflict.
Francis made the comments to the European Parliament during a brief visit meant to highlight his vision for Europe a quarter-century after St. John Paul II travelled to Strasbourg to address a continent still divided by the Iron Curtain.
Greeted with polite applause at the start of his speech and a sustained standing ovation at its finish, Francis said he wanted to bring a message of hope to Europeans distrustful of their institutions, burdened by economic crisis and spiritually adrift in a culture that he said no longer values the dignity of human beings.
"A Europe which is no longer open to the transcendent dimension of life is a Europe which risks slowly losing its own soul," he said.
In a speech that touched on some of his major priorities as pope — the need to care for the elderly, the poor and the environment — Francis called for legislators to promote policies that create jobs and accept immigrants.
"We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!" he said.
The Argentine Jesuit has frequently spoken out about the plight of migrants seeking a better life in Europe. He traveled to the tiny island of Lampedusa in the summer of 2013 to show solidarity with the migrants who arrive and to honor those who have died trying — a number that Italian officials estimate to be more than 2,000 in 2014 alone. Italy, home of the Vatican, has borne the brunt of the burden of rescuing the migrants, though recently the European Union's border agency stepped in to help.
On Tuesday, Francis warned that the absence of a coherent EU migration policy "contributes to slave labor and continuing social tensions." He called for Europeans to enact legislation that ensures immigrants are accepted and to adopt "fair, courageous and realistic policies" toward their countries of origins, to help them resolve the conflicts that fuel migration "rather than adopting policies motivated by self-interest, which increase and feed such conflicts."
The speech was the first of two Francis delivered in Strasbourg: After the warm welcome at the Parliament building, Francis traveled a brief distance away to the Council of Europe amid heavy security: Hundreds of police cordoned off a large security zone and small police motor boats patrolled the river between parliament and the Council of Europe.
The most sustained applause came when he spoke about "barbaric violence" against Christians in much of the world amid "the shameful and complicit silence of many." Legislators also applauded when he spoke about the dignity of work and how it is "intolerable" that so many people die of hunger when tons of food are thrown away each day.
"I think the applause you gave indicates that Pope Francis has reached many, if not all of us," Parliament President Martin Schulz told the assembly. Turning to Francis, he added: "You are a person who gives us guidance at a time when we have lost our compass."