Tuesday 25. January 2022
#213 - March 2018

Pope Francis and forced migration

Pope Francis’ pontificate is coinciding with the rise of numbers of forced migrants to historically unprecedented post-war levels both in Europe but also around the globe.

Pope Francis blesses a baby during the foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo di Porto refugees center near Rome, Italy, March 24, 2016. Pope Francis on Thursday washed and kissed the feet of refugees, including three Muslim men, and condemned arms m

This presents Pope Francis with a unique opportunity to develop and demonstrate his vision for a renewed Church, repositioned in and for a globalized world. Notwithstanding the importance of other ethical issues, the complexity and nature of forced migration and its attendant ethical debates provides a unique challenge to Church. It has been notoriously divisive, in seeming contradiction to the consistency, since the papacy of Pius XII (1939-1958), of Church teaching on the subject. The difficulty is in the application, with responses necessarily involving ordinary people of all faiths and none, and institutions such as NGOs, governments and various multi-lateral bodies of the United Nations. Within the Church itself the issue points to arguably impoverished concepts of sin and God’s mercy and justice.


A pastoral and active approach


Pope Francis’ approach was not primarily theological; it was in the first place pastoral and active. It was to travel and place himself at the centre of people’s lived experience, withholding moral judgement, but helping its participants to situate their experience – and suffering - within a larger narrative and analysis. His homily, spoken in July 2013 during Mass on the island of Lampedusa, off the coast of Italy, the landing place of many boat migrants attempting to make their way to Europe, was unequivocal both in its gesture of solidarity and in its universal challenge.


Pope Francis spoke powerfully of the situation as the cumulative result of multiple injustices to which we all at some level contribute, the solution to which, it follows, we all become at some level responsible. In so doing he exposed the moral vacuity of isolationism, and simplistic reductionism, at the same time as enriching John Paul II’s concept of solidarity, bringing it to the level of obligation and thus tying it to universal human dignity.


God´s justice and mercy


At the same time, it draws on a concept of wrong doing which has its origins in individual actions but which works at systemic and social levels. To not attempt to address the injustices that result can become sins of omission – as serious as any equivalent active wrong doing.


The “remedy” to such injustice begins with real and lasting personal conversion. Without this, and the humility that results, no way forward is possible. And without God’s merciful love, even this step itself will remain theoretical and remote.


In the English speaking world, it is easy to miss the richness of the concept denoted by the word “mercy”. In the beginning of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis called on its fuller meaning by using the Latinate form misericordia, literally “a heart (cor) for or with the poor (miseri). God’s love for us is of this nature, just as ours should be for others.


In this manner Francis built on the theological work of Benedict XVI in particular to contribute a more coherent response to the “God is dead” critique of 20th Century theorists, arguably lacking in the Church hitherto. God’s justice and mercy co-exist. This avoids sentimental constructions of God which risk continuing the violence already perpetrated against victims of injustice while at the same time correcting an imbalance that sees a justice-oriented Godhead as sometimes overly remote, inhuman and utopian.


A new structure for migrants and refugees


Pope Francis’ pastoral response went further to create a formal structure to ensure ongoing movement in the refugee area. The Migrant and Refugee Section in the new Dicastery for Integral Human Development has the mandate to draw the whole church – the people at every level - into this work. It is a profoundly active and communal vision and places “Church” firmly back in the public sphere with such work as a valid and constituent expression of church life.


This active and public Catholicism stands as a critique of a more privatized, individualized construction of religion and national sovereignty. It has also resulted in the unprecedented contribution of the Church to the multi-lateral Global Compact on Refugees and Migrants in the process of being negotiated at this time by the United Nations.


Pope Francis’ major contribution has been to focus upon the most vulnerable and most intractable and difficult of human situations, finding a way to incarnate existing theological developments, to make them concrete for the Church as a whole and the world beyond it. Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, is the underlying step that sets this process in motion: it is to model and preach a God who is both justice and mercy that draws people – is attract too strong a word? – to want the conversion of which he speaks so credibly.



David Holdcroft SJ 

JRS Rome


EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

Teilen |

Published in English, French, German
COMECE, 19 square de Meeûs, B-1050 Brussels
Tel: +32/2/235 05 10
e-mail: europeinfos@comece.eu

Editors-in-Chief: Martin Maier SJ

Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.