Today the Church recalls the 7th anniversary of Pope Francis’ historic and moving visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a journey he undertook just four months after being elected Pope and where he denounced that the Mediterranean migrant tragedy was “a painful thorn in my heart”.
Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, the Archbishop of Agrigento, accompanied the Pope on his visit that day, and speaking to Vatican News Montenegro recalled some of his memories of Francis’ trip.
“That journey surprised us and was wonderful”, Montenegro said. “Also because from the moment of that visit on, Pope Francis hit the ground running and did not stop. The things he said that day on Lampedusa he kept on saying with more and more force. It is as if he were making a journey around the world that began seven years ago from the port of Lampedusa”.
“This for me is the meaning of that visit”, the cardinal continued. “In the musical stave there is a key that allows me to recognise the notes; well, it is as if the Pope, who came to our island in 2013, drew up that stave and today keeps faithful to that score, to those notes and keeps repeating them”.
“It is true that it often seems that his words have no effect”, Montenegro acknowledged in terms of the Pope’s repeated pleas for true hospitality to be shown to migrants. “But in the Gospel we read that the seed only slowly becomes a tree”.
Full text of Cardinal Montenegro’s interview with Vatican News
Is there any particular image of that July 8th that has been imprinted on you?
Many, but perhaps one moment in particular. I had not had meetings with Pope Francis; I did not know him. So I was impressed to see that during the visit on the boat he looked and listened with interest and amazement to all the people who accompanied us.
At one point he asked us what “O’Shah” meant, the greeting of the islanders that he heard repeatedly. And when we explained to him that it was a greeting, he asked for his homily notes and wrote it down, and in fact during the homily he greeted everyone with this very expression.
When we arrived at the place where he was supposed to throw the wreath into the sea in memory of the migrants who died in the Mediterranean, I was surprised when he got up and walked away from everything and everyone. He had a lot of people shouting and waving in front of him on land; there were many boats around ours. But he was completely absorbed. Then he threw the wreath and came to his senses.
Then I was impressed by the fact that as soon as we arrived at the Lampedusa reception centre he wanted to greet each of the guests one by one, to talk to each of them, although we had been advised to hurry.
The words he used most that morning – and this was the dominant note – the words he often repeated to me were: “Oh, how much suffering!” He is a man who came on a pilgrimage that day, looked with his heart and is still looking with his heart.
In the last few weeks, the landings in the area of Agrigento and Lampedusa continue, and to all this is added the COVID-19 outbreak.
How is your diocese living this difficult phase?
Certainly we are living through it trying to react positively, but there have always been landings here: we cannot say that they have resumed. They continue, not with large numbers but only with small boats. Because now the way is open and nobody can close it.
Unfortunately, since we do not want to tackle the problem of immigration – and I say this at a European level as well – we continue to treat it as an emergency, but it is not an emergency. It is now a natural event, because people have to flee: for political reasons, for environmental problems, because of hunger.
But there is a Europe that is afraid of Africa. It is probably afraid that Africans will find their identity again. Theirs is a young continent and it can put our old Europe in crisis.
Some say that today the people of Agrigento need tourists and not migrants: how do you respond to that argument?
I agree that they need tourism, but we also need to equip ourselves to receive tourists.
It does not make sense to say that it does not need migrants, because it is well known that these migrants do not stop in Agrigento. They do not want to stay here. We don’t even have work for us, for our young people, who are in fact leaving for Germany.
Here every second young person is unemployed, so I don’t think a foreigner can and wants to stay here. Of course, we must better equip ourselves to receive more tourism, but this must be a commitment from those who have political and technical responsibilities.
You cannot blame immigrants alone, although I understand that it may be comfortable for some: going over the infected always makes for good sport.
On Sunday July 5, Agrigenta began an octave dedicated to its co-patron saint, St. Calogero: an occasion to remember the values of hospitality.
Welcoming the stranger is a sacred value for us Christians: it is the Gospel that asks us to do so.
I always emphasize a contradiction: we Agrigentines kneel before St. Calogero, who is a “black” saint. We keep him close to us, while wanting to reject the other “black people”. He, who is black, according to tradition, came to help the white people who were sick with the plague, with no trouble at all. If we were really devoted to St. Calogero – and being devoted means being able to imitate – we should also be able to welcome him.
In the midst of all these people who come here there may be criminals – I am not saying no – but there may also be saints.
Pope Francis told us that the time of the pandemic cannot be a time of selfishness. Do you also see it as a time of solidarity?
I must say that there has been an awakening of solidarity in these months of pandemic. Not necessarily linked to the Gospel, but spontaneous, let’s say even secular. What I hope is that we do not forget too soon what happened, but in any case, we know how to deepen the solidarity to help us more.
Today, the return of the night life isn’t the only sign that the pandemic is coming to an end. Well, we run the risk of forgetting. In those days, fear took over; people prayed a lot even just out of fear. But we should pray to seek God, to feel Him close to us.
We are in God’s hands and we all need conversion.
Certainly after these months something will have to change, I think, also in the Church.