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Pope Francis in Marseille: highlighting the suffering and hope of migrants

Matthew Neugebauer

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Pope Francis is heading to Marseille, France this weekend on his 44th Apostolic Journey abroad. Like his recent voyages to Kazakhstan, Bahrain, and Lisbon, he'll be joining in an event that is already ongoing and add the weight of the papacy to the proceedings. 
This time, it's the “Mediterranean Meetings,” or Rencontres Méditerranéennes, a gathering of bishops, young people, artists, and activists from southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The gathering began on September 17th and concludes on the 24th; the Holy Father will arrive on Friday the 22nd and depart the next day. Along with his customary meetings with state officials, Mass, and a prayer service with local clergy, he’ll meet with those “experiencing economic hardship” and address the final session of the Rencontres.
The Mediterranean Meetings are focused on bolstering the cultural, communal, and economic welfare of the peoples in contact with the Mediterranean Sea. It seeks to gather its participants – Christians, Muslims, Jews, and those of other faiths or of none – into “a large ‘village’ of Mediterranean communities, solidarity or cultural associations, and movements committed to ecology and dialogue.” This focus on solidarity, ecology, and dialogue places the Rencontres squarely in the Catholic Social Tradition, especially its key theme of "integral human development."
St. Paul VI developed the theme of integral human development in his landmark 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, in which he insisted on a holistic view of personal and societal growth. He cautioned that development could not be limited to the “political freedom” of post-colonial independence (#6) or the “economic growth” of a free market, although those play a part. Rather, he insisted that human development requires personal foundations: “To be authentic, it must be well rounded; it must foster the development of each person and of the whole person” (#14). In a post-war context of an increasingly global focus on political, social, and economic development, Pope Paul reminded us that these large-scale processes are deeply intertwined with personal and relational development, and inspired by the spiritual development offered by the Church’s life of Sacraments and prayer (cf. #20, 75). Moreover, he asserted that states and societies “must also acquire the social and economic structures and processes that accord with [persons'] nature and activity, if their citizens are to achieve personal growth and if their country is to take its rightful place in the international community” (#6).
Today, the Vatican office that consolidates and coordinates the various organizations and institutions dedicated to social justice, peace, and economic well-being is the aptly named Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, headed by Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny.

The Mediterranean, a place of encounter

This weekend will highlight one specific challenge to integral human development, but one that also poses opportunities for it. On Friday at 6 pm local time (noon Eastern), Francis will hold a “Moment of Reflection with Religious Leaders near the Memorial dedicated to sailors and migrants lost at sea.” The Holy Father concluded his Angelus address this past Sunday by noting that the Rencontres gives “special attention to the phenomenon of migration.” The perils and promises of migration have made the Mediterranean a connection point, a “place of encounter,” and a focus of concern, for millennia. Today, the most immediate route for migrants fleeing conflict and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East is through the vast sea, as they hope to land on the more prosperous southern shores of Italy, France, and Spain.
The timing of the Rencontres is apt: as mentioned above, it concludes on Sunday, September 24 – the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. While Francis has to return to Rome the night before, Cardinal Czerny is celebrating the Closing Mass marking the day as part of the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time. You can read Pope Francis’ Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in our blog, and you can watch a series of short videos highlighting the challenges and opportunities faced by migrants, courtesy of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development
Pope Francis has dedicated much of his pontificate to highlighting the risks, challenges, and opportunities of migrants. Among his first high-profile actions was to travel to Lampedusa in July 2013, an Italian-controlled island between Malta and Tunisia in the Mediterranean. Each week, thousands of migrants from North Africa land on the small territory, hoping to make their way to continental Europe.
In his homily at a Penitential Mass during that visit, he spoke about the tragic deaths of hundreds of refugees whose ship had recently been destroyed near the island. He shone a searing spotlight on the indifference that much of the world showed to their plight, and the plight of all who seek a better home for their families. He lamented the “globalization of indifference” in which “we have become used to the suffering of others,” and “make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this.”
If there is one “great theme” of his papacy, it’s the transformation of this “culture of indifference” and “throwaway culture” into a “culture of encounter.” In his 2021 social encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he continued to call for a culture of encounter that welcomes everyone, including migrants and refugees, so that 
Differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations. To speak of a “culture of encounter” means that we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, [and] planning a project that includes everyone (#216).
For Pope Francis, the welcome that a society shows to migrants and refugees is a clear sign of enthusiasm for bridges, points of contact, and universally-inclusive projects, since it enriches the diversity and integral development of the country (cf. #40, 41).

Freedom to stay, freedom to go

However, as the Pope acknowledged in his recent apostolic visit to Hungary, “The issue of acceptance and welcome is a heated one in our time, and is surely complex.” This is often because host countries may have legitimate concerns about migrants, but can also contain political elements that betray a culture of indifference. Marseille Archbishop Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, speaking to a media roundtable in advance of the Rencontres, appealed to those advocating for more welcoming migration and refugee policies to be sensitive to those who “live in neighborhoods that have to sustain these populations and situations.” He raised some of the legitimate concerns they might have, such as the influx of drugs and organized crime that might accompany new waves of migrants.
However, Cardinal Aveline also denounced an opposition to welcoming migrants rooted in fear, comfort in the status quo, and the political expediency of shoring up a partisan base. He said that these motivations often lead political leaders to use “aggressive speech that pronounces the migrant as universally guilty for all of the country’s problems,” language that often stokes suspicion and division for electoral gain.
Pope Francis and other leaders look at migration from a different angle, namely the way that local circumstances of violence and poverty force refugees to flee, denying them the freedom to stay. This is why the theme for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees is "The Freedom to Stay or Go” (emphases added). Again, the aim of the Mediterranean Meetings is to foster integral human development, to cultivate the cultural, social, and economic fabric of troubled regions on its coastline. A healthier and more prosperous society, in which citizens have “the chance to live in peace and with dignity in one's own country,” ensures the right of inhabitants to stay (Pope Francis, Message for the 109th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, quote Pope John Paul II, Message for the 90th World Day of Migrants and Refugees #3). At the same time, the freedom to go is a well-established norm of international law (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 13). More importantly, the Rencontres encourage host countries to celebrate the rich diversity of refugees and migrants who have left their homelands to live in safer countries.
In Hungary, he addressed what stable European countries need to do to ensure that potential migrants maintain both the freedom to stay or to go. Drawing on the deep Catholic heritage of the country's ruling elite, he expressed his gratitude for their “concrete support of the many Christians worldwide who experience hardship and adversity, especially in Syria and Lebanon,” thereby increasing their freedom to stay in their home countries. Nevertheless, he continued to encourage Hungarians and others to open their borders and their hearts, which was particularly relevant for eastern Europe given that many Ukrainians continue to escape from the Russian invasion of their country. Pope Francis appealed to their beloved St. Stephen: 
For those who are Christians, our basic attitude cannot differ from that which St. Stephen recommended to his son, having learned it from Jesus, who identified himself with the stranger needing to be welcomed (cf. Matthew 25:35). When we think of Christ present in so many of our brothers and sisters who flee in desperation from conflicts, poverty, and climate change, we feel bound to confront the problem without excuses and delay. It needs to be confronted together, as a community, not least because, in the present situation, its effects will be felt, sooner or later, by all of us.
In other words, if migrants want to come, we should welcome them. But if we’re unable to welcome them, then we’re to help build up the places where they live, so that they'll want to stay in their home countries. Either way, we are called to maintain an awareness of our mutual responsibility and mutual belonging, and to understand the reciprocal implications of our choices.

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