In the wide-ranging speech delivered in Marseille at the conclusion of the Rencontres Méditerranéennes, Pope Francis, the son of migrants, recalled that the migratory phenomenon is nothing new, nor is he the first pontiff to deal with it. It’s been at least seventy years since the Church has felt the growing urgency of this situation.
It was 1952, seven years from the end of World War II, and Europe was still experiencing the drama of displaced persons. Pope Pius XII, in the Apostolic Constitution Exsul Familia, wrote that ‘The émigré Holy Family of Nazareth, fleeing into Egypt, […] for all times and places, is the model and protector of every migrant and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave their native land, their beloved parents […] to seek a foreign soil.’
Wars, persecution or the need to improve one's condition are the motivations for migration. And increasingly today, problems linked to climate change. In 1967, with the great encyclical Populorum Progressio, it was Pope Paul VI who reminded us that the hungry nations of the world dramatically challenge the peoples blessed with abundance, and he enumerated three duties for developed nations: the duty of solidarity, the duty of social justice and the duty of universal charity. Pope Paul VI then reiterated the 'duty of welcome', upon which, he wrote, 'we cannot insist too much'.
In addition to the two examples cited by Pope Francis, many others could be given. For example, the words of Pope John Paul II, in his Message for World Migration Day in 1995: 'The first way to help these people is to listen to them in order to become acquainted with their situation, and, whatever their legal status with regard to State law, to provide them with the necessary means of subsistence.’ He added that ' It is necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behaviour, which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations’.
And again, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Message of 2012 observed that ‘Today we can see that many migrations are the result of economic instability, the lack of essential goods, natural disasters, wars and social unrest. Instead of a pilgrimage filled with trust, faith and hope, migration then becomes an ordeal undertaken for the sake of survival, where men and women appear more as victims than as agents responsible for the decision to migrate.’
Of course, anew in Marseilles, as he has repeated several times during the first ten years of his pontificate, Pope Francis cited the difficulties of welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating the unwanted. He recalled the common responsibility of the whole of Europe and the need to guarantee 'an ample number of legal and regular entrances, that would be sustainable with an equitable welcome on the part of the European continent.’ But he also reiterated that the main criterion must always be the protection of human dignity and not the preservation of one's own well-being. Because, as we should have learned from the recent pandemic experience, we are only saved together, never alone.