Florence meeting: A grace and a challenge for Church and civil authorities
By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
A double meeting of Bishops and Mayors of major cities of the Mediterranean region, holds from 23 – 27 February, in Florence, the Tuscan capital.
The meeting, themed: “Mediterranean: Frontier of Peace,” brings Church and civil authorities to explore the various challenges that countries around the Mare Nostrum are called to face, including the issue of migration, especially as the Mediterranean waters serve as an important migratory route for many people who leave their countries in their quest to reach the shores of Europe.
Particularly invested in responding to the challenge of migrants and refugees is the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) whose International Director, Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, spoke to Vatican News ahead of the Florence meeting.
JRS is an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany serve and advocate for refugees and forcibly displaced persons. The agency is at work in over 55 countries around the world.
An important meeting between Church and state
Fr. Smolich holds up the Florence meeting as an opportunity for conversation between Church and State concerning the issue of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean region – a challenge especially pronounced in countries that receive the majority of the migrants, including Italy, Greece, and Spain.
Pope Francis was previously scheduled to attend the meeting on the last day but had to cancel the trip due to health reasons. However, the Holy Father has been an outspoken advocate of dealing with the reality of people crossing the Mediterranean, underlining the importance of the work that will be done during the Florence meeting.
Fr. Smolich, for his part, stresses the importance of focusing on reality, recalling the Holy Father’s words during his visit to Greece where he lamented that we spend too much time bickering about ideas and not enough time focusing on reality.
Fraternity and solidarity
The JRS international director goes on to highlight the Pope’s several appeals for a spirit of fraternity which needs to always trump nationalism even in the face of the various mechanisms and policies that States adopt in their treatment of migrants who show up on their shores.
While acknowledging the right of every State to defend its borders and protect its citizens, he stresses the importance of protecting the humanity of our migrant brothers and sisters, noting, however, that some States bear a disproportionate amount of the responsibility of welcoming migrants.
JRS at work
Reflecting on the work of JRS, Fr. Smolich points at the value that migrants can bring to the cultures of their host countries.
For example, he recalls that JRS, through the cooperation of several groups internationally, was able to evacuate about 100 people from Afghanistan – some of them collaborators of JRS and their family members. In a recent encounter with three of them, Fr. Smolich notes that they are integrating well into the Italian society where they live, with one beginning her doctoral program soon, and another, starting a nursing program.
“These refugees make a difference in our culture here,” he says. “People want to make a contribution and frankly our European societies need young people. They need people with energy and ideas to help us move forward."
Hopeful expectations for Florence meeting
“I think we always have to be hopeful about meetings like this because they show that both the church and Civil Society recognize that there is a challenge before us,” he adds, expressing hope that “something positive” comes out of the meeting.
He further notes that there is a grace in this challenge – the grace of coming to know the people who arrive on our shores. A grace, he adds, that “deepens our humanity.”
Extending his good wishes to the participants of the Florence meeting, Fr. Smolich hopes that it may contribute to creating an “ever wider we” as Pope Francis has always wished.