Pope Francis is asking every Catholic parish or religious community in Europe to take in refugee families fleeing from the war-torn Middle East, a direct appeal to assist with the region’s ongoing migrant crisis.
Francis delivered the charge during his weekly prayer in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, telling the assembled crowd that Christians have an obligation to offer refugees flooding into Europe “a concrete hope.”
“In front of the tragedy of the tens of thousands of refugees escaping death by war or hunger, on the path towards the hope of life, the Gospel calls us, asks us to be ‘neighbors’ of the smallest and most abandoned,” Francis said. “To this end, with the nearing of the Jubilee of Mercy, I address an appeal to the parishes, to the religious communities, to the monasteries and sanctuaries of all of Europe to express the concreteness of the Gospel and welcome a family of refugees.”
The pope then specified that “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” should take in a family, including his own diocese in Rome.
The move thrusts the Catholic Church into the center of Europe’s ongoing immigration crisis, where tens of thousands of refugees have tried to enter the region to escape violence in Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa ravaged by war. The wave of humanity constitutes one of the largest emigrations since World War II, and the scramble to reach safety has resulted in several tragedies: In late August, as many as 200 immigrants are thought to have drowned after their boat capsized while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. At least 2,500 other people have also died or gone missing trying to make the same treacherous trip across the sea, according to the United Nations.
Many European countries, however, have struggled to accommodate the mass of immigrants, resulting in standoffs as nations negotiate who will offer them refuge. Officials in the United States are also debating whether or not to accept several refugees: 14 U.S. Senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama in May asking him to allow at least 65,000 Syrian refugees to resettle stateside, but others have denounced the idea, referring to signers of the letter as the “jihadi caucus.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis made clear on Sunday that he sees the immigration crisis through a strictly moral lens.
“I address myself to my brother bishops of Europe … that in their dioceses they will support this appeal of mine, remembering that Mercy is the second name of Love,” he said. He then quoted a line spoken by Jesus Christ in the gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Immigration has been a key focus of Francis’ papacy, and he has repeatedly used his position as pontiff to weigh in on global immigration crises. When clashes broke out earlier this year along Italy’s borders between locals and immigrants fleeing from Libya, the pope said that those who shut out refugees should seek forgiveness, especially those “that close the doors on these people who are searching for family, that are searching for safety.” And when thousands of migrant children fled to the United States in 2014 to escape horrific gang violence and rape, Francis sent a letter to Catholics in the region saying the immigrants should be “welcomed and protected.” Francis also plans to meet with and bless undocumented immigrants in the United States when he visits the country later this month.
The Catholic Church has been involved with several efforts to assist refugees throughout history, including in the United States. When thousands of people crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1980s to escape war in Central America, several Catholic parishes participated in the “Sanctuary Movement” — an effort where churches from different religious traditions took in migrant communities in defiance of federal law.