“Each one of you refugees who knock on our doors has the face of God and is the body of Christ,” Pope Francis stated in a video message for the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Centro Astalli, the welcome center in the heart of Rome run by the Jesuit Refugee Service in Italy.
Recalling the words of Jesus at the last judgment, as recounted in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “I was a stranger and you invited me in,” Francis said, “the Centro Astalli is a concrete, daily example of this welcome, born of the prophetic vision of Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J.” It was “his dying wish, [expressed] at a refugee center in Asia.”
Francis recorded this message after returning from the island of Lesbos where he visited a refugee camp, now turned into a detention center, where he heard the sad stories of many refugees. That may well have been at the back of his mind when he said:
Your experience of pain and hope reminds us that we are all strangers and pilgrims on this Earth, welcomed by someone with generosity and without any merit. Whosoever has fled his own land due to oppression, war, nature defaced by pollution and by desertification or the unjust distribution of the planet’s resources, as you have, is a brother with whom we share bread, homes and life.
Well aware that doors are being closed to the refugees in many parts of Europe today, Francis asked their forgiveness saying, “Too many times you have not been welcomed: Forgive the closure and indifference of our society that fears the change in lifestyle and mentality that your presence asks for.”
“Treated as a burden, a problem, a cost, instead you are a gift,” Francis told them. “You are the testament to how our gracious and merciful God can transform the pain and injustice that you suffer into a love for all. For, each one of you can be a bridge that unites distant peoples, which makes the meeting of different cultures and religions possible, a road to rediscover our common humanity,” he said.
He thanked the women and men, lay and religious, workers and volunteers that serve the refugees in this J.R.S. center, and told them, “You show that if we walk together we are less afraid.”
He encouraged them to continue because “35 years is only the beginning of a journey that is ever more necessary, the only way for a reconciled co-existence.” He urged them to “always be witnesses of the beauty of this encounter. Help our society to listen to the voice of refugees.”
He concluded with these words to all working at the Centro: “Continue to walk with courage by their side, go with them and be guided by them: The refugees know the roads that lead to peace because they know the acrid odor of war.”
Pope Francis visited this center on Sept. 10, 2013, and spent time there, speaking with the staff and guests and about the commitment of the Society of Jesus to the cause of refugees. On that occasion, he recalled thatin 1981, Father Arrupe “founded the Jesuit Refugee Service and wanted its Roman headquarters to be in these premises in the heart of the city. I think of that spiritual farewell of Father Arrupe in Thailand, precisely, at a refugee center.”
The Centro Astalli is near the church of the Gesù in the heart of Rome, not far from Piazza Venezia. Both St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and Father Arrupe are buried here and, as pope, Francis has prayed at their tombs.