In his first speech on Polish soil, one hour after arriving here in Krakow where his greatly loved predecessor St. John Paul II spent much of his life, Pope Francis addressed the hotly debated issue of migration.
It surprised no one on the papal flight that Francis would zone in on the question of migrants and refugees. He is aware that most political parties here, including the governing one, and—according to a recent survey—70 percent of this Catholic people are opposed to receiving refugees, particularly those of Arab or Muslim origin into the country; they say they fear the erosion of Christian values and Islamization.
Francis knows this, and, as a sign of things to come, we learned that before leaving the Vatican for Poland this morning, he greeted 15 refugees from war zones who had just recently arrived in Italy and whom the Vatican is helping get settled.
Addressing the country’s political and civil authorities, the rectors of Krakow’s 23 universities and the diplomatic corps in the courtyard of the Wawel Castel, Francis told them that there is a need “for great wisdom and compassion” in addressing “the complex phenomenon of migration” so as “to overcome fear and to achieve the greater good.”
Millions of Poles have left the country in recent years, especially after the country joined the European Union 10 years ago, and Francis first mentioned this when he addressed the migrant issue saying, “There is a need to seek out the reasons for emigration from Poland and to facilitate the return of all those wishing to repatriate.”
At the same time, he said, there is also a need for “a spirit of readiness to welcome those fleeing from wars and hunger, and solidarity with those deprived of their fundamental rights, including the right to profess one’s faith in freedom and safety.”
The Polish bishops supported Francis’ call last year for every parish, religious community and sanctuary to give hospitality to one family fleeing from war and hunger, but many of their priests did not, nor did the government and the major political forces.
In fact, Poland refused to accept the quota of 7,500 refugees allotted to it by the European Union, claiming that it has already given refuge to many fleeing conflicts in the Ukraine (some say one million) and Russia, and they want to protect the Christian values of their homeland. Several informed sources, however, say the underlying reason is that very many do not want Muslims or Arabs, and they claim to find confirmation for this stance from recent attacks in Europe.
Today, however, Francis widened the question by stating clearly that the phenomenon of migration must be addressed at its roots, and emphasizing the need for the development of “new forms of exchange and cooperation” on the international level “in order to resolve the conflicts and wars that force so many people to leave their homes and their native lands.”
In the present context, he said, this means “doing everything possible to alleviate the suffering while tirelessly working with wisdom and constancy for justice and peace, bearing witness in practice to human and Christian values.”
Poland is the land of St. John Paul II; he is the great hero of this country from both religious and political perspectives, so it was therefore highly significant that at 10 a.m. this morning, before going to the airport, Francis went into St. Peter’s Basilica and prayed at length at the tomb of his predecessor.
In his speech at the Wawel, Francis told his distinguished audience that this was his first visit to central-eastern Europe, and said, “I am happy to begin with Poland, the homeland of the unforgettable St. John Paul II, originator and promoter of the World Youth Days.”
Francis observed that “memory is the hallmark of the Polish people” and told them that he “was always impressed by Pope John Paul’s vivid sense of history.” In this context, he recalled that recently they had celebrated the 1050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland and said “that was indeed a powerful moment of national unity, which reaffirmed that harmony, even amid a diversity of opinions, is the sure path to achieving the common good of the entire Polish people.”
This highlighting of the need for harmony is particularly important given the strong political tensions and polarization that have prevailed in the country in recent years, and particularly today. Important, too, was his affirmation of the need for dialogue and “respect for one’s own identity and that of others,” both at the national and international levels.
Still in the realm of memory—he spoke of “two kinds of memory, good and bad, positive and negative”—Francis highlighted the positive one, giving an example of the church’s important contribution in promoting dialogue, pardon and reconciliation over the past 50 years. He mentioned “the forgiveness mutually offered and accepted between the Polish and German episcopates,” following the Second World War. He said, “That initiative, which initially involved the ecclesial communities, also sparked an irreversible social, political, cultural and religious process that changed the history of relationships between the two peoples.”
He recalled, too, how the joint declaration between the Catholic Church in Poland and the Orthodox Church of Moscow led to “a process of rapprochement and fraternity not only between the two churches but also between the two peoples.”
He concluded his speech by inviting them in the light of their 1,000-year history “to look with hope to the future and the issues before it.” When he finished, they all rose to their feet and applauded warmly.
From there, Francis went into the castle for a private conversation with Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, Europe’s youngest president at the age of 44, who had warmly welcomed him on his arrival.
Thirty minutes later he arrived at the nearby Wawel Cathedral, where he had a very friendly, private session with the Polish bishops. But that is another story.
Then, before having dinner, Francis greeted thousands of young people from the window in the archbishop’s residence as John Paul II did on his seven stopovers here as pope. He recalled how a young 22-year-old Polish designer who had worked so hard for this World Youth Day sadly did not live to see this day. He died of cancer on July 2, and, the pope said, “he is now in heaven rejoicing and one day we will meet him.”
Thus ended what has been a very positive day first day in Poland for the Argentinean pope. Large crowds cheered and greeted him with flags and banners on the road and streets as he drove from the airport to the Wawel, and then from there to the archbishop’s residence, where he is hosted by John Paul II’s longtime private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who is now 77 and will soon hand over the leadership of the Krakow diocese to a younger man.
Admittedly, the crowds were not the oceanic kind that customarily greeted John Paul II here, but they were nevertheless large and enthusiastic, and tomorrow they are likely to be even more so when, after celebrating Mass at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, he will greet the 350,000 young people from 187 countries for the first time.