Pope Francis brought a message of love and inclusion during his five-hour visit to the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16 in a way that resonated across the world. And in what has become typical for this papacy, he did so by both words and gestures.
While the decision to take three Syrian refugee families—all Muslims whose villages had been bombed by ISIS—with him back to Rome was the most significant and spectacular gesture, there were others too that must not be overlooked. His decision to come to Lesbos—at a time when European states are closing their frontiers to refugees—was the first.
In a second striking gesture, he decided to visit the major refugee camp at Moria, which, he knew well, had been turned into a detention center since March 20. The idea to come to Lesbos and to the camp was his, but he quickly gained the full support of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and of Archbishop Ieronymous II, primate of all Greece, an ecumenical gathering that itself was a powerful symbol of Christian unity.
In further gestures, the group first greeted hundreds of refugees, one by one, and then had lunch with a group of refugees in one of the shipping containers that are the Spartan quarters of all of those in the camp.
Francis’ final forceful gesture came at the port of Mytilene, where he joined Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymous in a memorial service for the countless refugees who have drowned in the Aegean Sea. They prayed for the dead and cast wreaths into the sea as an act of remembrance. Pope Francis capped these significant gestures with powerful words, addressed mainly to the people of Europe and their political representatives.
“Europe is the homeland of human rights, and whoever sets foot on European soil ought to sense this and thus become more aware of the duty to respect and defend those rights,” Francis said.
Aware of the current backlash in Europe, Francis said, “The worries expressed by institutions and people, both in Greece and in other European countries, are understandable and legitimate.” At the same time, he said, “we must never forget that migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all persons who have faces, names and individual stories.”
He praised the Greek people and the residents of Lesbos because in their response to the refugee crisis, they have shown the world that “in these lands, the cradle of civilization, the heart of humanity continues to beat; a humanity that before all else recognizes others as brothers and sisters, a humanity that wants to build bridges and recoils from the idea of putting up walls to make us feel safer.”
Speaking with reporters on the plane ride back to Rome, Pope Francis insisted his visit to Greece was not about criticizing a recent agreement between the European Union and Turkey to return refugees landing without legal permission to Turkey. “What I saw today and what you saw in that refugee camp—it makes you weep,” the pope told reporters.
“Look what I brought to show you,” the pope told them. He held up some of the drawings the children in the camp had given him. “Look at this,” he said, “this one saw a child drown.”
“Really, today is a day to weep,” he said. Holding up another picture, he pointed to the top and said, “The sun is crying. If the sun is able to cry, we should be able to shed at least one tear” for those children, who will carry the memory of suffering with them always.