Migrants seeking safety and a better life in Europe risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and Pope Francis met Feb. 17 with eight Italian coast guard officers who risk their own lives rescuing thousands of them.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the pope met for about 45 minutes with the officers, led by Adm. Felicio Angrisano, and Italy's minister of infrastructure and transport, Maurizio Lupi.
"They told the pope about their concrete experiences, which were moving and inspiring," Father Lombardi said. The pope thanked them for their efforts and the service they carry out "with courage and dedication on behalf of the poorest."
"You risk your lives, you leave your families even on holidays," actions that "give honor to you and to the coast guard," even as others argue the government should save money and protect Italy's borders by not saving immigrants in danger of drowning, the pope said.
“I admire you, truly,” Pope Francis told them. “I feel insignificant before the work you do risking your lives, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’ll support you as I can, with prayers, an encouraging word and affection.”
Jesuit Refugee Service reported Feb. 18 that 3,000 migrants had been rescued in the Mediterranean in just the previous three days as violence and unrest in Libya led many people to flee. Libya is a common departure point for boats carrying migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
The eight Coast Guard officers who met with the pope included Subchief Marianna Mari. The Vatican said she assists migrants as soon as they are brought to port, including on her days off. She told the pope the most striking thing about her work is seeing the sadness in the eyes of the migrants and watching that change to gratitude "even if you just hand them a bottle of water or give them a blanket."
Lt. Antonello Fava, who was part of the team that in December rescued 700 migrants abandoned on a cargo ship off the coast of Italy, told the pope, "There was applause, like at a stadium, as soon as we boarded."
"Their eyes filled with joy and peace as we neared shore," he said.
Pope Francis made a public plea for prayers Feb. 11 for migrants crossing the sea after 29 migrants rescued by the coast guard died of hypothermia; another 75 people who were onboard the capsized raft survived. Later the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that three other boats had set off at the same time, each carrying more than 100 people. Of the more than 300 presumed aboard, only nine survived.