Pope Francis visited the southern Italian port city of Bari at the weekend to highlight a major gathering of Catholic bishops from 19 Mediterranean countries. He didn’t pull any rhetorical punches while he was there.
Home to the relics of St Nicholas, revered by Greek and Russian Orthodox alike, Bari has become an ecumenical hub during Francis’s pontificate. On Sunday, Pope Francis called the city “the capital of unity – the unity of the Church”. A bold statement, it brought to the surface the subtext that the choice of locale had established for the meeting.
Pope Francis was speaking to participants in a five-day congress involving nearly 60 Catholic leaders, mostly of Mediterranean churches, under the sponsorship of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), looking at the Mediterranean region as a frontier of peace.
Given the history and current state of the Mediterranean basin, the theme may strike one as a bit of a stretch.
From Algeria to Syria and Syria’s neighbour, Iraq, armed conflict and political instability are the order of the day. The Arab Spring of 2011 that began in protest gave way in many places to violent unrest. The US-led invasion of Iraq that began eight years before the Arab Spring has left that country with a government that is highly dysfunctional at best. At worst, it has been a cauldron of disorder, terror and bloodshed feeding into and out of other regional conflicts that continue to threaten general conflagration.
Russia’s involvement in the region – especially in Syria and (further afield) Iran – is also well documented.
The Holy Land continues to be a locus of strife. Christians across the region – along with other religious minorities – have been exploited, marginalised, expropriated and driven from their homes and ancestral lands. They have been slaughtered wholesale.
“The international community has kept itself to military interventions,” Pope Francis said, “while it ought to build institutions that can guarantee equal opportunities and spaces in which citizens have the chance to take on and exercise their responsibility for the common good.”
Exactly how the international community is to do that without engaging in protracted, expensive, and inevitably messy nation-building schemes was not something that Francis addressed. Instead, he kept to the broader vision: of the Mediterranean “vocation” – the present challenges to the region and the perennial promise of the Mare Nostrum – especially concerning “the transmission of the faith, and the promotion of peace”. His point was that the alternative is perpetual war.
Francis described the Mediterranean as “a crossroads of interests and important social, political, religious and economic currents”, which had only become more pronounced in its significance as the process of globalisation has continued to unfold. “The Mediterranean has a peculiar vocation in this sense,” Francis said. “It is the sea of racial mingling [meticciato]” – hence the meeting and mingling of cultures. None of these cultures existed in a vacuum anywhere, but in this part of the world all of them were characterised by a peculiar openness.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean Sea has become what observers have described as the “graveyard of Europe” due to the appalling number of souls who have perished in their attempt to reach European shores.
The CEI has called for a radical rethinking of policy, aimed at safeguarding migrants and addressing the root causes of the violence and hopeless instability that lead them to seek better fortunes elsewhere. “Free to leave, free to stay,” CEI president Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti said in opening the Bari meeting on Wednesday, “is the
line that, as the CEI, we have given in our solidarity action towards the impoverished peoples.”
On Sunday, Pope Francis articulated the stakes involved.
“Sure,” Francis said, “a welcoming and dignified integration are stages of a difficult process; that we should be able to face it by raising walls, however, is unthinkable … In that way, access to the wealth of which the other is the bearer and which always constitutes an opportunity for growth, is rather precluded.”
The Pope went on to say: “It frightens me when I listen to some speeches by some leaders of the new forms of populism, and it makes me hear speeches that sowed fear and then hate in the 1930s.”
Pope Francis, in other words, is not calling on national governments to abandon their duties to protect either cultural patrimony or social order. He is, however, comparing the populists of the early 21st century to those who wreaked so much havoc on the world in the middle of the 20th.
Francis also appealed to the sense of universal Christian solidarity. “The persecution experienced above all – but not only – by Christian communities,” he said, “is a heart-rending fact that cannot leave us indifferent.” He also sees the present moment as an opportunity, which he believes none of the stakeholders can afford to miss.
This is frank talk, which raises the level and puts the Church further into play.