Pope Francis’ Links to Assisi, to Lampedusa
On October 3rd – date of the death of St. Francis of Assisi in 1226 – hundreds of African and Syrian refugees tragically died, too, drowning close to the coast of the island of Lampedusa. Fleeing hunger, wars and denial of basic human rites in their own country, they did not quite make it to Europe and “safe haven” (Lampedusa is southern-most European point).
Pope Francis’ first Papal visit was to Lampedusa (July, 2013) to meet with immigrants there and he spoke forcefully on October 3rd about yet another tragic crossing. I imagine he spent time in prayer, too, sleeping little, inspite of an early departure the next morning by helicopter for Assisi for the Feast of his namesake, San Francesco.
Pino and I were in Lampedusa last August: I wanted to talk to the immigrants, hear their stories. I wrote this after our visit:
On September 22, 1843 (considered Lampedusa’s “birthdate”), Bernardo Sanvisente came ashore safely on Lampedusa, giving thanks to La Madonna and claiming the island for the Bourbons. Most lampedusani affirm the Madonna del Porta Salvo (“la Madonna of Safe Haven”) as the island’s patron saint (actually, it’s St. Bartholomew).
Lampedusa is still inextricably tied to “safe haven”: for thousands of African immigrants, arriving via boat (often Libya is their departure point). Closer to Africa (Tunis) than to Sicily – and Europe’s most southern point – Lampedusa has become first stop to a better life for many.
Walking the island’s main street, you might see a few strolling immigrants mingling with suntanned vacationers, back from swims in the acquamarine waters of “Europe’s most beautiful beach.”
Those same pristine waters figure in many an immigrants’ nightmares. As a Gambian teen told me, “I never thought I’d survive the crossing: a hundred of us at sea for 6 days without food or water, six dying – all women.” He declined to be photographed but a group of Eritreans smiled into the camera for me: “All hundred on our boat survived.” Before they headed back to the island’s Centro di Accoglienza (“Welcome Center”), I asked about their next destination. “Probably Rome.”
I wanted to see the Centro. No admittance – and military guards stationed at the entrance gate. I scrambled up the rocks surrounding the fenced-in enclosure to try for photos. Five soldiers quickly appeared, two inside the fence, three outside and all very courteous and solicitous: “Signora, let us help you down, you could fall. Sorry, but no photographs: this is a military zone.”
Before leaving, a plainclothes immigration policeman at the gate, chatted with me about the immigrant situation. Those I had met were allowed out of the center at will, having agreed be fingerprinted after indicating their name, place of origin. Many refused to divulge information, to be finger-printed, hoping to get on to Germany or Denmark as first acknowledged “entry point.” Why? Those countries give housing to immigrants, assist in their employment. Not in Italy, though immigrants – if from a war-torn country or one denying their rights – are given haven, as required by EU legislation.
Pope Francis chose Lampedusa for his first pastoral trip, meeting with immigrants and saying Mass at an altar constructed of the wood of an immigrant boat. Other carcasses of discarded immigrant-transport fishing boats were piled nearby in a sort of “boat cemetery” and across the road, fishing boats rocked gently at anchor in the port.
Lampedusa’s mayor summed up the July Papal visit there: “Lampedusa is Italy’s last frontier but the first stop on his Papal mission.”
Before leaving, Pope Francis dropped a floral wreath onto the limpid aquamarine waters, commemorating over 20,000 immigrants in this “underwater cemetery”: since 1990, thousands fleeing wars and poverty in Africa never reached the “port of safe haven.”