Pope Francis recently visited a detention camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Andy Hamilton SJ reflects on his refusal to make vulnerable people into problems.
There is so much to like about Pope Francis’ journey to Lesbos. There also so much for Australians to be humbled by. He undertook his travel at a time when the people seeking protection on Lesbos began being put into enclosed camps, facing deportation to Turkey, and perhaps return to the mortal danger from which they fled.
He went to meet vulnerable people, seeing the terror and need in their faces, hearing of all that they and their families had suffered. He grieved with them and spoke plainly, saying that God would judge European political leaders by the way in which they treated people claiming protection.
He did not go alone, but with two Greek Bishops, one of them the Ecumenical Patriarch, three men drawn together in compassion and horror at what is being devised for people like themselves, and able to set aside the bitter historical differences between their churches. Together they dropped wreaths into the sea to grieve the deaths of so many who lost their lives escaping death, and repenting for the cruelty they now endure in Europe.
Returning on the plane, he brought with him twelve people, members of three families. One was disabled, another seriously ill. And all three families were Muslim. Difficulties with papers prevented Christian families from also being chosen. At a time when anti-Muslim prejudice has grown in Europe, here was the proud and defiant statement to Christian and secular Europe that Muslims are our brothers and sisters calling on our love in their need. And here was a practical demonstration of the welcome that love inspires.
Meanwhile in Australia, people seeking protection languish in detention on the mainland, on Christmas Island, on Nauru and on Manus Island. They go unvisited by any angel of mercy. No judgement is spoken on the political parties that imprison them. The two leaders of our political parties travel together, not on a path of compassion and welcome but, united only by their political hostility, on a path of harsh rejection.
Pope Francis took one day to bring to his country 12 people seeking protection. Our leaders have taken more than a year to bring less than 200. He took unhesitatingly people who were ill and people who were Muslims. We have been promised that the beliefs and health of any people whom we take will be carefully screened and taken into account.
In Europe Pope Francis will be praised for his compassion and criticised for his unrealistic attitudes to the ‘refugee problem’. In Australia our leaders will be praised both for the brutal realism of their solution of the ‘refugee problem’ and for their lack of compassion.
Many of us will praise Pope Francis for refusing to make vulnerable people into problems, and for going out to befriend them. Will we walk his path?