Pope Francis has placed himself front and center of the refugee crisis by urging European countries, Catholics and the world to accompany migrants fleeing their countries from war and political unrest. And the Catholic church in Italy is paying attention.
From Agrigento on the Southern coast of Sicily all the way to Rome,
religious communities are undoubtedly responding to Francis' message.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency,
more than one million migrants arrived in 2015 by sea to Europe --
153,600 of whom landed on the shores of Italy. The influx of migrants
from Northern Africa has slammed Sicily in particular due to its
proximity to the continent.
But the religious community in Italy appears to be unaffected by the
inpouring. Instead, working both directly and indirectly
with migrants arriving to Italy, they're addressing the crisis full
Jesuit Fr. René Micallef, a professor in the department of moral
theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, works
indirectly with migrants. Micallef, who joined the university in 2013,
developed many of his classes around migration -- including a class
titled "Stranger in the Bible" -- which focuses on using Scripture to
promote moral thinking.
"How does the Bible deal with the [migrant] and how can that help us
think about some of the issues we have today, which is people on the
move," Micallef explained to NCR in his Rome office July 19.
He also teaches courses on the ethics of immigration policy, the
exploitation of migrants, and environmentally displaced persons. And he
is currently writing a book about critical thinking and how it pertains
to moral theology. Micallef said he hopes his students walk away from
his courses with a more sensitive attitude and well-rounded outlook to
the issues surrounding the migration crisis.
"Sometimes you can have priests or seminarians who are almost sort of
oblivious" to the migrant crisis, said Micallef. "I have people
unfortunately in the United States who think that the whole idea of
social justice [and] Catholic social teaching of work with poor people
is a socialist thing. This is Catholic. If you don't accept this then
you're not Catholic. Some Americans have to come to Rome to discover
that this is not optional."
Jesuit Refugee Service,
an international Catholic organization founded in 1980, works directly
with migrants as part of its mission. The organization has 15 national
offices in Europe including one in Rome, according to its site.
Micallef, who worked with the JRS in his home country of Malta before
becoming a priest, said the organization's work inspired him to join the
congregation in 1997.
"We had people coming to our high school talking about the refugee
crisis," he recalled. "I think if there is a way of putting together a
faith which has a link to politics, one which does justice, then there
is a sense of being in the church. To help others go work with migrants
and to help others help them intellectually."
is also a driving force behind work with migrants in Italy, said
Micallef. Caritas, an international Catholic aid agency, works with 220
dioceses in Italy "committed in their daily activities to support the
most vulnerable people," its website reads.
NCR visited a Caritas center in Mazara del Vallo, a town of
about 50,000 people on the southern coast of Sicily, where migrants and
those in need were seen stocking up on groceries and baby food.
"We don't turn anyone away," said Lina Villani, 78, a Mazara del
Vallo resident and a parishioner who volunteers at the organization
every Monday and Tuesday.
Villani and five other parishioners work at the small center next
door to the diocesan office to help the migrants living in their town.
While migrants aren't brought there directly from the boats, Mazara del
Vallo has a rich history of migrants from Tunis and Morocco and remains a
destination for newly-arrived migrants.
At the back of the small center is a storage facility full of shelves
filled with pasta, canned tomatoes, baby food, milk and a refrigerator
full of Italian cheese. "Nothing goes to waste here," another volunteer
said. "We make sure everything is used." The center also provides
donated clothing to those in need.
Why do they volunteer? It's simple, they said.
"We believe in Jesus' words. We are Catholics and Christians," said
Villani in Italian. "Instead of staying at home all day, we leave our
husbands and we use our time to help." She's been a volunteer for eight
Next door, NCR sat down with Archbishop Domenico Mogavero,
known to many as the "migrant bishop," to speak about the recent influx
to the country.
"I am interested in the discussion of migrants because Mazara del
Vallo is on the Mediterranean, and I'm interested in everything that
happens in the Mediterranean," he told NCR in Italian. "Everyone who dies in the Mediterranean, I care about. We live the sea."
Sicily, an island rich in culture, was conquered by the Greeks,
Arabs, Romans, French, and the Spanish throughout its history, said
Mogavero. This makes it a "particular" place amid the migrant crisis, he
said, because Sicilians are used to living among differences.
Mogavero, 69, also oversees the Fondazione San Vito Onlus,
a diocesan program founded in 2001 to help integrate migrants into
Italian culture. Projects include cooking classes that incorporate
migrants' native ingredients into typical Sicilian dishes like the
cassata cake, said Mogavero. Local sisters also help schoolchildren --
those whose parents don't speak Italian -- with homework, he added. The
foundation works in collaboration with the local Caritas.
To the Europeans opposed to bringing in more migrants, Mogavero said Italy and Europe have a long way to go.
"In comparison to the numbers in other countries, the
disproportionate numbers in Italy and Europe are laughable," he said of
hosting countries like Turkey that has taken in more than 2 million
According to the UN Refugee Agency,
39 percent of the world's displaced people are hosted in the Middle
East and North Africa, while 6 percent are hosted in Europe.
And political movements that caution the "Islamification of Europe"
are based on outdated assumptions that are "racist and xenophobic,"
"We still assume that it's a Christian Europe, but it's not anymore," he said, adding, "The world is for everyone."
About a two-hour drive east down the coast from Mazara del Vallo in
the town of Agrigento, a group of 11 multi-congregational, multicultural
sisters are building one-on-one relationships with migrants in the
Sisters involved in Migrant Project/Sicily
work directly with migrants in the streets to provide emotional support
to them. They also have a site in Ramacca, a town on the eastern coast
of the island. The project, founded in 2014 by the International Union
Superiors General (UISG), works with two dioceses on the island and has
plans to begin work with a third.
"It's a small presence," said Sr. Patricia Murray of the Institute of
the Blessed Virgin Mary and executive director at UISG. "It's the tiny
drops that you put into the ocean of love" that make the biggest
difference, she said. "That's the way I look at it."
Helpers of the Holy Souls Sr. Elisabetta Flick, who oversees the
project, first went to Sicily in 2014 to scope out sites and meet with
two bishops in the area who welcomed the idea. While there, she met
Alberto Biondo, a missionary working with migrants in Palermo. Biondo
gave her a personal tour of the city and offered his own experience
working with migrants.
In Palermo, the capital of Sicily and a city of almost 700,000
inhabitants, Biondo works directly with migrants who are new to the
island. Biondo, 39, a member of the Comboni Lay Missionary Program,
lives with his three daughters, his wife and three other laymen families
in a complex run by priests. There, they host up to three migrant
Migrants can stay at the house for up to six months, though there are
exceptions, said Biondo. The missionaries assist migrants with things
like education, language courses, medical appointments, and sometimes
legal assistance with their documentation process -- all free of cost.
Biondo said he plans to stay in the home another year with his family helping migrants, but his work will continue.
"To have a better world we need to get involved. We need to change
our daily lives by making small choices that give meaning," Biondo said.
"I can't wait for others to make changes. I have to start myself by
changing my way of thinking toward that of the common good."