In a dramatic and powerful gesture of humanitarianism and radical Gospel living, Pope Francis brought 12 Syrian refugees detained in a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos home with him on the papal plane to Rome. The refugees, members of three different families, included six children between ages of 2 and 17. According to Catholic News Service, all three families saw their homes destroyed in Syria and arrived in Greece months ago “on overloaded rubber boats.”
The gesture, which Pope Francis called “an inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” was planned a week before the trip took place, but was unconfirmed by the Vatican until the refugees were seen walking directly to the plane on April 16. Such a decision only added to the understanding of Pope Francis’ persona as a religious leader whose actions speak as clearly as his words. For us, three valuable lessons about radical Gospel living can be gleaned from pope’s very public gesture.
First, when it comes to radically living the Gospel — especially when caring for the least among us — fear has no place. Pope Francis, with the eyes of the world upon him at all times, is not afraid to wade into rough waters and even into political waters if human dignity is at stake. Had he simply flown to Greece, spoken to and prayed for refugees, his journey would have been enough. Bringing refugees home with him elevated the stakes, in a way calling out the many European countries who have closed their borders and their hearts to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children stranded in a land that is not their own. Pope Francis does not let fear, political or other, deter him.
Second, when it comes to radically living the Gospel, every person counts. Pope Francis was asked on the return flight why he chose only Muslims to come back to Rome with him. He replied that some Christian families were being considered but that their paperwork was not in order. But besides, he said, “I didn’t choose between Christians and Muslims. … All 12 are children of God.” In the eyes of the Lord, each of us is precious and equal, as Pope Francis reminds us.
Finally, when it comes to radically living the Gospel, actions matter. The day after returning from Greece, Pope Francis gave a homily for the 53rd World Day of Prayer for Vocations Mass in which he ordained 11 new priests and told them that their words and deeds go hand-in-hand. “… Your word and example go together: word and example build the house of God, which is the Church.” Pope Francis desires each of us to be the hands and feet of Christ on this earth, and he leads the way through his many caring actions to the poor, sick and elderly.
Each of these three qualities can be found in the men and women religious in this week’s Vocations special section who are tirelessly living out the corporal works of mercy in different parts of the country (Pages 9-24, online April 22). Their stories are inspiring, and the number of lives they have changed are countless. We can and should follow in their footsteps.
It can be easy to get discouraged by the magnitude of the problems in the world: poverty, war, injustice, inequality. But Pope Francis reminds us that change begins with, as Mother Teresa said, “a drop of water in the sea.”
Rescuing the refugees, he said, was this kind of “small gesture.” “However,” he added, “those small gestures (are what) we should all do, men and women, to give a hand to one in need.”
Editorial Board members: Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief