Never has a pope focused so consistently on a social issue as has Francis on migration these past ten years. With his actions and his words, he has put the mass displacement of people and their suffering at the center of his Petrine ministry. What St. John Paul II did for the unborn and the ethic of life, Francis has done for migrants and the ethic of fraternity. Just as the Polish pope is forever associated with challenging the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, the Argentinian pope will surely be remembered for the searing spotlight he has thrown on the Florida Strait, the Mediterranean, and the U.S.-Mexico border. He is the greatest advocate on the world stage for migrants and refugees, and the scourge of the kind of conservative cafeteria Catholic who tries to downplay the exclusion of foreigners as a major moral issue.
It is usually pointed out that just as communism was personal for Karol Wojtyła, so is migration for Jorge Mario Bergoglio. As the child of Italian émigrés who remade their lives in Buenos Aires in the 1930s, he knows firsthand about the vulnerability of those who have been uprooted. The other obvious reason for Francis’s focus on migrants is the scale and urgency of the matter. There have never been as many people on the move as there are today: the UN’s pre-pandemic estimate was an astonishing 70 million. If they were a country, it would be the fifth largest in the world, after China, India, the United States, and Indonesia. Yet an astonishing 85 percent of all migrants are hosted not by Europe or North America, but by the developing world.
Climate change, the other great challenge facing today’s world, has at least drawn from world leaders a pledge to tackle it collectively through the annual UN COP meetings. But on migration, the opposite has happened: countries compete with each other to be the least hospitable in a race to deter newcomers.
Francis has made it his job to call out this shameful lack of collective purpose, the consequences of which are visible in border camps where hundreds of thousands languish in degradation after being trafficked across seas and deserts. His advocacy famously began on the island of Lampedusa in July 2013, when he described Europe’s response to the drownings in the Mediterranean—the world’s most dangerous crossing, claiming two thousand lives in 2021 alone—as evidence of “the globalization of indifference.”
Yet neither the current scale of the problem nor Francis’s own background is sufficient to grasp why he cares so deeply. Yes, migration is personal for him; and yes, the world’s paralysis on the question cries out for his prophetic voice. But a deeper motive emerges from the more than seven hundred pages of words he has written and spoken on the topic, which the migrants section within the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development has collected on its website. (That section, created in 2018, is the only one in the Vatican that Francis heads personally.) The main reason Francis, as successor of St. Peter, has put this topic at the heart of his pontificate is that—to paraphrase Bill Clinton—it’s the Gospel, stupid. Or, to put it in slightly more ecclesial language, migration in the early twenty-first century is where we find the great hermeneutic question of the Gospel being asked and answered: Mercy or sacrifice? In the borderlands of our globalizing world, God knocks at the door disguised as a foreigner. On our recognition and acceptance of that stranger hangs not just the fate of migrants, but of humanity itself.