Part of a series on the Vatican Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, this is the fourth of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Catch up on his first, second, and third pieces here. Check back soon for the next installment.
The Centro Astalli—a refugee center tucked in an alleyway near the ancient ruins of the Forum and Michelangelo’s graceful Campidoglio in downtown Rome—is small and compact. Unless you were looking for it, you’d never know it was there. Housed in a refurbished basement, it consists of a long, vaulted corridor, containing showers and changing stalls, a few simple dining rooms, a kitchen with serving area, and a first-aid station. At the end of the hall there’s also a modest chapel, named after the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt—some of history’s earliest refugees, the staff like to say. Aside from a few paintings and a statue made by migrants, an altar carved from the desk of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ (former Superior General of the Society of Jesus and founder of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which runs the Center), and photos of Pope Francis from his 2013 visit, the space is bare and unadorned. Daily, more than two hundred people make use of the center’s services.
In recent days, the concerns of those on the margins have moved to the center of the Synod on Young People. As conversation shifts to the second of the three sections of the Instrumentum laboris, dedicated to interpreting the manifold issues that have arisen throughout the past two weeks, delegates have become increasingly vocal about the crises confronting young migrants and refugees. There have been blunt remarks not only from bishops in countries from which people are fleeing (like Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui in the Central African Republic, who forcefully lamented that refugees are treated “like animals, not humans”), but also from hierarchs in the wealthier countries that receive them, like Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto in Italy, who praised migrants as a “precious strength” and rebuked the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe. (Migration has become a priority for the Italian Bishops Conference, or CEI, which in December will convene a gathering of Mediterranean bishops to identify practical ways of addressing the region’s mounting crisis.)
The Synod’s current focus on migrants and refugees is strategic, as I learned after speaking with two delegates, Michael Czerny, SJ and Robert Stark, SSS. Both represent the Vatican’s Section for Migrants and Refugees, a part of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development that reports directly to Pope Francis. They were specially appointed by the pope to ensure that the voices of young migrants and refugees are heard in the hall (the two held a listening session at Centro Astalli during the Synod’s opening days). Migrants and refugees aren’t just a “special problem” tacked on to the Synod’s agenda, Stark and Czerny told me. Rather, they’re privileged witnesses, paradigmatic of young people as a whole, and their stories can help the entire church rediscover its true identity in the crucified Christ. After all, if the church wants to learn to care for young people, all of whom are in a sense vulnerable, it would do well to listen with particularly close attention to the most vulnerable. It’s in serving those who have lost everything (home, family, friends) that the church most fully realizes its mission to care for the least among us.
For those who have been following Francis’s pontificate, these developments should come as no surprise. The pope has long drawn attention to migration, beginning with his 2013 visit to Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island south of Sicily where more than four-hundred thousand migrants have arrived over the past two decades. (More than three thousand people drown every year attempting to cross the Mediterranean in ramshackle boats operated by human traffickers.) Francis’s comments since then have likewise been unequivocal: “The poor and the earth are crying out,” he wrote in 2015’s Laudato si’, attributing the “tragic rise” in the number of migrants and refugees to the economic displacement and environmental devastation wrought by the “globalization of indifference.” Rebuking ideological opposition to migration (especially inside the church) in this year’s Gaudete et exsultate, he explicitly elevated care for migrants and refugees as one of the church’s top social justice priorities, on par with its traditional opposition to abortion.
Today, the problem is only getting worse. The UN estimates that there are now 68.5 million refugees, or forcibly displaced people, worldwide, while migrants (those who fail to meet the definition of “refugee” but nevertheless leave home, usually for economic reasons) number around 244 million (3.3 percent of the world’s population, according to the Pew Research Center.) Anti-immigrant policies have only made matters worse. The Trump administration, for example, recently set a resettlement cap of just 30,000 refugees for 2019, a record low for the United States, and down from 110,000 under President Obama. Things are no better in Italy. Just months after his election last spring, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (of the nationalist Lega party) notoriously refused to allow 177 refugees to disembark in the Sicilian port of Catania. A few weeks ago, the Italian parliament passed legislation making it easier for authorities to quickly expel migrants seeking asylum—in other words, to send them back to their conflict-torn home countries. In addition to its markedly xenophobic language (there is a category for migrants labeled “socially dangerous”), the law also allows police in larger cities to use tasers against immigrants said to be resisting arrest.