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The Pope in Lesbos: three religious leaders for an ecumenical, political message

The message of the joint Declaration signed in Lesvos – along with other similar, manifold messages and signs, conveyed by all Christian Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic denominations – also carries a political bearing aimed at contributing to the renewal of the Old Continent, not to repeat past mistakes made by others before marked by mutual closure, excommunication, self-referentiality taken to the extreme.

In the imagination of every Italian, Lampedusa has an unequivocal meaning. Lampedusa means barges, refugees, thousands of deaths at sea, emergency. However, Lampedusa also means hospitality, selflessness, generosity that sometimes borders on heroism, though mixed with understandable concern and uncertainty that such a situation can generate. And then Lampedusa means the desire to give a concrete contribution, while others discuss, debate, compare data, seeking political and diplomatic solutions, which, however necessary, strive to come to the fore, while elsewhere walls continue being erected. These are “precautionary” walls, we are told, but the prevailing message conveyed is the fear of those who raise those walls, and the shame of those who oppose it. Furthermore, if Lampedusa is a sort of “visiting card” for Italy, because of its geographic location but mostly thanks to its local population, or those who arrived motivated by reception purposes, I, an Italian born and raised at the antipodes of Lampedusa and the Mediterranean, can only say that I am proud to be Italian!

The overarching meanings of Lampedusa, are being compared in the press – sadly in the crime columns – to the situation on the island of Lesvos.

We’ve already seen it happen: deaths at sea, untold tragedies, exhausted faces, but once again welcome, generosity, sleeves rolled up in the desire to give a concrete contribution.

Events are unfolding in today’s Greece, experiencing a period of economic downturn, but which nevertheless is showing admirable solidarity and charity, despite unavoidable concerns and protests. The situation was highlighted on April 16 in Lesvos, a gateway to Greece and to Europe, when Pope Francis, the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and the Archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, expressed solidarity with the Greek population, raising global awareness on the many “guardians of humanity” as the Pope said greeting local authorities and population, “for you care with tenderness for the body of Christ, who suffers in the least of his brothers and sisters, the hungry and the stranger, whom you have welcomed”, referring to the famous passage from Mt 25:35: ” … I was a stranger and you welcomed me … “.

Shortly after his election the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, asked to visit Lampedusa, as if to convey the message “I am also here, as a bishop, but first of all as a Christian.” I would also add as a man, brother of so many men whose lives and expectations are shared on the island. Now Francis visited Lesbos, to bring once again a sign of closeness, appreciation, approval, and he arrived with Bartholomew I and Ieronymos II. Regardless of who took the initiative, which in a sense doesn’t make much difference, it is worthwhile understanding why the three religious leaders have decided to undertake the visit together.

Because unity is strength? Or because in this way the Catholic bishop and the two Orthodox bishops encouraged one another? No, definitely not.

By doing so, Bartholomew, Francis and Ieronymos intended to convey a clear message to Europe and to rest of the world. Namely, that

the “problem” of the refugees should be dealt with together:

“From Lesvos, we appeal to the international community to respond with courage in facing this massive humanitarian crisis and its underlying causes, through diplomatic, political and charitable initiatives, and through cooperative efforts, both in the Middle East and in Europe”, they declared in the joint statement.

Conversely from what our old Europe is (or isn’t…) doing, seemingly trapped within internal divisions, disagreements believed to have been overcome long since, which instead are re-emerging making forceful claims, conversely from the inability to formulate joint reflections and action, with their joint gesture the three bishops are communicating that the Churches are trying.

It is not a question of reaffirming the primacy of the Churches’ action over national or European governments. Rather it is a question of underlining that

To be Christian means keeping our eyes open wide, seeking prompt, concrete solutions, being able to make room for our neighbour, in reception centres as well as in our hearts.

The statement was signed by the three bishops, reassuring each one of us with a conviction previously stated in an ecumenical document published at the dawn of the year 2000: “Reconciliation [among Christians] involves promoting social justice within and among all peoples… Together we will do our part towards giving migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers a humane reception in Europe” (a passage from the Charta Oecumenica, 2001, quoted in the joint statement).

Papa Francesco, Bartolomeo I e Ieronymos II firmano una dichiarazione congiunta (Lesbo, 16 aprile 2016)

Moreover, in addition to praiseworthy words and content, the Declaration signed by the three religious leaders in Lesvos is

a message of major topical and political relevance:

namely, that throughout the centuries of our history, as Christians, we have often erected walls, until we finally understood that they are the most concrete sign of the failure of our testimony as disciples of the Resurrected Christ. It cost much effort, and even today the common path towards increasingly concrete communion between the Christian Churches is not without difficulties. But the Catholic Church, the oldest and the more recent Orthodox Churches and all the Churches existing in different ways as a result of Luther’s Reformation, have understood that

building walls serves nothing, and they want to say it loud and clear to those who insist in thinking that walls are the solution.

That’s why the message contained in the Joint Statement signed in Lesvos – along with similar messages and signs, transmitted in many different ways by all Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic denominations –has political relevance, because the purpose is to contribute to the Old Continent’s renewal, not to repeat the past mistakes made by others at a time of mutual closures, excommunication, self-refentiality taken to the extreme. In Lesvos, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the bishop of Rome and the archbishop of Athens called upon everyone to recover a mode of openness, dialogue, characterizing authentic democracy, which, in fact, was born in Greece and that from Lesvos, Lampedusa, and many other places that are symbols of welcome can still be revived…

(*) director of the National Office for Ecumenism and interreligious dialogue of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI)

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