By Elise Harris
In a new, wide-ranging interview Pope Francis spoke at length of the European refugee crisis – saying that incoming migrants are now filling the void left by a sterile continent that refuses to have children.
“The migrant phenomenon is a reality…when there is an empty space, people look to fill it. If a country doesn’t have children, migrants come to occupy that place,” the Pope said in a recent interview with Portugal-based Radio Renascença (Renaissance).
He referred to the staggeringly low number of births in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain, where the current number of births falls, he said, at “almost zero percent.”
Francis said he is no stranger to the phenomenon of not wanting to have children, and that he encountered it in his own family when some years ago his Italian cousins said they preferred to travel or buy property rather than have children.
“So, if there are no children, there are open spaces,” he said. For him personally, the societal refusal to have children is part of a “culture of ‘well-being,’” in which the assurance that one’s personal needs and wants will be taken care of is emphasized to an exaggerated degree.
Published Sept. 14, the interview was conducted by Vatican journalist Aura Miguel Sept. 8, and touched on a wide variety of themes such as the current refugee crisis, youth unemployment and how often the Pope goes to confession.
In the many questions surrounding the current refugee crisis hitting Europe by the thousands each day, the Pope said that what we’re seeing is just “the tip of the iceberg.”
“We see these refugees, these poor people that are escaping from war, escaping from hunger, but that’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said. In his view, the crux of the problem is an unjust socioeconomic system that removes the human being from the center.
Today’s dominant economic system “removes the person from the center, and at the center is the god of money, it’s the god in fashion today,” the Pope said, noting that this also affects both the political and ecological systems.
No matter where the migrants come from, the criteria spurring them to move are the same, Francis continued, saying that one has to go to the causes of the problems to find solutions.
“Where the causes are hunger, bringing jobs, investments. Where the cause is war, looking for peace, the work for peace.”
One recent phenomenon that deeply pained him was the plight of the “Rohingya” people, an Indo-Aryan ethnic group largely from the Rakhine state of Burma, in west Myanmar.
Since clashes began in 2012 between the state’s Buddhist community and the long-oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority, more than 100,000 Rohingya’s have fled Myanmar by sea, according to the U.N.
In order to escape forced segregation from the rest of the population inside rural ghettos, many of the Rohingya – who are not recognized by the government as a legitimate ethnic group or as citizens or Myanmar – have made the perilous journey at sea in hopes of evading persecution.
In May a number of Rohingya people – estimated to be in the thousands – were stranded at sea in boats with dwindling supplies while Southeastern nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia refused to take them in. On Aug. 7, Pope Francis told a group of youth that this “is called killing. It’s true. If I have a conflict with you and I kill you, it’s war.”
In the interview, Francis lamented how countries would allow the Rohingya to land, give them food and water, and then send them back out to sea. “They don’t welcome them,” he said, adding that today “humanity lacks the ability to welcome.”
As a grandson of Italian immigrants who came to Argentina in 1929 along with a wave of other Italian, Spanish and Portuguese migrants starting in 1884, the Pope said that “I know what immigration is.”
However, he also acknowledged that migrants bring various safety concerns with them, and noted that Rome is not “immune” to infiltration from threats such as guerilla groups active near Sicily.
But despite our concerns, Francis said that refugees still have to be welcomed because it’s commanded in the Bible, and turned to Moses’ commission to his people not to “mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
When asked about the response to his appeal during his Sept. 6 Sunday Angelus address for every parish, shrine, religious community and monastery in Europe to welcome a family of refugees has gotten, the Pope said that there have been many.
He said he specifically asked them to take in a family rather than a person because “a family gives more safety,” and the risk of “infiltrations” is lower.
Pope Francis clarified that when he asked for a family to be welcomed, he’s not necessarily asking that they be welcomed into the parish or community house, but that the parish or community finds “a place, a corner of a school to make a ‘small apartment.”
“Or, in the worst case, rent a modest apartment for the family, but that they have a ceiling, to be welcomed, and that they are integrated into the community.”
Many convents are “almost empty,” the Pope observed, and recalled that when he made a similar appeal soon after his election just over two years ago, there were only four responses, one of them being the Jesuits.
This, he said, “is serious,” and noted that the temptation of “the god of money” is also present in this situation when he hears some congregations say “No, now that this convent is empty, we’re going to make a hotel, and we can receive people, and with this we’ll sustain ourselves or earn money.”
If a community wants to do this it’s fine, but “pay taxes,” he said, explaining that a religious school has the title “religious” since religious institutions are exempt from taxes, “but if it works like a hotel then pay taxes like everybody else. Otherwise the business isn’t very healthy.”
Francis was also asked about the two Vatican parishes who were also asked to welcome refugee families, which, he said, have already been found thanks to Cardinal Angelo Comastri, Vicar General for the Vatican, and the papal Almoner Bishop Konrad Krajewski.
He said he didn’t know how long the families would stay, but that they would be there “until the Lord wants.”
“No one knows this, how it’s going to end, right? Anyway, I want to say that Europe became conscious, eh? And I thank them, I thank the European countries who have become conscious of this.”