Photo Credit: L' Osservatore Romano
Prepared By: Melanie Marie Jimenez
Wednesday, January 13, 2016 is a day forever etched in my heart and mind. This was the day I attended a general audience with Pope Francis and my fellow classmates from the University of San Francisco. I had seen the excitement and borderline mania the Pope’s visit to America had inspired in September 2015, yet this did not prepare me for the scene at the Vatican on that morning. My classmates and I arose early and began our pilgrimage not knowing what to expect. After long lines and security checks, we entered the hall hours early. Even at this hour the energy in the room was akin to a soccer match or rock concert with people cheering, waving flags, and lining up with their selfie sticks to meet the Holy Father. When the address began, there were nine different languages being spoken. I could not keep track of the number of countries represented, but the anticipation was palatable and the excitement universal. When Pope Francis did enter the room- early, and slowly- he took the time to hold babies, kiss grandmas, embrace children and there were few dry eyes in the room. I myself was overwhelmed at the scene. Strangers embraced and cried together.
The Pope’s address was short, poignant, and translated into nine languages so the audience could understand in their native tongue. Despite the language barrier, the message of mercy and application of the Prodigal Son parable was clearly communicated. The Pope’s jovial reference that, “It is not soap opera love.... It is love which takes the first step, which does not depend on human merit but on immense gratuitousness,” even drew chuckles and understanding from the crowd. Yet, what struck me was, “Then it is written that the Lord is “gracious”, in the sense of having grace, he has compassion and, in his greatness, he bends down to those who are weak and poor, ever ready to welcome, to understand, to forgive.” This echoed the sentiment of accompaniment we had heard in the previous days from Jesuit Refugee Services and other nongovernmental agencies working with refugees in Rome. The Pope concluded his remarks with prayers for the victims of attacks the previous day in Istanbul. He then invited the audience to walk through the Holy Doors that were open for the Jubilee year- the Jubilee of Mercy. Not only was his message clear, he then embodied that sentiment by not just rushing out of the hall, but taking the time to greet the audience members and speak with them. My classmates and I remained behind in hopes of a blessing. Our patience was rewarded when the Holy Father walked up to us, looked us in the eye, and blessed us. The impact was profound as he embodies change, progress and renewal for me personally. His efforts to move the Church forward bridges generations. Most importantly for me, he has the ability to inspire other to act and to begin talking about the future of our shared humanity as members of one Church.
As the week continued, this message of common humanity was repeated by advocates and refugees. One refugee we met with shared his experience and reminded us that, “this could happen to your brother or your sister. No one chooses this. It happens to them. I don’t believe we should turn away women and children because of our own fear of the unknown.” He said the first step on his journey to reintegration was establishing a community at Centro Astalli in Rome. He recounted how they had welcomed him and fed him. He also quoted the Pope, who had addressed refugees at Centro Astalli in September 2013- only months after becoming Pope,
“Each one of you, dear friends, has a life story that speaks to us of the tragedies of war, of conflicts that are all too often linked to international politics. Yet, above all, every one of you bears a wealth of humanity and a religious sense, treasures to welcome rather than to fear. Many of you are Muslim or members of another religion. You come from various countries, from different situations. We mustn’t be afraid of differences! Brotherhood enables us to discover that they are riches, gifts for everyone! Let us live in brotherhood!
Rome! For many people our City is the second stage on the journey, after Lampedusa and the other places where they arrive. Often, as we have heard, the journey they make is hard, it is gruelling and even violent — I am thinking especially of the women, of the mothers who bear all of this to assure their children of a future and the hope of a different life for themselves and their family. Rome should be the city that makes it possible for them to rediscover a human dimension and to begin to smile again. How often, however, as in other parts, many people here who have “international protection” stamped on their stay permit are forced to live in distressing situations — at times degrading — and in no way are they able to start living a dignified life or to think of a new future!”
Hearing the Pope’s words and message repeated by a refugee who benefited from the services was a living, breathing example of how we can embody mercy. Jesuit Refugee Services has done this through their mission to, “accompany, serve, and advocate.” We learned about the Welcome Project in France where refugees are placed in homes with host families. The possibility of greeting refugees with understanding and acceptance is powerful. We heard testimony how this can make reintegration successful for those seeking asylum who have lost not only their material belongings, but their identity and their history. Please watch the video below to see how this program is succeeding in France.
As I return to the United States and work, I hope to remain ready to welcome and understand. I will carry the questions the Holy Father addressed to the crowd at Central Astalli with me and I hope that you too will ask yourself, “do I bend down over someone in difficulty or am I afraid of getting my hands dirty? Am I closed in on myself, on my possessions, or am I aware of those in need of help? Do I only serve myself or am I able to serve others, like Christ who came to serve even to the point of giving up his life? Do I look in the eye those who are asking for justice, or do I turn my gaze aside to avoid looking them in the eye?”
Photo Credit: Telegraph.co.uk
Read Pope Francis’ General Audience Address on January 13, 2016: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2016/documents/papa-francesco_20160113_udienza-generale.html
Learn more about Jesuit Refugee Services: http://jrsusa.org/ and Centro Astalli: http://centroastalli.it/
Address of Holy Father Francis during his visit to Astalli Centre (The Jesuit Refugee Service) in Rome on September 10, 2013: https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/september/documents/papa-francesco_20130910_centro-astalli.html
German football fans welcome refugees and invite hundreds to watch match: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/11834636/German-football-fans-welcome-refugees-and-invite-hundreds-to-watch-match.html