The day feels like spring - set against a winter that has seen churches open their doors to shelter clients. We arrive well in advance of our 4 p.m. appointment at Porta di Sant’Anna [Saint Anne’s gate].
We wait in a spartan ground floor room. A few minutes later, His Holiness enters.
It is the Pope who breaks the silence and puts us at ease. We give him some copies of our magazine, he accepts them. He is ready to answer our questions.
Steven Lampertico: Holy Father, let us talk about the invisible people, those who are homeless. At the start of winter when the cold became severe, you appealed to all the churches to open their doors and welcome them. What was the reaction? [After six people died of exposure within 48 hours, he ordered the doors of the Vatican opened and donations of sleeping bags and gloves. The Pope also gave people who possess little or nothing a front row seat to his May 14 blessing at the Vatican.]
Pope Francis: The appeal was heard by many people in many parishes – they listened and answered. In the Vatican there are two parishes, and every parishioner welcomed a Syrian family as guests. Many churches in Rome opened their doors, and I know that some others, not having the space to host guests, raised enough money to cover a whole year’s rent for the needy and their families.
Our goal must be integration, and so it is important to provide support and company at the beginning. All over Italy, Catholic schools, convents, and many other organizations opened their doors.
Your Holiness, when you meet someone who is experiencing homelessness, what is the first thing you say to them?
“Hello, how are you?” Sometimes we only exchange a few words. Other times we built rapport and I listened to fascinating stories: “When I was studying at college...” or “I once knew a really good priest…”
People who live on the streets can tell immediately if there’s genuine interest from the person speaking to them or if it’s only out of – I don’t want to call it compassion – it’s more like penitence. Some people see a homeless person just as another person – others treat them as if they were a dog.
In the Vatican, there is a famous story of a homeless man, of Polish origin, who could normally be found at the Piazza Risorgimento in Rome. He never spoke to anyone, not even the Caritas [Catholic charity] volunteers who would bring him a hot meal in the evening. Only after a long time were they able to learn his story: “I am a priest, I know your Pope well; we studied together at the seminary.” These words eventually reached Saint John Paul II, who confirmed they had been at the seminary together. He wanted to meet this man. They embraced after 40 years apart, and after an audience the Pope asked him to hear his confession. Afterwards, he said to the Pope, “Now it’s your turn.” And the Pope heard his confession.
Thanks to the deeds of the volunteer, a kind look, a hot meal and some words of comfort, this man was able to resume the path to a life like his old one, eventually working as the chaplain of a hospital.
When I was archbishop of Buenos Aires, a homeless couple and a family lived under the archway to our entrance hall. I met them every morning when I went out. I always said hello, and we would exchange a few words. Somebody once said to me, “They are a stain on our Church,” but to me those words were the stain. I think one must treat all people with humanity, not as if they owe you a debt, and not as if they were impoverished dogs.
Many wonder if they should give alms to those who beg for help on the street.
There are many ways to justify one’s actions when not giving alms. “If I give him money he’ll just spend it on a glass of wine.” If a glass of wine is his only happiness in life, then so be it. Ask yourself instead what you do, when you’re alone. What secret ‘happiness’ do you pursue?
It is always right to give help. What matters more is a good deed, helping someone who asks you for help, looking in their eyes and touching their hands. Throwing money at someone without looking at them is not a Christian gesture.
How can you teach someone to help? I knew a lady in Buenos Aires, mother to five children, although at that time she had only three. Their father was at work, and they were at home having lunch, when they heard a knock at the door. The eldest went to open it.
“Mamma, there’s a man at the door asking for something to eat,” he returned to say. “What should we do?” The three children, the youngest of whom was four, were sharing bistecca alla Milanese [beef steak in breadcrumbs].
“All right,” said the woman, “we’ll cut our steaks in half for him.”
“But Mamma, there’s another whole one,” protested the children.
“That’s for this evening, for your father,” she replied. “If we are to give, we must give what is our own.” With these simple words the children learnt that you must give away only what belongs to you.
Those arriving in Europe now are fleeing war or famine. And we are in some ways responsible, because we strip their lands for profit but we don’t make any investments from which they can benefit. They have the right to emigrate and they have the right to be sheltered, to be helped.
But this is something we must do with Christian virtue, a virtue that must be guided by wisdom. It means taking in all those that we are able to take in. This has first to do with numbers. But more importantly we must reflect upon the ways in which we admit people, because to welcome means to integrate. This is the most difficult aspect; if migrants don’t integrate, they become segregated. I am often reminded of the Zaventem incident, [suicide bombings at the airport and metro station in Brussels]. These were Belgian youths, children of migrants who had grown up in a quarter of the city that resembled a ghetto.
And what does it mean to integrate? Again I will give you an example. From Lesbos, 13 people came to Italy with me. By their second day here, thanks to the community of Sant’Egidio, all the children were already attending school. In almost no time, the refugees had found places to live, the adults were enrolled in courses to learn Italian and to find work. The men looked for work, and they found it. So ‘to integrate’ means to enter into the local way of life, respecting the local culture but also respecting and maintaining one’s own heritage and cultural richness. It is a difficult task.
In Buenos Aires, in the days of the military dictatorship, we looked to Sweden as an example. Today they have a population of nine million, but 890,000 are ‘new Swedish,’ migrants, or the children of migrants, who have integrated. The Swedish minister for culture, Alice Bah Kuhnke, is the daughter of a Swedish mother and a father of Gambian origin. This is a wonderful example of integration. Of course even now there are difficulties in Sweden: there are many requests for citizenship and they are trying to figure out what to do as there is not a place for everyone. Admitting, receiving, welcoming, and immediately integrating – that is what we are often missing out. Every country must therefore realize how many people it is able to accommodate. You cannot shelter people without the possibility of integration.
Your own family history includes your father’s parents, with their son, crossing the ocean to Argentina. What was it like growing up the child of an immigrant? Did you ever feel uprooted?
I never felt uprooted, or out of place. In Argentina we are all immigrants. That is why interfaith dialogue is the norm. I went to school with Jewish immigrants who had mostly come from Russia, as well as Syrian and Lebanese Muslims, or Turks with passports from the Ottoman Empire. We were a brotherhood. There were few people of indigenous origin. For the most part we were originally Italian, Spanish, Polish, Middle Eastern, Russian, German, Croat, Slovenian… In the last two centuries migration has been a far-reaching phenomenon. My father was in his 20s when he arrived in Argentina, and he worked in the Bank of Italia. He was married there.
What do you miss most about Buenos Aires?
There is only one thing I really miss: the ability to go out and walk around on my own. I like visiting different parishes and meeting new people. I don’t particularly experience nostalgia. Instead I’ll tell you another anecdote: my grandparents and my father had originally planned to leave for Argentina at the end of 1928. They had tickets on the Princess Mafalda – the ship which then sank off the coast of Brazil. They had not managed to sell their possessions in time, so instead changed their tickets for places on the Julius Caesar for the first of February, 1929. That is why I am here today.
You often say that the poorest among us can change the world. But it is difficult to foster solidarity where there is also poverty. What do you think?
Here, too, I’d like to refer to my experiences in Buenos Aires. In the slums there is more solidarity than in the central districts. In the villa miseria there are many problems, but often the poor are more loyal to one another, because they feel that they need each other.
The interview is over. We thank his Holiness, who gives us each a rosary as a gift. He is planning a visit to Milan and we promise that when he arrives, Scarp vendors will be out in force to thank him – wearing their red vests, of course.