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Lampedusa, island and symbol


Lampedusa? Where/what is that? If you are wondering, you are not the only one as the local press has been resoundingly silent about the very first trip of Pope Francis away from the confines of Rome. It was not to his own Buenos Aires or some other great city, not to millions waiting to see him at some elaborately planned World Youth Day. It was to Lampedusa, a tiny island of less than 23 square kilometers in the Mediterranean with a local population of only 4,000, 126 kilometers from the coast of Africa. It is the southernmost point of Italy and of the European Union—their Tawi-Tawi, as it were.

Beyond that, Lampedusa is a symbol, and the Pope’s visit was powerfully symbolic. Since 1999 it has been the entry point of more than 200,000 refugees and migrants seeking to escape war and poverty in North Africa and to find a better life abroad. In the year 2011, as violence escalated in their homelands, some 50,000 arrived in Lampedusa, most of them Muslims.

They are today’s “boat people,” like the thousands of Vietnamese who arrived in the Philippines in the 1970s, picked up at sea in their tiny boats and housed in Palawan and Bataan while they sought asylum in other countries.

Like the Vietnamese boat people, many—an estimated  17,000 since 1999!—have lost their lives attempting the crossing in overcrowded and dilapidated fishing boats. Only last month tragedy struck again when an overcrowded boat capsized and eight people drowned before the Italian Coast Guard could reach them. It was reported that some of the survivors hung onto a fishing net being pulled by a trawler, but when they tried to climb aboard the sailors cut the net and dropped them into the sea!

This tragedy, it was reported, was “like a thorn in the heart” of Pope Francis, and he determined to call the world’s attention to the plight of refugees and migrants. He did so in his own unique style. There was no “Popemobile” or fancy car to bring him from the airport; he was picked up in the 20-year-old Fiat of the parish priest. No national politicians from Rome, and no cardinals, accompanied him. On arrival he was taken out to sea in a Coast Guard boat, and he threw a wreath on the water in memory of those who had died in the passage. He embraced the refugees, some of whom had arrived that very day, and noted that Ramadan was beginning. He then delivered a homily, addressed not to the immediate hearers but to the world. A few lines must be quoted here based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel.

“Where is your brother? The voice of his blood cries even to me,” God says. This is not a question addressed to others: It is a question addressed to me, to you, to each one of us. These our brothers and sisters seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace, they seek a better place for themselves and for their families—but they found death. How many times do those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity! And their voices rise up even to God.

The Pope calls on the world to repent for what he calls the “globalization of indifference” as men and women, policymakers and ordinary people, close their eyes to the sufferings of migrants and refugees around the world.

But God asks each one of us: “Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?” Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility; we have fallen into the hypocritical attitude of the priest and of the servant of the altar that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Good Samaritan: We look upon the brother half dead by the roadside, perhaps we think, “poor guy,” and we continue on our way, it’s none of our business; and we feel fine with this.

Here in the Philippines we do not have refugee problems as dramatic as those symbolized by Lampedusa, although a closer look at the human suffering caused by war and floods in Mindanao may well challenge our consciences. But we do have pockets of great need all around us—among the poor in our public hospitals and prisons, for example, in the teeming slums and among the many thousands scheduled for “relocation” far from their places of work and job opportunities. Their voices too “rise up even to God.”

The Pope also asks that we pray for those who “anonymously make socioeconomic decisions that open the way to tragedies like this.” This may well include a whole litany of policymakers past and present, here in the Philippines, and the elite who have bent them to their will.

Perhaps also the Palace spokesman who, as reported in the Inquirer (7/11/13), did not apparently check his arithmetic before rushing to question the finding of the National Statistical Coordination Board that the gap between the well-off and the poor is widening. His argument? The incomes of the poor have increased by 8 percent, and those of the better-off by 10 percent. Simple arithmetic will indicate that for the gap to be narrowed, the income of the poor must increase, percentage-wise, more rapidly than that of the wealthy. If one person has P100 and another P10, and both increase by 10 percent, the final difference is no longer P90 but P99. And so the gap widens.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” says the Palace spokesman. But some more than others.

John Carroll ( is a Jesuit priest and sociologist, long-time resident of the Philippines, and founding director of what is now the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues.

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