Pope Francis is visiting Lesbos today, one of the vocal points of the European refugee crisis: here and on other Mediterrenean islands, people from the Middle East arrive in small boats, often extorted by ruthless traffickers for the privilege, on the run from war, violence and poverty in their homelands. Their future? Uncertainty, strange societies, crowded camps and, at worst, a forced return to where they came from.
It is perhaps no coincidence that today is also the feast day of Saint Benedict Joseph Labre. Born in France in the 18th century, he had the streets of Rome for his home. Often denying himself what he needed, his concerns for his fellow homeless caused him to share his food and even cure the sick in body and mind. In 1783 he died in a hospice, only 39 years old.
Many of the refugees may find themselves in similar situations. Just like St. Benedict Joseph Labre was rejected by the Trappists, the Carthusians and the Cistercians and so began his years wandering the streets, refugees are met with the same indifference, contempt even. To them, their future may not seem so different from that of today’s saint: moving from one place to the next, nowhere at home. They may have a physical roof over their heads in refugee camps and asylum centres, but mentally they may feel homeless.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre, while not having enough to eat for himself, nor a dry place to sleep, still found the will and the means to care for others who had it even worse than he. Can we do less? Can we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, even if we may not like them, distrust them, want them to be somewhere else than in our backyard?
St. Benedict Joseph Labre spent his days in cathedrals and churches, in prayer and adoration. Before God, he learned that mercy and compassion are not dictated by our own situation in life, that we are all called to help, to accept people, not reject them, even at the cost of our own perceived wellbeing. And yes, of course there may be risks in acceptance. Rejection is always the safer option if we want to avoid burdens or challenges. But when comparing risks to the inherent human dignity of everyone, it should be clear where the priority must lie.
Pope Francis’ visit will be a clear example of our obligation to care for others. That obligation does not go away, becomes even greater perhaps, when we hide those others in camps on the edge of our world.