If there was criticism of Pope Francis’ decision to bring a dozen Syrian refugees to Rome in April 2016 – followed by a further nine that September – it took the form of claims that this was a token move, a mere drop in the ocean that is the migrant crisis on Europe’s doorstep.
For Msgr Tony Figueiredo, a priest of the Neochatechumenal Way and 16-year curial veteran, who was born in Kenya of Goan family and grew up in England, such criticisms miss the point. “I think this Holy Father is a man of prophetic gestures and signs,” he says. Pointing to Jesus’ ministry and the story of how he healed a man born blind by rubbing his eyes with dirt into which he had spat, he observes that “He was just one man and there were perhaps hundreds of thousands of blind men, so he didn’t heal all of them, but the prophetic gesture carried a lot of weight.”
Pope Francis’ first trip outside of Rome was such a prophetic gesture, he says, maintaining that the Pontiff’s actions at Lampedusa in July 2013 matter less than what he said. “It wasn’t the fact of what one man does at Lampedusa,” he says, “but it’s quite fascinating what that stirs up in all of us. The questions he asked at Lampedusa are haunting us.”
Recalling how the Pope spoke of God’s question to the first murderer: “Cain, where is your brother?” he says, “this haunts us and it cannot leave us – it calls us to come out of our indifference.”
Such questions, Msgr Figueiredo says, are searching ones, forcing us to ask what we’re doing.
“I think that’s a question for all of us, and I think the Pope wants to instill in our hearts where we need to be, so we know how to do it,” Msgr Figueiredo continues. “As Christians we need to be with these people. We may not all be called to be in Lampedusa, but we need to do something.”
Describing how St Teresa of Calcutta had said of the first person she helped, “If I hadn’t begun with that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up the other 50,000,” he concludes of Pope Francis’ actions, “I think these prophetic gestures are meant to plant in our own hearts and our own lives the summons to mission.”
Not, of course, that the Holy Father’s actions have been limited to gestures. Going into the 2013 conclave, the cardinals were determined to find a Pope who could reform the Church’s central bureaucracy so as to make it more suited to mission, and curial reform has been a key part of Pope Francis’ programme.
As part of this, last August saw the announcement of the creation of a new Vatican department in which Msgr Figueiredo was one of the first staff.
The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, headed by Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, draws together the existing justice and peace, charity, healthcare and migration departments. “What is really interesting about this new dicastery, which began officially on January 1,” says Msgr Figueiredo, “is that it has a specific section for migrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking – obviously, victims of human trafficking in many ways are migrants. And that section, quite unusually – totally unusually, actually – is directly under the Holy Father Pope Francis, so it reports directly to him.”
The decision by the Pope to place the migration section, at least for now, under his direct supervision is a powerful marker of how important the subject is to him, according to Msgr Figueiredo.
“What the Pope said is that at this time, I will take this under my care, this particular section,” he says, continuing, “eventually we expect that we’d come under the whole dicastery, but because of the pressing situation – the urgent situation - of migrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking, the Holy Father obviously believes that we need to work on this immediately to answer the need and respond to what’s going on without any waiting. People are involved, and that’s what’s key.”
Admitting that the Vatican can be famous for organisational inertia, Msgr Figueiredo says the Pope deliberately heading the new dicastery’s migration section signals how it should be prioritised.
“When the head of an organisation says I’m going to look after something, it also gives a certain importance to that section,” he says, “and I think he said this is completely the top of the list of his priorities at this point.”
The Church has talked about migrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking through most of its history, Msgr Figueiredo says, but things are different now.
“Obviously in the world today there are more migrants, more refugees, and more human migration than any time in the history of the world,” he says, adding that according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are 78 million refugees and 245 million migrants around the world, with these numbers only destined to rise.
“The Holy Father is certainly saying individual people are suffering – they need to be helped, they need to be supported along the way – but I think he has an even greater prophetic vision,” Msgr Figueiredo continues.
“He sees what the response is of so many governments – we see it in the United States and in Britain today – a closing xenophobia and fear. It’s dangerous, because from this very issue of migrants and refugees, a nationalism is rising – a populism – which will not help because the more isolated we are, the more we turn in on ourselves,” he says, adding, “we build barriers, and barriers always lead to fears and greater separation, and that’s never good for world peace, for example – it’s never good for the communion of people.”
For Pope Francis, these movements of people aren’t merely challenges, Msgr Figueiredo says, noting that this should be obvious to Irish people. “There are great opportunities that come from migrants and refugees: I think of St Patrick, who obviously was a victim of slave trafficking,” he says, explaining that when Patrick returned to Ireland he did so with the gift of the Gospel.
“He really brought something back, which I think migrants and refugees can do, because they’ve suffered and been through so much, when you listen to their stories – and that’s a key part of our work,” he says, continuing, “one of the things the Holy Father has asked of us is that we need to put out stories, and we need to listen to stories, and we need to tell people that this is actually a moment of opportunity, it’s a great blessing – we’re talking about people from different cultures of great richness, they’ve been through so much, that tells they are fighters.”
Msgr Figueiredo grew up in England – his mother still lives in Watford – and says in Britain, “Most of the hospitals and care homes and so many different areas wouldn’t be able to run were it not for migrants.”
He continues: “They’ve really had to work, they’ve had to leave a lot – it’s not easy to leave your country for whatever reason, and when these people come to Europe they want to make it, they want to be successful, they don’t just want to lounge around. So they have an enormous amount to contribute.”
It’s not merely the most obviously skilled workers who have things to offer, he says. “If you look at doctors and such professionals, many of them are Indians for example, but also those doing very menial tasks – migrants are willing to do them,” he observes, adding that migrants’ children are often impressively industrious. “I’ve taught in schools in Britain, and you do see these children who are smart – they don’t tend to be the lazy ones,” he says.
Migrants and their families can so easily be looked down upon by people in their new homes, however, and for Pope Francis these need always to be cared for. “This is a Holy Father who is completely tied to the Gospel message,” says Msgr Figueiredo, “and when we look at the ministry of Jesus or the Old Testament, God has a particular love for those who are suffering, for those who are defenceless. God defends the widow, the orphan and the stranger at your doorstep, the Old Testament tells us, and Jesus himself says ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
In Jesus’ ministry, Msgr Figueiredo says, he’s constantly on the move, healing and preaching, eating with tax collectors and welcoming other sinners and outcasts. In this sense it could be said that Pope Francis sees his ministry as a shepherd seeking lost sheep, and Msgr Figueiredo notes, “to continue that metaphor, as one priest said to me: Jesus went out and looked for the one sheep, well, we don’t even have the 99 in the Church anymore”.
“The Holy Father is simply doing what Jesus did,” he says, adding that part of the challenge for us is to break out of our indifference to such people.
“In the world today there’s what the Holy Father calls ‘the globalisation of indifference’ and he’s keenly aware of that. We have the most vulnerable, poor, defenceless people, whether that’s physically or spiritually or whatever, who fall through the cracks,” he says, “and he says the Church is a field hospital. It’s not an institution for the saved or for the perfect, it’s a field hospital: it’s not so much that those who are sick necessarily come to us today, so we have to go out to them.”
Dramatic gestures, then, can serve to jolt us out of our indifference and stir us to help those most in need. “I think we’re so used to reading on the internet and we’re constantly just hearing things, but when we actually see these things done, it moves us,” he says, adding that people like Pope Francis and St Teresa can impel others – and not just Catholics – to take a stand and go to those who have nothing.
Governments, he says, listen to the Pope, even if they don’t necessarily agree with him, at least at first. “Obviously, the Church doesn’t ‘do politics’ but is called to share the light of the Gospel, and that may begin with citizens individually, or it may begin with politicians and governments. So when we see certain issues that need that light of the Gospel, the Church has a duty to talk and bring that message to governments,” he says.
As an example, he describes how he met in Rome with a group of British Catholic politicians. “We spoke about this very issue which is controversial in Britain at the moment, all about immigration,” he says, continuing: “Initially they were a little bit up in arms about it, saying they couldn’t possibly take more immigrants in and all the rest, but when I shared with them some specific stories of migrants and put some facts to them, there was a change in them.”
At the same time, he said, some said if they publicly upheld the Church’s position on migration, nobody would vote for them. “This is the bottom line for many politicians, but we go back to St Thomas More – I am the king’s servant but God’s first – and as the Church we have a duty to bring the light of the Gospel and form consciences,” he says.
Adding that this principle applies to Catholic politicians on many issues, he says politicians are called to lead and explain their beliefs to voters, even if these should be unpopular – “otherwise we’re not people of integrity”. Reiterating the Church’s duty to speak out, he says “perhaps the greatest damage is when we’re silent”.
Fear and xenophobia are a real phenomena, he says, so the Church has a duty to form consciences and inform people so they can become real missionaries of the Church. Pointing to how myths about refugees are rife, “I say to people saying this, go to where people are living in direct provision hotel rooms and see whole families receiving whatever, €19 a week, and your hearts will be changed in those instances.”
While he hadn’t yet visited any of Ireland’s direct provision centres, he notes that those sounded like the kind of places Pope Francis had in mind when he spoke of refugees corralled in concentration camps. “The Holy Father wasn’t talking about the Nazi extermination camps, he was talking about the concentration of people – from what I’ve heard, I haven’t been out to see where people are, but I think that’s what he’s talking about,” he says.
Praising the Irish Church for the work it’s doing on these issues, Irish bishops and clergy should not fear speaking out on migration, he says, as the Pope had sent he and others out with messages of support.
“We do need bishops who will give prophetic gestures that will back up their words and inspire us to do the same,” he continues. “I think that when people see bishops and cardinals who take a stand, it makes people think and want to follow. People want to follow leaders who are authentic today. We see it all around us today – we’re no longer willing to follow the political elite or those who take the traditional way of doing things.
“We want authenticity and we want to deal with issues that are pressing,” he says, continuing, “the challenge is to raise up leaders who will do that but are on the side of Christ.”