The Mediterranean:

A bridge of hope between the land of departure and arrival

Mediterranean cemetery. Mediterranean cradle of civilization. Mediterranean space of interaction between peoples and cultures… there are various possible identities that this geographic area can take on, each strategic and relevant from various points of view, from the geopolitical to the pastoral.

From September 17th to 24th, 2023, in Marseille, an important event titled Rencontres Méditerranéennes “Encounters of the Mediterranean. Marseille: mosaic of hope” took place. It was the third event, after those in Bari (2020) and Florence (2022), which united the bishops of the dioceses on the border of the Mediterranean and was characterized in the final days also by the presence of Pope Francis.

The Mediterranean returns to the center of the Church’s reflection, but it is always in the heart of the Pope, continually concerned for the many innocent victims who see their dream of a better future for themselves and their loved ones extinguished in this sea.

In this hinge connecting the African continent to Europe, an international match is being played, involving world powers driven by geopolitical and economic interests. The victims of these interests are the men, women, and children who get treated as numbers and used solely for electoral purposes. It is a significant economic business, managed by the Libyan mafia and financed by European countries who are more concerned about their safety than fighting injustice.

The Mediterranean will continue to be “an open-air cemetery”, as Pope Francis defined it if new economic and political logistics are not grafted, aiming to restore stability to Sub-Saharan African countries and to create legal and protected entry routes into Europe. It is, therefore, about restoring to this sea its original vocation of interaction and dialogue between peoples and cultures, a bridge to Europe full of hope born from solidified policies and projects on welcoming migrants.

From Marseille, defined by the Pope as the “smile of the Mediterranean” and “capital of the integration of peoples”, a path for conversion and action has been relaunched also for the Church, not only for those at the shores of the Mediterranean but for all those who work on the ground serving migrants and refugees.

Starting from the characteristics of the city of Marseille, Pope Francis proposed three images to describe the style he expects from his church: the sea, the port, the lighthouse.

Also, in light of the first Mediterranean conference in Bari, a socio-pastoral action based on a triple presence, already present in the works of Saint John Baptist Scalabrini, who at the end of the 19th century asked his missionaries to become “migrants with migrants”, through a presence at the departure ports, on the ships, and at the arrival ports, has been identified.

This triple action is particularly useful for the entire Europe-Africa region to redefine and update its socio-pastoral action according to the three directions which combine the dynamics of migration and the contexts in which they occur: in Africa where migrants depart, in the areas bordering the Mediterranean for transit, in Europe for arrival.

Having a “pastoral” presence in Africa that reflects the direction of departure implies, in my opinion, the application of a model of mobile presence, capable of quickly adapting to the continuous developments of migration routes.

From Africa, emigration occurs due to a combination of factors (wars, poverty, overpopulation, climate change), often related to each other. The geopolitical conditions in Africa are such that it is absolutely not possible to categorize migrants in a single typology, as there are outright refugees, economic migrants, internally displaced persons, and lastly climate migrants.

Only in the Sahel region (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea) various critical issues are concentrated: desertification, armed conflicts, poverty, and terrorist attacks. Natural or induced climate crises and the political instability of the area generate significant movements of people, including the so-called “environmental migrants”, who have been the subject of increasing scientific interest for several years now because they still do not have legal recognition, which would provide them with international protection. From a climate perspective, indeed, there are various causes that force entire peoples to emigrate: the desertification and drought of territories (not least of all in Syria!), the rise in sea levels, the change of ecosystems for animals, plants, and biodiversity. If we add to these groups those fleeing from wars, persecutions, pressures dictated by increases in poverty and demographic isolation, we understand that the phenomenon of migration in this region is very broad. As we have learned from scientific studies, however, most of those who leave their lands remain within the African continent, often seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Another, but not less important, factor is the unstable condition of many Sub-Saharan African countries, such as Niger – recently at the center of international interests with an intervention by the United States, China, and Russia, and with France deciding to withdraw its troops -, Tunisia, Nigeria, and the other ECOWAS States (Economic Community of West African States).

What does it mean to become “migrants with migrants” in this socio-political context? What kind of socio-pastoral presence in a reality marked by such strong human mobility? In my opinion, two elements should characterize this: mobility and humanitarian action. The former implies a presence that, metaphorically, can be described as “in the tent” rather than the house, with a light and fluid structure continuously reformulating according to the direction of movements. This presence knows vulnerability and uncertainty, characteristics of migration itself.

Humanitarian action, on the other hand, is characterized by a presence in places and contexts where social, rather than pastoral, assistance is required.

A “more stable” variant to this first fluid presence could be organized action in African countries, particularly Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt. In these lands, most migrants who seek to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe concentrate and socialize in their different groups: from climate migrants to refugees to economic migrants. Everyone, from this point of the journey onwards, looks for a passage by land (Western route or Balkan route) or by sea to enter into Europe.

This is the second directive: transit. Being present in the Mediterranean region is itself a great challenge because it requires a presence with different competencies from the strictly pastoral presence typical of parishes or linguistic-cultural missions in Europe. Various models can be employed: from increased pastoral attention in the ports of coastal cities – Marseille is one of these -, to collaborations supporting local episcopal conferences, interested in training teams for the organization and management of pastoral care in human mobility, responding to the Pope’s call in Marseille for more synergistic work “evaluating the opportunity for an ecclesial conference of the Mediterranean”. Equally important is the diplomatic work for the establishment of humanitarian corridors that ensure legal and protected entry for those wishing to reach Europe.

The last directive is arrival, which geographically corresponds to the countries of Central Europe, called to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate migrants, of whatever type they may be. However, the difficulty of European countries, increasingly led by governments opposed to welcoming migrants, in reaching a unanimous decision on migration in a positive and not alarmist way, is evident. The challenges in Europe are varied: from legal work to ensure protection for climate migrants, to management and redistribution among European countries of asylum seekers, to labor insertion programs for economic migrants, to prevent them, due to their precariousness and unemployment, from being exploited by organized crime and fueling the criminal activity of human trafficking.

A more concrete socio-pastoral action in Europe should be redefined starting from these urgencies: the establishment of welcoming ecclesial communities, through intercultural and interreligious pastoral care; interdisciplinary action in the field of advocacy and international legal bodies; a constant and dedicated investment in training new generations, as a tool to break down prejudice, avoid fundamentalism, and build pathways of peace among peoples.

Therefore, a reformulation of European pastoral dynamics is needed in light of the specificity and the new challenges that human mobility presents. Additionally, new professional profilesare needed that can act diversely in these areas of action.

Pope Francis concluded his message in Marseille speaking of the challenge of a “Mediterranean theology”. Thinking about the principle three directives (departure, transit, and arrival), I believe these can be considered as the theological categories from which to develop a theology of the Mediterranean, an firm theology, precisely, that reinterprets the stages of the journey of migrant humanity in the light of the hope of liberation from modern slavery, where God is the one who listens to the sorrowful cry of his people, and every man and woman that a migrant meets along their journey is the instrument to reach the new promised land.

Antonio Grasso, cs

Translated by Gabriel Biondo, intern at SIMI