I rarely write a “Joan’s Rome” column over the weekend and this weekend was no exception. However, the news from Lesbos about the papal visit to a refugee camp on that Greek island, including the papal in-flight interview with media, was so important that I did take some time to post stories on Facebook (facebook.com(joan.lewis.10420).

The in-flight conversation was important enough that I am including it in today’s column. There was other news yesterday, including the Regina Coeli (see below) and a beautiful papal Mass yesterday in St. Peter’s Basilica during which the Pope ordained 11 new priests, including twin brothers from Italy.


Sunday, after reciting the Regina Coeli with the faithful in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis spoke movingly of his lightning quick trip the day before to the Greek island of Lesbos to visit a refugee center. He said, “I brought the solidarity of the Church to the refugees and to the Greek people,” He noted that, “Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Hieronymous of Athens and of All Greece were with me to signify the unity in charity of all the disciples of the Lord.”

The Holy Father thanked all who accompanied him and who had helped arrange this trip in a very quick fashion, and especially thanked everyone who had prayed for the visit. He explained that the three religious leaders visited with more than 300 refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, North Africa and other parts of the world. “So many of them were children!” the Pope exclaimed. He noted, with great emotion, how some of the children had witnessed the deaths of parents or companions. “I saw so much sorrow!” (photo news.va)


After a slight pause, Francis said he had a special story to tell the faithful. He then recounted the case of a young Muslim man with two young children whose Christian fiancée was killed by terrorists because she would not deny Christ and renounce her faith. “She is a martyr!” the Pope stated.

(Saturday, after his five-hour visit, Pope Francis invited three Muslim refugee families to accompany him on the plane to Rome. He later told the media on the plane that no Christian families were selected as none had their documents in order, speaking of the papers needed to legally exit Greece and legally enter Italy.

(Sunday evening, ANSA news agency reported that the refugees who were at risk of deportation from the Greek island of Lesbos that Pope Francis brought back to Italy had their first Italian class on April 17. The first day of the three Syrian families hosted by Sant’Egidio Community was spent trying to adjust to the new environment. On Sunday evening a celebratory dinner was held in the Trastevere neighborhood for the six adults, four children and two adolescents. Sant’Egidio staff said all have warmly thanked Pope Francis who brought them back to Rome from Lesbos Saturday on the papal plane.)


(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis gave a 30-minute press conference on the flight back from Lesbos to Rome on Saturday, sharing thoughts on a wide range of subjects including his opinion regarding the deal between the EU and Turkey, his meeting with Bernie Sanders, the closure of European borders and his recent apostolic exhortation.

The Pope began his traditional conversation with journalists aboard the papal plane reflecting on the fact that the visit to Lesbos had had a very strong emotional impact on him. Asked what he thinks about the recent deal between Brussels and Ankara, the Pope highlighted the fact that his visit to Lesbos was undertaken in a purely humanitarian spirit.


Regarding the fact that he has brought three refugee families back to Rome with him, he said the decision was the fruit of a ‘last-minute’ inspiration one of his collaborators had a week ago.

“Everything was arranged according to the rules. They have their documents. The Holy See, the Greek government and the Italian government have checked everything. They have been welcomed by the Vatican and with the collaboration of the Saint Egidio community they will be searching for work” he said.

Asked about a reported meeting on Saturday morning in the Vatican with the American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis acknowledged it had taken place but specified that it had been a purely ‘polite’ encounter.

“This morning when I was leaving Senator Sanders was there. He had come to participate in the ‘Centesimus Annus’ Conference and greeted me politely together with his wife (…) It is called ‘manners’ and has nothing to do with politics” he said.

Another journalist asked why the three families of refugees chosen to be brought back to the Vatican are all Muslim. The Pope said the choice was not between Christians and Muslims and that those who were selected all had their papers in order.

One journalist asked the Pope whether he thinks that the closing of European borders marks the end of a European dream. Francis said that while he understands there are some governments and peoples who are afraid, he said he believes we have the responsibility of welcome.

“I have always said that building walls is not a solution. We saw walls during the last century and they did not resolve anything. We must build bridges. Bridges are built with intelligence, with dialogue, with integration” he said.

The Pope expressed his belief that Europe must urgently implement policies that welcome people, integrate them with work, create policies that foresee growth and a push forward a reform of the economy.

“All these things – he said – are bridges”, and he highlighted the suffering and pain witnessed during his visit to the camp in Lesbos.

The children there, he said, had given him drawings (which he showed those present) in which they asked for peace and expressed their pain and fear after having seen terrible things like other children drowning.

Asked whether Europe can open its arms to all the misery in the world the Pope reflected on the many faces of human suffering. He mentioned war and hunger, both of these – he said – an effect of the exploitation of the planet. He spoke of deforestation and of trafficking and of how fighting factions in Syria have been armed by others.

“I would invite the producers of arms to spend a day in the camp (in Lesbos): I believe that would be good” he said.

Turning to the Pope’s recently released Apostolic Exhortation on the family, one journalist asked for clarification saying there are discussions going on between those who maintain that nothing has changed when it comes to the question of access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried while others argue that much has changed on this front.

In his reply, Pope Francis said a lot has changed but he urged the journalists to read the presentation made by Cardinal Schonborn, describing him as a great theologian who was also secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and whom, he said, has a thorough knowledge of the faith.

“The answer to your question, he declared, is contained in that presentation.”

Pope Francis confessed that he was somewhat annoyed and saddened by the media’s fixation during and after the Synod  on the single issue of whether the divorced and remarried would be allowed to take communion.

He said the media didn’t realize that this was not the important question and they fail to notice that the family unit, the cornerstone of our society throughout the world, is in a state of crisis.

“They don’t realize, he went on, that young people don’t want to marry, that the falling birthrate in Europe should make us weep, that there is a lack of jobs, there are fathers and mothers taking on two jobs and children are growing up on their own without having their parents around”.


(Vatican Radio) Half a century on from the first meeting between a Pope and an Orthodox Patriarch, one of the frequently asked questions at the end of this visit to Turkey is how long will it take before the two Churches are reunited again? A second question that’s been on everyone’s lips in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation is what difference will this trip make to the interreligious tensions that continue to inflame conflicts in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, to cite just those places that have been mentioned by name over the past three days. Pope Francis responded to both these questions during a lengthy press conference on the plane back to Rome.

He also walked down between the seats shaking all of our hands with a smile, a joke, a word of thanks for the job that we do.

Pope Francis - Turkey - on plane

On the ecumenical front, he noted that not all Catholics and Orthodox are happy with the progress that’s been made, but he said the work of convincing the more conservative factions must continue with patience and humility. While remaining sceptical that theologians will announce a breakthrough in the dialogue any time soon, the Pope also reiterated his firm conviction that Christians must continue with the daily practise of praying, working and teaching together. No-one is putting a timeframe on the reconciliation of East and Western Christianity, but there is hope that a synod of leaders from around the Orthodox world, planned for 2016 (with Catholic observers possibly in attendance) will help to speed up this urgent ecumenical journey.

On the interfaith front, the Pope spoke warmly of his meeting at the Diyanet in Ankara with Muslim leaders, saying we need to take a step forward in the quality of conversations between people of different religious beliefs. He said he told Turkish president Erdogan that leaders must clearly condemn all terrorist violence that has nothing to do with the Koran, which he called “a book of peace”.  He also mentioned his visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque where he said he prayed for peace in Turkey and beyond. Both the encounter with the Grand Mufti in his place of prayer and his tour of the ancient Hagia Sophia museum, while not novelties in themselves, will surely encourage trust and open doors to understanding the pain of each other’s historical memories.

The Pope also talked about a question that surprisingly hasn’t been under the spotlight – next year’s centenary of the Armenian genocide in which a million and a half people died at the hands of the Ottoman forces. While Turkey has long  denied this historical tragedy, the Pope noted that President Erdogan has recently mentioned the event, saying any such attempts to reach out are positive, however small they may be.

Finally, as we’ve so often seen, Pope Francis’ thoughts at the end of this Turkish trip were with the refugees – those who rarely make news headlines, but with whom he had a last brief encounter before leaving Istanbul. And that’s what this visit was really all about: not grand political gestures or historical religious agreements, but rather about personal encounters and small signs of hope through which we witness to the human values at the heart of our different faiths. (Philippa Hitchens, Vatican Radio – Photo from news.va)