What elevated Lampedusa into iconic status wasn’t just its gripping human drama, but the fact that an electric new pope chose the spot for his first trip outside Rome on July 8, 2013. The visit was just four and a half hours long, but rarely has a mere half-day in the life of a papacy been so replete with both symbolism and substance.
Upon his arrival, Francis threw a wreath into the sea to commemorate the thousands of migrants and refugees who’ve died trying to make the crossing over the Mediterranean in rickety, overcrowded, unsafe boats. One estimate is that some 20,000 people have drowned in the sea over the past decade.
Francis said his open-air Mass on the same field where the migrants were detained, near what’s known locally as the “boast cemetery” because of the profusion of hulks of the boats those new arrivals had taken to get there. His altar, actually, was formed by one of those boats pained for the occasion. The pope condemned what he called a “globalization of indifference” to the fate of people fleeing violence and poverty, and spent time talking, hugging and praying with several of them.
He would go on to say that seeing images of those migrants and refugees had been like a “thorn in his heart,” compelling him to go.
Since that time, Francis has referenced Lampedusa over and over again, so much so that it’s become a sort of synecdoche for his entire social and evangelical agenda. He celebrates a Mass each year to commemorate the visit, as his did yesterday, among things recalling a moment when he was speaking with an Ethiopian refugee and his interpreter left out some of the more gut-wrenching details. Later, at a reception, an Ethiopian woman told him that what the interpreter had said “isn’t a quarter of the torture and suffering they’ve experienced.”