Pope Francis visits ‘boat people’ on island of Lampedusa, between Malta and Tunisia

First visit by pontiff is seen as a statement of his desire to build a church ‘of the poor and for the poor’

Pope Francis’s first visit outside Rome is to an island seen as a meeting point between Africa and Europe. Photograph: AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca

Pope Francis’s first visit outside Rome is to an island seen as a meeting point between Africa and Europe. Photograph: AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca


In what is perhaps the clearest expression yet of his desire for a “church of the poor . . . and for the poor”, Pope Francis today visits the “boat people” island of Lampedusa, situated between Malta and Tunisia.

For his first visit outside Rome the pope has chosen an island that is a literal and metaphorical meeting point between Europe and Africa, and between affluent north and impoverished south.

Although part of Italian national territory, Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia (113km) than to Sicily (176km) and has long been a European arrival for African economic migrants who frequently attempt the crossing in inadequate and unseaworthy boats. The Italian coast guard estimates some 20,000 migrants have died attempting the crossing in the past 20 years.

When the Holy See announced the visit last week, it said the pope had been moved by the most recent of these tragedies three weeks ago, adding that the pope “intends to pray for those who have perished at sea, to visit the survivors and refugees on the island and to encourage the people of Lampedusa to appeal to the responsibility of everyone so that these brothers and sisters in extreme need may be cared for”.

The visit underlines the direction in which the pope wants to lead the Catholic Church. He is the pope who has rejected the pontifical apartment in the apostolic palace in favour of the Vatican B&B of Domus Santa Marta; who walks to appointments within the Vatican; and who gets down off the popemobile in St Peter’s Square to exchange greetings with pilgrims.

Francis is also the pope who has serious intentions about reforming the church’s governance, about creating a collegiate system of government that will involve not only the eight-cardinal privy council he has appointed but also the synod of bishops. Two events in the past few days speak loud and clear about that.

The appointment of an internal commission to investigate the affairs of the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR) – the Vatican bank – two weeks ago clearly indicated a desire for reform of the troubled institution.

That intent was underlined by the Vatican’s lack of opposition to the arrest two days later by Italian authorities of Msgr Nunzio Scarano, suspected of having used the IOR for money-laundering purposes.

In another pontificate the Holy See might have pleaded diplomatic immunity for Msgr Scarano as it so often did for former IOR president Archbishop Paul Marcinkus in the 1980s.

The pope spelled out his message again during a meeting with seminarians and novices in the Vatican on Saturday, when he cited the example of the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, someone who “had cared for the most impoverished sick”.

He added: “I really don’t like it when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model of car . . . I know that cars are necessary. But choose a more modest one. Think of how many children die of hunger . . . I would like a more missionary church . . . not so much a tranquil church but a beautiful church that goes forward.”

Today that church goes forward to Lampedusa.