Exclusive – Pope Francis: “We are all immigrants”

In a rare, exclusive interview, Pope Francis tells street paper vendor Antonio Minnini why the world must open its doors to people in need – and give a hand up

Pope Francis has always had a special connection to those living on the street and living in poverty. On his doorstep in Rome, under the colonnade of St Peter’s Square, he has organised shower facilities and a barber shop for rough sleepers. He organised a special visit to the Sistine Chapel for homeless people – and, during the extreme cold snap at the start of this year when six homeless people died of exposure within 48 hours, he donated sleeping bags and gloves to shelters. He also ordered that the doors of the Vatican and the church of San Callisto in Rome’s Trastevere district be opened to offer a shelter where they could sleep and eat. This spring he plans to hold a special Papal Blessing at the Vatican with Rome’s homeless in the front row.

As he sits down for an interview with Antonio Mininni, a vendor for Italian street paper Scarp de’ tenis, he explains why Europe must open its doors to refugees, why integration is all-important today more than ever – and why it is vital to give a hand up rather than a handout.

Antonio Mininni: When you meet someone exper-iencing homelessness, what’s the first thing you say?

Pope Francis: “Hello, how are you?” Sometimes we only exchange a few words, other times we are able to build rapport and I’m able to listen to fascinating stories: “When I was studying at college…” or “I once knew a really good priest…” People who live on the streets can tell immediately if there’s genuine interest from the person speaking to them or if it’s only out of – I don’t want to call it compassion – it’s more like penitence. Some people see a homeless person just as another person, others treat them as if they were a dog. If you look at someone differently, of course they realise it.

In the Vatican, there is a famous story of a homeless man, of Polish origin, who could normally be found at the Piazza Risorgimento in Rome. He never spoke to anyone, not even the Caritas [Catholic charity] volunteers who would bring him a hot meal in the evening. Only after a long time were they able to learn his story: “I am a priest, I know your Pope well; we studied together at the seminary.” These words eventually reached Saint John Paul II, who heard the name and confirmed they had been at the seminary together. He wanted to meet this man. They embraced after 40 years apart, and after an audience the Pope asked him to hear his confession – this priest who had once been his friend. Afterwards, he said to the Pope: “Now it’s your turn.” And the Pope heard his confession.

Throwing money at someone without looking at them is not a Christian gesture

Thanks to the deeds of the volunteer, a kind look, a hot meal and some words of comfort, this man was able to resume the path to a life like his old one, eventually working as the chaplain of a hospital. The Pope helped him, certainly, perhaps this counts as a ‘miracle’ but it’s also an example to remember grand dignity that the homeless possess. When I was archbishop of Buenos Aires, a homeless couple and a family lived under the archway to our entrance hall, between the pavement and the grilles. I met them every morning when I went out. I always said hello, and we’d exchange a few words. It never occurred to me to chase them away. Somebody once said to me: “They are a stain on our Church.” But to me those words were the stain. I think one must treat all people with humanity, not as if they owe you a debt and not as if they were impoverished dogs.

AM: Many wonder if they should give to those who beg for help on the street. What would you answer?

PF: There are many ways to justify one’s actions when not giving alms. “But why should I? If I give him money he’ll just spend it on a glass of wine.” If a glass of wine is his only happiness in life, then so be it. Ask yourself instead what you do, when you’re alone. What secret ‘happiness’ do you pursue? Or, when you compare yourself to him, you see yourself as more fortunate, with a house, a spouse, a family, and so you find yourself saying: “Let the rest of you worry about him!”

It is always right to give help. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s good to just throw some coins in the direction of a beggar. What matters more is a good deed, helping someone who asks you for help, looking in their eyes and touching their hands. Throwing money at someone without looking at them is not a Christian gesture.

AM: On several occasions you’ve spoken in defence of migrants seeking asylum and charity. But many wonder if it is really necessary to accommodate everyone or whether it is necessary to set limits.

PF: Those arriving in Europe now are fleeing from war or famine. And we are in some ways responsible because we strip their lands for profit but we don’t make any investments from which the locals can benefit. They have the right to emigrate and they have the right to be sheltered, to be helped. But this is something we must do with Christian virtue, a virtue that must be guided by wisdom. This means taking in all those that we are able to take in. This has first to do with numbers. But more importantly we must reflect upon the ways in which we admit people because to welcome means to integrate with. This is the most difficult aspect, and if migrants don’t integrate then they become segregated. I am often reminded of the Zaventem incident [the suicide bombings at the airport and metro station in Brussels]. These were Belgian youths, yes, children of migrants who had grown up in a quarter of the city that resembled a ghetto.

In Buenos Aires, in the days of the military dictatorship, we looked to Sweden as a positive example

And what does it mean to integrate? From Lesbos, 13 people came to Italy with me. By their second day here, thanks to the community of Sant’Egidio, all the children were already attending school. In almost no time the refugees found places to live, the adults were enrolled in courses to learn Italian and to find work. Certainly, it is easier for children: they go to local schools and in a few months can speak better Italian than I can. The men looked for work, and they found it. So ‘to integrate’ means to enter into the local way of life, respecting the local culture but also respecting and maintaining one’s own heritage and cultural richness. It is a difficult task.

I went to school with Jewish immigrants from Russia, Syrian and Lebanese Muslims, Turks. We were a brotherhood

In Buenos Aires, in the days of the military dictatorship, we looked to Sweden as a positive example. Today they have a population of nine million but 890,000 are ‘new Swedish’ – migrants, or the children of migrants, who have integrated. The Swedish minister for culture, Alice Bah Kuhnke, is the daughter of a Swedish mother and a father of Gambian origin. This is a wonderful example of integration. Of course even now there are difficulties in Sweden: there are many requests for citizenship and they are trying to figure out what to do as there is not a place for everyone. Admitting, receiving, welcoming and immediately integrating – that is what we are often missing out. Every country must therefore realise how many people it is able to accommodate. You cannot shelter people without the possibility of integration.

AM: Your father’s parents, with their son, crossed the ocean to Argentina. What was it like growing up the child of an immigrant?

PF: In Argentina we are all immigrants. That is why interfaith dialogue is the norm. I went to school with Jewish immigrants who had mostly come from Russia, as well as Syrian and Lebanese Muslims, or Turks with passports from the Ottoman Empire. We were a brotherhood. There were few people of indigenous origin. For the most part we were originally Italian, Spanish, Polish, Middle Eastern, Russian, German, Croat, Slovenian… In the last two centuries migration has been a far-reaching phenomenon. My father was in his 20s when he arrived in Argentina, and he worked in the Bank of Italia. He was married there.

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AM: What do you miss most about Buenos Aires? Your friends, visits to the villa miseria [shanty towns in Argentina], the football?

PF: There is only one thing I really miss: the ability to go out and walk around on my own. I like visiting different parishes and meeting new people. I don’t particularly experience nostalgia. Instead I’ll tell you another anecdote: my grandparents and my father had originally planned to leave for Argentina at the end of 1928. They had tickets on the Princess Mafalda – the ship which then sank off the coast of Brazil. They had not managed to sell their possessions in time, so instead changed their tickets for places on the Julius Caesar for February 1, 1929. That is why I am here today.

I don’t particularly experience nostalgia but there is only one thing I really miss: the ability to go out and walk around on my own

AM: What does a person need when they have ended up on the street?

PF: They need, essentially, the same thing as refugees: integration. Certainly it isn’t simple to reintegrate into society, as everyone has their own past to reconcile. That is why we must interact with everyone on a personal level, finding unique ways to help, to give them a hand.

AM: You often say that the poorest among us can change the world. But it is difficult to foster solidarity where there is also poverty. What do you think?

PF: I’d like to refer to my experiences in Buenos Aires. In the slums there is more solidarity than in the central districts. In the villa miseria there are many problems but often the poor are more loyal to one another because they feel that they need each other. I have encountered more selfishness in the other districts – I wouldn’t call them wealthy – but there is a brotherhood amongst those who live in the poorest quarters and in the slums that you don’t see in other areas, even though life there is more complicated and difficult. For example, in the slums, drug use is more evident but only because in the other districts it is kept secret and hidden.

Transcribed by Stefano Lampertico, translated by Eleanor Susan Lim. Courtesy of Scarp de’ tenis / INSP.ngo

BLESSED ARE THEE STREET PAPERS

This is not the first time His Holiness has welcomed street papers to the Vatican. In 2015 vendor Marc, who sold Straatnieuws magazine in Utrecht, spoke to Pope Francis for a Big Issue cover feature (above). Antonio Mininni, who carried out this week’s interview, sold Milan street paper Scarp de’ tenis for 20 years, and now manages vendors. “I owe so much to Scarp de’ tenis, thanks to it I have begun to live again. I told his Holiness my story. It is an encounter I will always carry in my heart.”