Nine years ago, Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, an island symbolizing the plight of migrants in the Mediterranean. In that memorable first trip of his Pontificate, the Pope emphasized the decisive issue of fraternity. His warnings appear even more urgent today in a world disfigured by wars, as we struggle to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are events of this Pontificate, and choices made by Pope Francis, that, as the years go by, take on ever greater force, as well as a dimension that, in some cases, it would be no exaggeration to call prophetic.
On 8 July, nine years ago, a few months after the beginning of his Petrine ministry, the Holy Father made his first Apostolic Journey, when he travelled to Lampedusa. The trip was also a message because in those few hours spent on the island symbolizing the drama of migrants in the Mediterranean, Pope Francis testified with gestures and signs what he meant by the “Church that goes forth”.
The Pope showed why we must start, concretely and not metaphorically, from the “existential peripheries” if we are interested in building a more just and supportive world and a humanity reconciled with itself.
As we remember that visit, we still carry the indelible memory of its images: the Pope celebrating Mass on an altar made out of migrant barges, the wreath of flowers thrown into the sea from a boat, his embrace of young people who survived those journeys called journeys of hope, but which so many times, unfortunately, turn into journeys of despair.
The heart of the visit was thus clearly the plight of migrants. Pope Francis, however, on that occasion, delivered a homily that broadened his gaze, moving from that island and what it meant at that moment. That homily today is striking to re-read — and even more to re-listen to — in light of what has been happening in recent months in Ukraine under Russian attack, as well as in every more or less remote corner of the Earth where wars unleash — release from shackles — that Cain-like spirit of killing, instead of the spirit of peace.
In that homily, the Pope offered his personal meditation on the dialogue the Lord has with Cain immediately after the killing of his brother Abel. God asks the question that today and always should resound as a warning to each of us, “Cain, where is your brother?”
Six times Pope Francis repeated that piercing question, “Where is your brother?” Your migrant brother, your brother prostrated by poverty, your brother crushed by war. In the years since that trip, the Pope has returned numerous times to the decisive antinomy of brotherhood-fraternity.
On 13 February 2017, during a Mass at his Casa Santa Marta residence, speaking once again about Cain and Abel, the Pope uttered strong words of condemnation for those who decide that “a piece of land is more important than the bond of fraternity.” Pope Francis warned those powerful people of the earth who dare to say, “I care about this piece of land; this other, if the bomb falls and kills two hundred children, it is not my fault: it is the bomb’s fault.”
The Pope of Fratelli Tutti, of the Abu Dhabi Document on Human Fraternity and Living Together, the Bishop of Rome who took the name Francis, warns that this very struggle between brotherhood and fratricide is the issue of the issues of our time. As the years go by, he tragically sees the grim outline of what he calls the “Third World War fought piecemeal,” becoming more and more defined. And what is this, if not also a “World Fratricide in pieces,” for every war carries within it precisely that evil root that prompts Cain to kill his brother and then to respond scornfully to God who asks him about it, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
In the Extraordinary Urbi et Orbi of March 27, 2020 in an empty St. Peter’s Square, the Pope stated that the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, uncovered “once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.”
It makes an impression to juxtapose these words with the bitter and anguished ones he uttered at the Urbi et Orbi of Easter of 2022. “It was time to come out of the tunnel together, hand in hand,” he emphasized referring to Covid-19, “we are showing that we do not yet have within us the spirit of Jesus but the spirit of Cain, who saw Abel not as a brother, but as a rival, and thought about how to eliminate him.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly argued that one comes out of a crisis better or worse, never the same. Today, humanity is confronting one of the deepest and most multi-layered crises it has faced. To come out better, therefore, we must reverse course, the Pope urges us, moving away from the powerful magnet of Cain and orienting the compass of our lives decisively toward the north star of fraternity.
By Alessandro Gisotti