There is a “painful and deafening cry” that arises from the death of innocents, which “cannot leave us indifferent”, the Pope wrote in a letter to Archbishop Alessandro Damiano of Agrigento, as he “returned” to Lampedusa 10 years after his visit to the Sicilian island, which he had chosen as the destination for his first Apostolic Journey some four months after his election. He returned to the homily he had delivered on 8 July 2013, repeating those same three questions he had asked then and that continue to burn intensely today.
In the letter to Archbishop Damiano, Pope Francis summed up and reproposed the first two questions, taken from the Bible, because the “occurrence of such inhuman disasters must utterly shake consciences. God still asks us: ‘Adam, where are you? Where is your brother?’”. Jesus answered these two questions with the new commandment of one love, but divided into two directions: “vertical” and “horizontal”.
They are questions addressed to those who have “lost their bearings”, as the Pope said 10 years ago. At that time, he had also added a third question, asking how many of us had cried over all those deaths at sea. In other words, whether we still had the gift of tears or if the “globalisation of indifference” had withered our hearts. And he prayed to God “for the grace to weep” and ask forgiveness for our “deadened” hearts, a result of our material well-being. In that homily, the Holy Father had confided that the thought of all the dead in the Mediterranean Sea had constantly come back to him: “like a painful thorn in my heart”. That thorn had spurred him to make a move and to choose Lampedusa as the first of his over 40 Apostolic Journeys. Speaking to a group of artists on 27 May, the Pope used the same imagery of a thorn in our hearts: the words of “authors helped me to understand myself, the world and my people, but also to understand more profoundly the human heart [...] Literature is like a thorn in the heart; it moves us to contemplation and sets us on a journey”. Words and stories can become thorns, voices that reawaken consciences and spur us into action, a responsibility that falls not just to artists, but to all who work in communication. It is also, he stressed in his letter to Archbishop Damiano, the responsibility of the Church, who must come out of herself in order to be truly prophetic.
It is a responsibility which is even more urgent today. Indeed, 10 years later we can say that the world has changed, the winds of global politics have shifted towards tendencies of greater closure rather than welcome. There was a global pandemic, and the “pieces” of the third world war appear to have welded. Those questions remain, and they are heavier and more scalding. Perhaps we should add a fourth one: have we recovered the capacity “to weep and have compassion towards others?”. Or have indifference and fear completely deadened our hearts?