When faced with the challenges of our time, we are often tempted to abandon our dream of freedom, shut ourselves off and seek human security and reassuring routine. Yet this withdrawnness is “a sign of defeat”. It increases our fear of those unknown to us and can lead us to “refuse to encounter the other and raise barriers to defend ourselves”.
This was the message of Pope Francis on February 15 when he opened a meeting in Sacrofano, outside Rome, organised by the Migrantes Foundation of the Italian Episcopal Conference, the Italian Caritas, and Astalli Centre for Refugees. The theme of the three-day meeting was ‘Free from fear’.
Five days earlier, in Malta we celebrated the feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck – a celebration that promotes an attitude of openness towards the ‘other’ who is different.
The celebration is significant for two main reasons:
Firstly, because St Paul and his fellow prisoners landed on our shores as strangers. Paul of Tarsus was so different from our ancestors that they struggled to figure out how to approach him. They welcomed him and built a fire for him but could not fit him into their mental box!
When a viper jumped out of the heat and latched itself on his hand, they mumbled among themselves that he was a murderer. Once he shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects, they changed their minds and said he was a god. To their surprise, he was none of these.
Francis reminds us that Christ comes to us ‘with his clothing in rags, his feet dirty, his face disfigured, his body wounded, unable to speak our language’. He adds that very often ‘our eyes find it hard to recognise him’
Secondly, because the feast of the St Paul’s Shipwreck takes us back to that moment in history when our people befriended the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the Gospel that reveals God as boundless love and urges us to love others as He loves us. For this reason, the celebration on February 10 reminds us to welcome and encounter outsiders, those who are marginalised and different from us.
In Sacrofano, Pope Francis acknowledged that fear of the ‘other’ is legitimate. The son of immigrants himself, he repeated what he had said last year on the occasion of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees: “It is not easy to enter into another culture, to put oneself in the shoes of people so different from us, and to understand their thoughts and experiences.”
Nevertheless, Francis calls upon everyone to overcome this fear. For Christians, this call is even more powerful because as the Pope said, “the encounter with the other is also an encounter with Christ. He himself said so.”
In line with the Gospel and with the vivid image of a prisoner soaking wet on our shores, Francis reminds us that Christ comes to us “with his clothing in rags, his feet dirty, his face disfigured, his body wounded, unable to speak our language”. He adds that very often “our eyes find it hard to recognise him.”
For the second consecutive year, the Faculty of Theology is celebrating the contribution of women in the Church and society. We invite readers to join us for an evening of discussion, celebration and friendship on Thursday at 6pm in the University chapel, Msida.
Fr Kevin Schembri is a member of staff at the Faculty of Theology and the Ecclesiastical Tribunal.
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