Lampedusa Day 2

boats lampedusa red

One person that I met described Lampedusa as a life-raft for the migrant. A life raft as you may well know is a small craft equipped with emergency supplies which is launched from a bigger vessel when the larger ship is in danger. The island measures just over twenty square kilometers and is therefore slightly bigger than Inis Mór which is the largest island of the Aran Islands lying off the west coast of Ireland. The total area is just over nineteen square kilometers. The image of a life-raft is appropriate as most other countries or regions in southern Europe could be compared in scale to fishing boats or luxury liners. Comparatively speaking then Lampedusa is indeed a life-raft.

The island has a long history of welcome. Locals tell stories of people from Tunisia making their way to the harbour as many as twenty years ago. The locals knowing that these people had made a long journey would bring food and drink to them in the harbour. A fishing community is less concerned about security and it is more concerned with the well-being of their fellow fishermen. Some of these people used Lampedusa as a stepping stone into Europe not unlike the way many Irish people found ways to get into the United States illegally over the decades preceding 9/11.

In summary then Lampedusa has an ethic of helping those who arrive. They do not want to be hailed as heroes because as they say ‘this is just what you do’. Those who work on open seas know that while others have the luxury of arguing over what is right or wrong or who should or shouldn’t  be rescued a fisherman when he is alongside someone in the water knows that you have the choice of letting that person live or  die. Furthermore, being fully aware of the hazards of the sea, they know that no one would willingly get in a crammed makeshift boat, especially women with children, unless they were leaving behind a life that was unbearable.

In every sense then this little island is a life-raft which gives initial and limited comfort to refugees and migrants as they make their way to the larger vessel we call Europe. Each and every person who arrives lives with the hope that they will be permitted aboard.

Lampedusa takes its name from the Italian word for lamp which is lampada. A guide told me that an eleventh century source relates the story of a hermit who was the sole occupant of the island. The lantern he carried at night brought many to safety. He lived in a system of caves which lay above a safe harbour. He took time to check the origin of the ships that were arriving. Some were Christians returning from the crusades, others were North Africans who traded with Europe. He had two caves set aside for worship, one was Christian the other more suited to Muslim prayer. Depending on the ship he made ready the space appropriate to the crew. The welcome was respectful and it ran deep.

Unlike the past, the welcome of the fisherman is not the norm for those who arrive. The harbour has one wall which is a military area. This is where the refugees and migrants are landed. It is a secure area and only those with permits are admitted. Those who are fortunate enough to get into the compound can offer assistance to those who have been taken off the boats further out at sea. They speak of the fear in the eyes of those who arrive. Not sharing their language means that they cannot hear their story; not sharing their culture often means you cannot offer a tender touch or hug. The sickness of those locked below due to engine fumes, salt water and human excrement leave them dazed and forlorn; those who look after them feel that they do not do enough. Both those who are above deck and below are parched with the thirst, dehydrated and unwell. Medical examinations mean that men and women have to lift clothing which makes it embarrassing for those who are present to offer help.

Any lifeboat has limited resources and it is clear that those who arrive here are moved quite quickly from the island to other towns in Southern Italy. When I hear the story of Pope Francis’ visit to this island I hear that he had three purposes. Firstly, to stand in solidarity with refugees and immigrants. Secondly, to say thank you to the people of Lampedusa and thirdly, to pray with everyone. A fourth outcome of his visit, and maybe an unintended outcome, was to show the world and especially other European countries like Ireland the intolerable and uneven  burden that was placed on certain parts of Europe in the wake of this crisis. He used the situation to move from a language that criminalised the migrants to a language that reminded the world of their humanity. He has not wavered on this and when many died off the coast of Lampeudsa in April 2015 he said as part of his Angelus message, ‘

These are men and women like us, our brothers and sisters seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded exploited, victims of war; they are seeking a better life. They were seeking happiness…

Having heard many of the stories surrounding his visit to the island I think that in many ways Pope Francis’ visit to Lampedusa was a life-raft for him.  His visit to the island which is  seen as a life-raft for many migrants, allowed him an opportunity to give an important expression to his vision for the Church. Never in the history of the Vatican has a Papal Visit been organised in eight days. He didn’t go through the local Bishop but his intentions were made known to the local clergy. Word filtered out because staff in the airport were told a special flight was arriving from Vatican City. They figured this wasn’t to promote tourism to the Vatican Museum! There was no time to organise a grandiose altar or lectern; even seating proved to be a challenge. Some have said that he was so eager to visit the island that he had set about booking his own ticket on the internet before the Papal Household staff took him seriously. He made it clear that this was not an event for officials or dignitaries and let it be known that local bishops were to be busy in their own dioceses that day.

chalice lampedusa red

A local carpenter made a wooden chalice from a boat from which many were rescued but sadly on which three people lost their lives. The lectern from which Pope Francis asked us to  ‘beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters’ was made from boats, some of which carried migrants to their hope filled futures and others were from the timbers of boats on which many died.

The Bishop of Rome travelled to Lampedusa to show that the Church must  be a voice for the voiceless and a voice that inspires local gifts and talents for the service of others. He had just taken over the helm of the Universal Church, some might say the Church in Europe was loosing it’s course and was heading for the rocks. He got down from the heavy and awkward barque of Peter and stood among the people of the island of Lampedusa, an island that is recognised as a life-raft of opportunity for people on their way to Europe. In simple gesture of solidarity he held a lamp of opportunity before us all. This lamp casts a  light that leads a way for  members of the Church and members of the larger human family as we all seek to find a more even and secure route through the stormy waters of our contemporary world.

ambo lampedusa 1

Ps the carpenter who the chalice for the Mass made a chalice for me from the wood of one of the boats. I pray and hope that I am worthy to hold it.

Alan Hilliard 26th October 2015

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