Greetings from the Island of Lampedusa, Italy, in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. It is also known as the Doorway to Europe and the Island of Hope, where the islanders’ compassionate welcome for refugees and migrants after so many years is now at odds with Italy’s new immigration laws.
Less than a year ago, I was asked by Sister Margaret Fielding, our Institute Leader, on behalf of the International Union of Superior Generals based in Rome, to join an inter-congregational community with two other sisters on this very island. Our mission is to be a presence to the citizens of Lampedusa in prayer and service and a compassionate, WELCOMING presence to those arriving from North Africa and Asia. These refugees are fleeing desperation, war, famine and fear, seeking a new way to live with dignity, even at the risk of losing their most precious life on the open sea.
In the words of the song “There Was a Man,” our founder “had a vision to proclaim: that the Lord has come to give us life and we are to do the same.” Each one of us is given that mandate, which is defining for a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. That is God’s dream for us and it is God’s dream for those whom we welcome, to have LIFE to the fullest- a life with hope and dignity as a child of God…as a child of Allah!
To celebrate the Year of Père Gailhac, I want to reflect on how the spirit entrusted to us by our founder lives in our current missionary presence in Lampedusa. I live here in the only religious community on this island of 6,000+ with two other sisters: Sister Ausilia (a Salesian Sister of St. John Bosco) and Sister Paola (a Sister of Charity of St. Giovanna Antida Thouret), both of whom are Italian. We have very different personalities, talents and gifts that we bring and offer for the same mission!
The following is an observation by a married couple from Taizé, France, who came for a week to experience what we do with the multiple daily arrivals at the dock. (Note that the Italian word for “dock” is “molo.”)
“When my husband and I arrived at the ‘Molo,’ the police were not nice, neither with the young volunteers nor with the migrants. They raised their voices to hurry things up. The atmosphere was not nice. And then you sisters arrived. Something changed. You are from the generation of their mothers or grandmothers. Your presence calmed them and your natural authority and kindness required respect.”
When Sisters Ausilia, Paola and I read this, we conversed about what we want our presence at the “Molo” to reflect: gentleness, concern, human warmth, respect for the dignity of all: the migrants and their children (our brothers and sisters), our collaborators at the “Molo,” as well as the police and coast guards who operate there. It is expressed in concrete gestures.
This morning we went to see some of the migrants off on the ship that would take them to Sicily to be processed by immigration before, hopefully, being given permission to stay. In an October 3rd testimonial, one survivor of the many tragedies that occur in Lampedusa said: “I was able to stay with a family in Europe. I studied and received two degrees at a University in Italy…and, like so many others, I found a new way to live! …All because you welcomed us.”
To see the refugees who danced and clapped and some who, as soon as they set foot on solid ground, knelt to kiss it and bless it…this is to know that the HEART OF GOD beats at the dock in Lampedusa. Please pray for the newly arrived and for us who are here to greet them.