In light of the massive refugee crisis in Europe, Pope Francis announced Sunday that he will give temporary housing in the Vatican to at least two refugee families and asked that every European parish, monastery, and shrine do the same.
The pontiff said the two parish churches contained within the walls of the Vatican city-state, St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Anne’s, will welcome at least one refugee family each.
“Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing war, death, and hunger, who are on their way toward life’s hope, the Gospel calls us to be near to the smallest and abandoned,” the pontiff said.
Francis’ announcement came in remarks to pilgrims and tourists gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly Angelus prayer.
Thousands of migrants and refugees streamed into Germany and Austria over the weekend after being stuck in Hungary for days.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 350,000 migrants arrived at the European Union’s borders between January and August this year. Some believe those estimates are low: According to Eurostat, 662,000 people applied for asylum in the EU in 2014.
That was almost 200,000 more than the year before, and double the number in 2011.
The numbers are growing exponentially from month to month. More than 100,000 people, mostly from Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, arrived in precarious boats and rubber dinghies to European shores in July alone.
Francis’ appeal comes only days after a poignant photo of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy fleeing the war with his family washed up on a beach in Turkey, caused an outcry around the world.
Observers of the migration crisis believe the picture could be a turning point; since its publication, thousands of Europeans have opened their homes to refugees until they can be resettled.
More than 10,000 people marched in France Saturday to demand that the government do more. More than 11,000 Icelanders opened their homes after the national government announced it had places for just 50 refugees. Similar initiatives are taking place across Europe.
Francis said that the world is called to give the refugees real hope, and that simply inviting them to courage and patience is not enough.
“Hope is combative, with the tenacity of those headed to a safe destination,” Francis said.
In the run-up to a special jubilee Holy Year of Mercy set to begin Dec. 8, Francis appealed “to the parishes, religious communities, monasteries, and shrines throughout Europe to express the reality of the Gospel and accommodate a family of refugees.”
He called it “a concrete gesture in preparation for the Holy Year.”
Francis also cited Blessed Mother Teresa, the European-born nun who cared for the poorest in India. On the day after the anniversary of her death, Francis said she gave witness with her life that “the Mercy of God is recognized through our works.”
In practice, the pope’s appeal means that more than 300 refugee families could find shelter in Rome, given the number of churches in the city. France has an estimated 16,000 parishes up and down the country, Italy has 26,000, Germany has 11,000, and Spain has 22,859.
Those numbers increase dramatically when monasteries, religious communities, and shrines are included.
The families that will be relocated in the Vatican haven’t been chosen yet. According to a Vatican spokesman, the officials who administer the two churches will begin working on the plan Monday.
The spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, also said that Francis’ appeal isn’t directed to only priests or nuns, but to the whole parish community, so it will be everyone’s responsibility to welcome the refugees.
European bishops will discuss soon the pope’s urging every parish to take in refugees, an Italian cardinal said.
“The European and Italian church is ready to mobilize to receive” refugees, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco told Vatican Radio. The cardinal is a longtime leader of the Italian bishops’ conference and is an official of the European bishops conference.
“Yes, surely there will be a prompt response,” Bagnasco said. “We will talk about it next week, when the heads of European bishops conferences meet in Jerusalem” for an annual gathering, the cardinal said.
The pope, himself the child of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has been outspoken in his appeal to protect migrants and refugees since early in his pontificate.
The first trip he made was to Lampedusa, an Italian island that’s an arrival point for many people taking the journey across the Mediterranean, running from war, hunger, and religious persecution in Africa and the Middle East.
Last June, during his weekly audience, Francis called for the international community to do more, praised those who help refugees, and criticized those who fail to do so: “I invite everyone to ask forgiveness for those persons and institutions that close the doors on these people who are searching for family, that are searching for safety.”
Francis has chosen mercy as the overarching theme of his papacy. Practicing what he preaches, he has made free showers at the Vatican available to Rome’s homeless and has barbers available for haircuts for the needy, among other initiatives.