“We are Muslims, Hindus, Copts, Evangelicals and Catholics, but we are all brothers and children of the same God who want to live in peace, integrated.” That is what Pope Francis told hundreds of asylum seekers at a center 25 miles from Rome, where he went on March 24 to draw the world's attention to the dramatic plight of refugees and migrants in Europe and elsewhere.
He spoke briefly, without text at the Holy Thursday celebration held under a tent, before kneeling down and washing the feet of 12 of them—8 men and 4 women. Eleven of them were young migrants from six countries, including four Nigerian Catholic men, three Coptic women from Eritrea (two with babies in their arms), three young Muslim men—from Syria, Pakistan and Mali—and a young Hindu man from India. The twelfth was a young Italian woman who works at the center.
“Gestures speak louder than words or images,” the 79-year old pontiff said after they had all listened to the Gospel account in which Jesus washes the feet of the apostles. “We heard of two gestures in that Gospel [story],” he told them: first, “Jesus who serves and washes the feet of the twelve, and he is the leader” and, second, “Judas who goes to the enemies of Jesus who do not want peace, and who give him money.”
“Today too there are two gestures,” the pope said. “The first, here, all together, all brothers, Muslims, Hindus, Copts, Evangelicals and Catholics, all children of the same God, who want to live in peace.” The second, “three days ago, a gesture of war, of destruction, in a city of Europe, by people who do not want to live in peace.” But behind that gesture, as behind Judas, there were others.
He recalled that “behind Judas there were those who had paid him to hand over Jesus to them.” And behind that other gesture, “there are the makers and traffickers in arms, who want war not brotherhood.”
He repeated again, “there were two gestures: Jesus washed the feet, Judas sold Jesus for money.”
Francis told the refugees, “You, we, are from different religions and cultures, but we are all children of the same Father, and brothers.” But “there are also those poor ones who buy arms to destroy brotherhood.”
Today, he told them, “When I do the same gesture as Jesus who washed the feet of the twelve, when I wash your feet, then all of us together are doing a gesture of peace. We are brothers and we want to live in peace. That’s the gesture I will do.”
Looking at them he said, “All of you have a story of so much suffering, but you also have a heart that is open, that wants brotherhood and peace.” And so, he said, “let us all together, each in their own religious language, pray to God and ask for brotherhood, peace and goodness”
Many showed signs of profound emotion as he knelt down and washed their feet, some reached down to touch him, others wept, while hundreds looked on. After washing each one’s feet, he looked up and smiled, and when he came to the women with babies in their arms, he reached up and touched the newborns.
After Mass, he thanked them for this beautiful moment, and said, "Let us remember, it is good to live together as brothers, with our cultures and traditions. And this has a name: peace and love." Then to their great delight, he went among the hundreds of migrants present and shook the hand of each and every one of them. He also greeted an Iman from a nearby Muslim community in Rome.
His gesture was indeed powerful, more striking than words. It came a time of high tension in Europe not only because of the migrant and refugee crisis, the greatest humanitarian crisis to hit this continent since World War II as hundreds of thousands flee war and poverty, but also because of the violence that has spilled over from the conflicts in the Middle East and has already covered two major European cities in blood.
Pope Francis is doing everything in his power to promote solidarity, dialogue and peace. His visit to this asylum center, home to almost 900 migrants, is timely and a much needed gesture of humanity at this turbulent moment in history where political forces are stirring up emotions in an opposite direction.