It’s not especially easy to praise the Pope.
First of all, the fact is that statistically-speaking, most of the world believes he worships a figment of his imagination, the wrong god, or the wrong aspect of the right god.
Then you are faced with the inescapable history of the church, including its part in the conquering and occupation of regions of the world which are now – not coincidentally – in the most urgent need of international assistance to rescue people from death caused by poverty, while the states who conquered and occupied them remain among the richest on Earth.
From a humanitarian perspective, the issue of celebrity tokenism – one person, famous for something entirely unrelated to the causes or experience of a crisis, pretending that making a gesture of some kind is making a genuine difference to the welfare of vulnerable and suffering men, women and children – is also a genuine and sensible concern.
As a result, Pope Francis’ visit to Lesvos on Saturday (16 April) – and particularly his decision to take 12 refugees from the island to live in the Vatican state – might have caused raised eyebrows and sharp intakes of breath from those working to help people escape war, terror, torture and death.
Because if this was not ‘tokenism’, what is?
What is 12 people compared to the 4.8 million people who have fled the violence, chaos and terror of the Syrian Civil War? (not to mention the millions more forced to escape oppression, torture, starvation and death in other parts of the world) Or the 6.6m internally-displaced within Syria itself?
It would be nice, in fact, to have the luxury of dismissing the Pope’s visit and activities as ‘tokenism’ – as an attempt to snatch publicity from the suffering of others.
But the sad fact is that the context in which the visit was made denies us that luxury.
And even more shamingly, the Pope’s ‘rescue’ of 12 people (three families, two from Damascus and one from Deir Azzor, a region controlled by IS) is genuinely statistically significant compared to the actions of most European states in the last six months.
Because the Pope’s visit to Lesvos was made just 12 days after the European Union – the richest political bloc ever to have existed on Earth – began deporting refugees from it and other Greek islands, to Turkey: a state where none of those people are from, or wish to be.
And it came just two days after it was revealed that the 26 states of the European Union who had in September signed an agreement to relocate 160,000 men, women and children who had fled war to reach Greece and Italy, had in the seven months since relocated a total of 208 people.
As an example – chosen because it is a Catholic state, rather than because it is particularly unusual (it is not) – Spain pledged to offer homes to 15,000 people.
So far –seven months after signing the agreement – it has actually accepted just 18.
This is the context of the Pope’s visit – a shameful EU policy* of turning Greek islands into prison camps, of deporting desperate and innocent men, women and children, and an unpardonable failure by European states even to keep the agreement they made with one another to offer security and shelter to desperate men, women and children.
*Strictly speaking, this should be considered a fault not of the EU as an institution, but the member states who vote on how it is allowed to act. Read here, for more on this.
Under any normal circumstance, arguments might turn on the issue of whether such a visit is an act of flagrant self-publicity, exploiting a vile situation for personal gain – or the wider gain of the Catholic church – or a part of the pope’s role; directing Catholics’ attention to matters of international importance.
His decision to ‘rescue’ 12 people should be statistically insignificant. His statement at Lesvos that ‘I am here to tell you, you are not alone… We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.’ should be so obvious as to be irrelevant.
The astonishing – and unforgivable – fact is that neither is the case.
In taking 12 people from Lesvos to the Vatican, the Pope – as head of an extremely small state located entirely within the boundaries of Rome – has in one five-hour visit helped exactly two thirds as many people as the entire state of Spain has managed in seven months.
And the EU’s decision to arrest and deport refugees means that neither ‘you are not alone’ nor ‘we hope that the world… will respond in a way worthy of our common humanity’ are clear to the thousands of desperate adults and children being treated like criminals on Europe’s border.
When the EU’s member states start behaving as they should – and enable the EU to assist some of the world’s most desperate people – we may, perhaps, return to our natural ‘default’ setting, and treat ostentatious public acts with suspicion until and unless they can be proven to have been made in good faith.
But until that happens – as it must – the pope’s words and actions are significant. That alone should be enough to shame us into action.