Pope Francis on Saturday received some four hundred children of different ethnicities, cultures and religions – many of them migrants and refugees – who had traveled to Rome from Calabria in southern Italy aboard the “Children’s Train” – the Treno dei Bambini – an annual initiative of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which this year has as its theme, “Carried by waves”: a theme that is designed at once to invoke the often deadly danger of migration, and the hope in the promise of a better future that drives people – along with the threat of torture, slavery and death – to flee their homelands and seek a better life on strange and distant shores.
The children arrived Saturday at St. Peter’s railway station in the Vatican: their conveyance brining also the pain of the experience of its young passengers – their undeniable suffering, weaved together with the care and affection offered the children by the John XXIII Association, and the work of the “Quattrocanti” Children’s Orchestra of Palermo (in which boys and girls of eight different ethnicities are involved), as well as the initiative of Mary Salvia, principal of a school in Vibo Marina, who brought to Pope Francis the money from her school’s collection for the children of Lesbos and a letter signed by her pupils, which Cardinal Ravasi read to the Pope. “We children promise that we will welcome anyone who arrives in our country: we shall never consider anyone who has a different skin color, or who speaks a different language, or who professes a different religion from ours, a dangerous enemy.”
In an unscripted exchange with the young travelers, Pope Francis focused on the human cost of indifference to the plight of migrants, recounting the story and sharing the words of a rescue worker who brought the Holy Father the life vest of a young migrant who drowned at sea. “He brought me this jacket,” said Pope Francis, “and with tears in his eyes he said to me, ‘Father, I couldn’t do it – there was a little girl on the waves, and I did all I could, but I couldn’t save her: only her life vest was left.’” Then, indicating the Jacket, the Holy Father said, “I do not [tell you this because I] want you to be sad, but [because] you are brave and you [should] know the truth: they are in danger – many boys and girls, small children, men, women – they are in danger,” he said. “Let us think of this little girl: what was her name? I do not know: a little girl with no name. Each of you give her the name you would like, each in his heart. She is in heaven, she is looking on us.”
A teachable moment among many afforded by the occasion, as was the moment in which one of the Pope’s young visitors asked him what it means “to be Pope”: The Holy Father replied, “[to do] the good that I can do.” He went on to say, “I feel that Jesus called me to this: Jesus wanted me to be a Christian, and a Christian must do [the good he can]; and Jesus also wanted me to be a priest, and a bishop – and a priest and a bishop must do [the good they can]; I feel that Jesus is calling me to do this – that’s what I feel,” he said.