On Sunday, during a special mass on the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, he unveiled a monument to migration in St Peter’s Square as an homage to the displaced.
Angels Unaware, the work by Canadian artist Timothy P Schmalz, depicts 140 migrants and refugees from various historical periods travelling on a boat and includes indigenous people, the Virgin Mary and Joseph, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and those from war-torn countries.
It was requested by the Vatican’s Office of Migrants and Refugees and funded by the Rudolph P Bratty Family Foundation.
The pope said the statue had been inspired by a passage in “Letter to the Hebrews” from the New Testament: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
The pope said he had wanted the statue in St Peter’s Square “so that all will be reminded of the evangelical challenge of hospitality”.
The sculpture was unveiled as bells peeled in the square. A multiethnic choir sang during the mass, wearing T-shirts reading “it is not just about migrants”.
In his message, Pope Francis said it was “the poorest of the poor and the most disadvantaged who pay the price” of wars, injustice, economic and social imbalances, both local and global.
He called on the Roman Catholic Church and the faithful to respond to the challenges of contemporary migration with four words.
“Welcome, protect, promote and integrate,” he said, adding that the church’s mission should also extend to “all those living in the existential peripheries”.
“If we put those four verbs into practice,” the pope told thousands of people, including many migrants, gathered in St Peter’s Square for the special mass, “we will promote the integral human development of all people.”
Migration has become a flashpoint around the world in recent years, as millions of people have been displaced by wars in Syria and Afghanistan and economic deprivation in Africa, many seeking a better future in Europe.
Immigration has spurred a bitter backlash as nations seek to put up fences and walls, and it has prompted debate in the United States over how to handle asylum-seekers from Central America.
In Asia, the oppression and dispersion of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar has become a humanitarian crisis.
Even as the pope spoke, Italian news outlets reported that at least seven migrants had drowned in a shipwreck off Morocco over the weekend and others were missing off the Libyan coast, the latest of thousands who have died trying to reach Europe.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, there have been more than 2,300 migrant fatalities worldwide this year alone.
The pope has emerged as a champion of refugees and migrants. Soon after his election in 2013, he denounced the “globalisation of indifference” in a landmark visit to the Mediterranean migrant hub of Lampedusa.
Since the European migrant crisis of 2015, the pontiff has consistently promoted the need to welcome refugees, who he believes have been exploited by nationalists.
In his address on Sunday, he said that individualism and a utilitarian mentality had produced a “globalisation of indifference” in which “migrants, refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking have become emblems of exclusion” and are “considered the source of all society’s ills”.
He warned that fear of the unknown, of “migrants and refugees knocking on our door in search of protection, security and a better future,” could lead to intolerance, closed-mindedness and racism.
He said the presence of migrants and refugees, and of those considered vulnerable, offered an opportunity “to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society”. In showing concern for migrants, he said, “we also show concern” for all others.
It was unclear how long Schmalz’s sculpture would remain in St Peter’s Square. He is perhaps best known for his work depicting Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a bench, which the pope admired when it was shown at the Vatican during the Jubilee of Mercy in 2016.
The artist said he was honoured to have a work in St Peter’s Square, describing it as an instrument that could “enforce and celebrate human compassion”.
The work includes “every group of persons who has ever travelled,” Schmalz said. At the centre, two angel wings emerge, “suggesting that there could be an angel within any stranger”, he said.
When the statue was unveiled, the pope examined it closely, at times patting a figure or two. He also spoke to the artist. When asked about the pope’s comments, Schmalz grinned.
“I don’t speak Italian, so I am not sure what he said,” the artist said. “But he put his hand to his heart and pointed to it. I read that as him saying that he likes it.”
The New York Times