Steeple Chasers

Pope Francis Offers Refugees Inadequate Shelter in Italy’s Churches

The pontiff certainly means well when he tells Catholic parishes to take in migrants, but many churches don’t have anywhere to put them.

09.08.15 5:03 AM ET

ROME — As the sun sets over the Eternal City, a weary priest in gray shirtsleeves ushers little-old-lady worshippers out of the basilica, Sacro Cuore di Gesù a Castro Pretorio, and pulls the massive wooden doors closed.

A few minutes later, he reappears in the back of the church, where he opens a much smaller door to let refugees, migrants, and the city’s homeless in for the night to sleep beneath gilded ceilings. He has been doing this for many months now.

The church is near Rome’s central rail station and, as such, is well known among the most desperate as a safe place for both shelter and food, which is precisely why the priest doesn’t feel any need to talk about the Good Samaritan work. “They know where to find us,” he tells The Daily Beast. “We certainly don’t need publicity.” 

It is no surprise that Pope Francis chose this church as the venue, in 2014 not long after his election, for a sermon about showing mercy to the poor. Then he talked, in terms that seemed almost academic, about mercy and charity tying the two together. Now, not quite two years later, he is calling on every parish in Europe to do just what this church has been doing all along. 

“May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe host a family, starting from my diocese of Rome,” he said before blessing the crowds. Then, by way of example, he added, “The two parishes in the Vatican will welcome two families of refugees.”

But housing families of refugees—noble as it is—requires overcoming some barriers that can’t be swept aside by prayer or the force of Francis’s personality. Aside from the basic difficulty in choosing just which desperate families are most in need from among the many hundreds of thousands seeking shelter, the merciful act carries with it a considerable logistical challenge. 

While many parishes in Italy already do more than the pope is asking, most do it without careful attention to the norms of the law. Dozens of migrants regularly sleep in a makeshift dorm in the apse of an abandoned church in the parish of San Giovanni Maria Vianney in Palermo, for example. But the church has no heating and scant amenities, and the refugees regularly wash their clothes and brush their teeth in the holy water fonts.

Similar situations exist across Sicily, where migrants and refugees sleep rough on the marble floors only to be ushered out each morning for sunrise Mass. Last year in Rome, more than 100 migrant squatters camped out in the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore until the city’s health authorities deemed it unhygienic for them to stay. 

To offer legal housing—and to be protected from legal action in the event of unforeseen catastrophes—establishments must conform to certain regulations in terms of hygiene and safety. Most Catholic Church living quarters are Spartan at best, and already filled with the priests and seminarians who service the church. Not to mention the fact that most are not exactly family-friendly, which makes raising children, even temporarily, in such quarters of quiet contemplation a real challenge. 

So when the pope announces that the Vatican’s two parishes will each take a refugee family, it’s worth noting that they will be put up in apartments on papal grounds, in buildings owned by the Holy See. No parishes have that luxury.

In fact, few Catholic Church parishes have the available funds to rent apartments suitable to house families, either, which raises the question of just where the pope’s refugee families are supposed to be housed. 

The Holy See had run into a roadblock even before the pope’s proclamation. “Months ago we offered a list of potential structures available to house refugees to the Interior Ministry but for almost all of them it was impossible to be accredited as housing,” Gian Carlo Perego, Director General of the Fondazione Migrantes, the Holy See’s agency for refugees, recently told the Catholic newspaper Avvenire. “There were always problems, the doors weren’t fire safe, the bathroom wasn’t legal, the dimensions were inadequate.”

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Be that as it may, the Catholic Church has played a vital role trying to address the refugee crisis in Italy, more often than not filling the vacuum created by overstretched public services. The Church already sets up soup kitchens wherever migrants and refugees gather, and it collects food, clothing, toys, medical supplies, and money from the parishioners to distribute to new arrivals. The Vatican’s almsman regularly hands out international calling cards to new refugees so they can call home to tell their families they made it.

More than 15,000 refugees are already being hosted among Italy’s 27,000 parishes, according to Avvenire, which calculates that if all of Italy’s parishes heeded the papal call, they could host more than 100,000 refugees—well over those expected to stay in Italy.

“Italian parishes alre already home to 15,000 refugees. But by responding to this call of the Pope you could get to 100,000 people, 400,000 throughout Europe,” Perego told the newspaper.

By Monday morning, word had spread among many of the makeshift refugee camps spread across Italy that there would soon be room for some to escape the humid heat of temporary tarps for better accommodations hosted by the Church. 

“Where do I apply?” asks Mollie, a Nigerian devout Catholic woman with four small children, as she waits for dinner outside a church near the medieval district of Trastevere in Rome. She has been waiting for more than six months to hear if she will be given asylum or be deported back to Nigeria. And she believes she should qualify for Church assistance. “If not me, then who?” she asks, scanning the crowd around her waiting in line for a warm meal. “Who possibly has it worse than me?”