MATERA, Italy (AP) — Pope Francis traveled to southern Italy on Sunday to close an Italian church congress that coincided with Italy’s national elections and delivered a message that touched on key issues national campaign, including immigration.
Neither Francis nor his hosts made any reference to the vote at the open-air mass, although the Italian episcopal conference has previously urged Italians to vote in the closely watched election that could give Italy its first government. far-right since World War II.
At the end of the outdoor mass in Matera, Francis took the floor to ask Italians to have more children. “I would like to ask Italy: more births, more children,” Francis said.
Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world and Francis has often lamented its “demographic winter”.
Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, who campaigned on a “God, family and homeland” mantra, also called on Italy to reverse its demographic trends by offering greater financial incentives for couples to have children.
Francis also weighed in on a perennial issue in Italy, recalling that Sunday coincides with the Catholic Church’s World Day for Migrants and Refugees. Francis called for a future in which “God’s plan” is implemented, with migrants and victims of human trafficking living in peace and dignity, and for a “more inclusive and fraternal future”.
He added: “Immigrants must be welcomed, accompanied, promoted and integrated”.
Meloni and his center-right alliance have vowed to resume a tough crackdown on migrants coming to Italy via Libya-based smugglers. The centre-left Democratic Party has notably called for easier access to citizenship for the children of newcomers.
The mass was celebrated by a protege of Francis, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who is the head of the Italian episcopal conference and has a long affiliation with the Sant’Egidio community, a Rome-based charity known for its work with the migrants and the poor.
Francis, 85, appeared tired on the visit, which was scheduled before Italy’s snap election was called and came a day after he took a day trip to the city of Assisi, atop an Umbrian hill. Francis is using a cane and a wheelchair this year, due to strained knee ligaments that make walking and standing difficult.
His trip to Matera, the town in southern Basilicata known for its cave dwellings, suffered a slight last-minute change due to storms that blanketed much of the Italian peninsula overnight: Originally scheduled to fly by helicopter Sunday morning from the Vatican heliport, Francis instead flew to Matera by jet from Rome Ciampino airport.