Tangier, Morocco — He has a wide smile: pure Franciscan spirituality. The archbishop of Tangier, Galician bishop Santiago Agrelo, is one of the clearest voices in the face of immigration and of the refugees who want to cross from Africa to Europe. You can see Europe from his diocese: only 13 kilometers separate two worlds.
Bishop Agrelo launches phrases like missiles: “People in government? They have no idea what drama these people are living through. They can’t imagine themselves being abandoned.” And he emphasizes, “The face of God draws near to us in the poor.”
This is the pure Gospel, in African lands — from a bishop who defines himself as “conservative” and who has opened the doors of his cathedral to dozens of Africans whose only hope is a mirage: Europe.
What inspires you to do and say what you do and say?
I am not capable of seeing someone suffering and then remaining indifferent, as if I hadn’t seen it. I just can’t do it.
Everyone likes you. And Catholics are a minority here.
I greet everyone I meet on the street, and I don’t even know them nor the language in which they speak, but if we look at each other, I greet them, either raising my hand to my heart or saying svalher in the morning or salamaleikum.
Has it always been this way?
In my life, I have always been near to vulnerable sectors of society.
When you meet with an immigrant at your house, at your door … it doesn’t change the way I see the poor; it changes my perspective on the problems of immigrants: their problems, their sorrow. … And who told them to come, if there isn’t any place for them here?
This was the question I asked myself and which I implicitly answered for myself, and which is the question so many people are often asking now in Europe, and it seemed to me that there was no reason for them to leave, but you arrive here and you see … that there are more than enough reasons.
In this sense, Morocco has changed the way I relate to immigrants. Here in Tangier, immigrants are the ones I have been most concerned for.
You have defined yourself as “conservative.” Well, you don’t look the part.
I still continue being conservative, in the sense that I am a person who doesn’t change anything in the Mass on my own account; I don’t add words, I don’t take them away. … It’s simply the way I am. But if I go to a community that asks me to change something, I adapt.
I have even celebrated Mass sitting on the floor, which is something that makes me uncomfortable, but I am happy to do it for the people who feel very comfortable that way.
And so on the one hand I am a person who, if I had been born in a cave would have continued living inside the cave unless there were someone to kick me out; in that sense, I’m a coward.
Suggest a solution to the drama of immigration.
If the people in charge of a government ministry, or working in government, were to go for just half an hour to the forest of Beliones, on the border with Ceuta, or Gurugú forest on the border with Melilla; if they were to meet the immigrants, spend half an hour with them, listen to them …
They don’t see how it really is, from their offices.
I have the feeling that they don’t grasp the drama that these people are living, that they aren’t able to imagine themselves abandoned in a forest they can’t leave, because the police don’t let you leave — nor do the laws, nor the borders. Abandoned, without hope, without a future. Forced to risk their lives if they want to take a step forward, forced to risk their lives. These people … I can’t understand how they have not yet burst out into terrible violence. I can’t understand it, I can’t understand it.
What has to change?
The only way this situation is going to change is if society’s feelings toward immigrants change. I would say to society: Look at these people! If you look at them, if you, European man or woman, live half an hour with them, you will think of them as your children, you will see them as your children and you won’t tolerate, you won’t be able to tolerate them being treated the way we are treating them.
We want to speak well of Africa. What can we say?
Africa is poor because it is rich; it wouldn’t be so poor if it weren’t so rich. Africa is being systematically exploited. I suspect that my well-being is a well-being that I enjoy because others have been left with nothing.
You invite people to pray. Will praying change the situation?
When I say the word “prayer,” I am referring to listening. Not to things that I have to tell God so that he will do who-knows-what, but things that I have to listen to so I will do who-knows-what.
The pope is of the same school: poverty, prayer, justice …
The pope is like me in the sense that he is a man of prayer, a man who listens to God, and curiously, none of us can listen to God if we don’t listen to the poor. And I get the impression that this Pope has been listening to the poor his entire life. And his listening also gives him great clarity in the words he uses, because that clarity comes from contact with the poor.
If the poor don’t help us to read the Gospel, to interpret the Gospel, to relate with God, then both the Gospel and our relationship with God will be irremediably distorted, and we will be fooling ourselves. The face of God draws near to us in the poor.
Does the Church take part in the task, in the issue of immigration?
In some sectors of the Church, there is a mentality in relation to immigrants that is not born from Gospel, which ought to be the heart of ecclesial communities; rather, it is born from political interests and from ideologies.
For the Church, both the poor that are in European societies and those who knock at the doors of European borders are a call from God to live the Gospel: they are a grace from God.
What role do Catholic women have in Morocco?
From everything that I’ve seen of activity within the Church, not just in Morocco but everywhere, when you see something that influences people’s lives, something that requires commitment, what you find there are women, not men.
You are in contact with suffering, and with death. Does it make you think about your own?
Regarding the way I will die, well, whatever the Lord wants. I suppose there will be a moment of special purification, of acceptance of that final poverty, of giving up the last thing you have left. I hope to be conscious at the moment of that surrender. Lord, take it all! If I’m not conscious, then … I say it now. (And he smiles.)