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Pope Francis Gives Inflight Press Conference on Return from Lesvos

© ALESSIA GIULIANI/CPP
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Explains "last minute plans" for refugees and Sanders encounter as "manners, not politics."

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis today gave a 30 minute press conference on the flight back from Lesvos, Greece, to Rome, sharing his thoughts on a wide range of subjects, including the three Syrian refugee families he brought back with him on the papal flight home, his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, and his brief meeting with Bernie Sanders.

The pope began his traditional “conversation” with journalists aboard the papal plane, reflecting on the fact that the visit to Lesbos had had a very strong emotional impact on him.

Asked about the three refugee families he brought back to Rome with him, the pope said the decision was the fruit of a last-minute inspiration one of his collaborators had a week ago.

“Everything was arranged according to the rules. They have their documents. The Holy See, the Greek government and the Italian government have checked everything. They have been welcomed by the Vatican, and with the collaboration of the St. Egidio community, they will be searching for work,” he said.

Regarding a reported meeting on Saturday morning in the Vatican with the American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis acknowledged it had taken place but specified that it had been a purely “polite encounter.”

“This morning when I was leaving, Senator Sanders was there. He had come to participate in the Centesimus Annus Conference and greeted me politely together with his wife. … It is called ‘manners’ and has nothing to do with politics,” the pope said.

Another journalist asked why the three families of refugees chosen to be brought back to the Vatican are all Muslim. The pope said the choice was not between Christians and Muslims, and that those who were selected all had their papers in order.

One journalist asked the pope whether he thinks the closing of European borders marks the end of a European dream. Francis said that while he understands there are some governments and people who are afraid, he believes we have the responsibility of welcome.

“I have always said that building walls is not a solution. We saw walls during the last century, and they did not resolve anything. We must build bridges. Bridges are built with intelligence, with dialogue, with integration,” he said.

The pope expressed his belief that Europe must urgently implement policies that welcome people, integrate them with work, create policies that foresee growth and a push forward a reform of the economy.

“All these things are bridges,” he said. And he highlighted the suffering and pain witnessed during his visit to the camp in Lesvos.

The children there, he said, had given him drawings (which he showed those present) in which they asked for peace and expressed their pain and fear after having seen terrible things like other children drowning.

Asked whether Europe can open its arms to all the misery in the world, the pope reflected on the many faces of human suffering. He mentioned war and hunger, both of these, he said, an effect of the exploitation of the planet. He spoke of deforestation and of trafficking and of how fighting factions in Syria have been armed by others.

“I would invite the producers of arms to spend a day in the camp [in Lesvos]: I believe that would be good,” he said.

Turning to the pope’s recently released Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, one journalist asked for clarification, saying there are discussions going on between those who maintain that nothing has changed when it comes to the question of access to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried while others argue that much has changed on this front.

In his reply, Pope Francis said a lot has changed but he urged the journalists to read the presentation made by Cardinal Schönborn, describing him as a great theologian who was also Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and whom, he said, has a thorough knowledge of the faith. “The answer to your question is contained in that presentation.”

Pope Francis confessed that he was somewhat annoyed and saddened by the media’s fixation during and after the synod on the single issue of whether the divorced and remarried would be allowed to receive Holy Communion.

He said the media didn’t realize that this was not the important question, and they fail to notice that the family unit, the cornerstone of our society throughout the world, is in a state of crisis.

“They don’t realize,” he went on, “that young people don’t want to marry, that the falling birthrate in Europe should make us weep, that there is a lack of jobs, that there are fathers and mothers taking on two jobs. Children are growing up on their own without having their parents around.”

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