Pope Francis traveled to southern Italy on Sunday to wrap up an Italian church congress coinciding with Italy’s national elections and delivered a message that touched on key issues of the domestic election campaign, including immigration.
Neither Francis nor his hosts made reference to voting during the open-air Mass, although the Italian Bishops’ Conference had previously urged Italians to cast ballots in the eagerly-watched election that could bring Italy its first far-right government since World War II.
At the end of the outdoor Mass in Matera, Francis spoke off the cuff and urged Italians to have more children. “I want 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 with the mantra “God, family and homeland,” has also urged Italy to reverse its demographic trends by proposing greater financial incentives for couples to have children.
Pope Francis also commented on an ongoing issue in Italy, recalling that Sunday coincided with the Catholic Church’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Francis called for a future in which “God’s plan” is implemented, in which migrants and victims of human trafficking live in peace and dignity, and for a “more inclusive and fraternal future”.
He added: “Immigrants should be welcomed, accompanied, encouraged and integrated.”
Meloni and her centre-right coalition have vowed to resume a crackdown on migrants entering Italy via Libya-based smugglers. Among other things, the center-left Democratic Party has called for an easier path to citizenship for children of newcomers.
The Mass was celebrated by a protégé of Francis, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who is President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference and has long been associated with the Sant’Egidio Community, a Rome-based charity known for its commitment to migrants and the poor is.
Francis, 85, appeared tired during the visit, scheduled ahead of Italy’s snap elections, and came a day after making a separate day trip to the Umbrian mountain town of Assisi. Francis has been using a cane and wheelchair since this year as his knee ligaments are strained making it difficult to walk and stand.
His trip to Matera, the town in southern Basilicata known for its cave dwellings, was changed slightly at the last minute due to storms that swept much of the Italian peninsula overnight: he was originally scheduled to depart by helicopter from the Vatican heliport on Sunday morning instead fly flew by jet from Ciampino Airport in Rome to Matera.