Pope Benedict XVI urged Italy to welcome immigrants flocking to its shores, invoking the historic role of Venice and the once influential church in nearby Aquileia as a cultural bridges during his two-day visit to northern Italy.
“The churches created by Aquileia are called today to renew that ancient spiritual unity, in particular in light of the phenomenon of immigration and the new geopolitical circumstances,” Benedict said on Sunday during his homily to more than 300,000 worshipers gathered in a vast park on the Venetian mainland.
Italy has been struggling to cope with thousands of illegal migrants that have reached its shores in recent months often in rickety boats as they flee unrest spreading through northern Africa. On Sunday, about 400 were rescued when their boat crashed against rocks at the port of Lampedusa, Italy’s closest port.
The pope’s message of tolerance for immigrants appeared especially pointed as the visit takes place in the region of Veneto, one of the strongholds of the anti-immigration Northern League, although Venice itself has long been run by center-left administrations.
The open-air Mass was the spiritual highlight of Benedict’s two-day visit, the first by a pope to Venice since his predecessor John Paul II plied the canals in a gondola styled for Venice’s long-ago rulers.
His visit started on Saturday in Aquileia and was held under tight security, with helicopters flying overhead during the Mass and the pope flanked by his personal security corps. Most traffic in the area of the Mass was blocked, but worshipers were not required to go through metal detectors or have their bags checked as they streamed into the park.