VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis celebrated his 85th birthday on Friday by meeting with a dozen migrants and refugees who recently arrived in Italy thanks to the intercession of the Vatican, Catholic movements and authorities in Cyprus, where the pope visited in early December.
“You saved us!” one young Congolese refugee told the pope during the private meeting at the Vatican, according to a statement sent to journalists by Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni on Friday (Dec. 17).
The group’s deliverance from refugee camps on Cyprus was arranged during the Dec. 2-6 papal visit to the Mediterranean countries of Cyprus and Greece, where Francis spoke repeatedly and sometimes emotionally about the need for wealthy countries to welcome and integrate immigrants. He urged European nations to work collaboratively to ensure the human dignity of asylum seekers and immigrants.
During that trip, the Vatican had announced that the pope would be bringing back with him a group of migrants and asylum seekers, as he had done when he traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016.
Francis will personally support the group of migrants coming from Cyprus, the Vatican said, with the aid of the lay community of St. Egidio, which also helped settle the migrants in 2016. St. Egidio will welcome the current group into a one-year program aimed at helping them find housing and employment in Italy.
The migrants, some of whom are doctors and computer technicians, told the pope about their journeys from their native countries of the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Somalia and Syria.
The Vatican statement said that the migrants wished the pope a “long life and good health” for his birthday and gave him a painting of a refugee from Afghanistan attempting to cross perilous Mediterranean waters.
“The pope offered them individually words of welcome and affection and thanked them for the visit,” Bruni said in the statement.
During his December trip to Greece, the pope met a child in the Mavrouni refugee camp on Lesbos who will be coming to Italy in the next few days with her family to receive medical care. The pope inquired about the young girl during the meeting at the Vatican, the statement said.
After taking a picture with the group, the pope said goodbye and asked the migrants to pray for him.
Article originally published by Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Giulio Origlia/Stringer