International News

Rome’s ‘Festival of Peoples’ Amid Anti-Immigrant Backlash

by Claire Giangravè

ROME (Crux) – It’s become a staple of Pope Francis’s pontificate to use words and events to indirectly send a message to nationalists and populists that when it comes to immigration the Church has no intention of backing down.

Whether Pope Francis is criticizing those who prefer to build walls instead of bridges, carrying immigrant children on the popemobile after his audience, or meeting with evicted Roma people his point is clear, and a multicultural event in Rome this Sunday might be the latest message the pontiff sends to the anti-immigration camp.

“The Festival of Peoples wishes to offer an important witness of civil cohabitation between different peoples,” said Father Pierpaolo Felicolo, director of the Migrants office of the Diocese of Rome, in a May 15 interview with local media.

“Through the years, the city has learned the beauty of being together and we must still commit to abandoning all clichés that exist surrounding immigration and let the normality of the encounter between different cultures emerge,” he said.

On May 19 hundreds of representatives from different countries and cultures will gather at Rome’s St. John Lateran cathedral to celebrate the 28th edition of the “Festival of Peoples.” The theme this year will be “In the Common Home, One Human Family,” drawn from a speech by Pope Francis during the interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 4.

The daylong event is promoted by the Migrants office of the Roman diocese and the local Caritas, in collaboration with other Catholic and non-Catholic organizations that work on immigration.

It takes place as the relations between the Vatican and the ruling populist coalition in Italy have been strained. The de facto leader of the Italian government, Matteo Salvini, has enacted tough policies to restrict immigration and legal access to the country while using even stronger rhetoric to encourage Italy to close its borders.

The war of words has become even more heated as the European Union prepares to hold elections for the European Parliament in late May. Salvini’s party has been running on an anti-immigrant platform.

“Provoking the fear of immigrants is the worst way to deal with the human component of the migration phenomenon,” Father Felicolo said. “Fear encloses. If fear goes from being individual to collective, then we run the serious risk of cases of social reactions that are not easily controllable.”

“All of this can be avoided. How? Through understanding of the other. Knowledge is light, fear is darkness. We must pursue the light. We must, through knowledge, develop and make our own the theme of welcoming,” he added.

To inaugurate the event, there will be a Mass held by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. The diocese has announced that the music will be provided by 26 ethnic communities from different countries. Congolese singers will chant the “Gloria,” the psalm will be in Tagalog, a Philippine language understood by over 50 million people.

The local community from Sri Lanka – which has recently witnessed a violent anti- Christian attack – will sing the offertory hymn, followed by the “Sanctus” in Ukrainian, the Communion chants in Malayalam – one of India’s 22 official languages – and the final song will be in Polish.

“It’s not folklore, it’s solidarity, it’s getting to know one another,” Father Felicolo said, “this dialogue finds its apex during the Festival of Peoples during the Eucharistic celebration where everyone plays their part, every community expresses itself and its traditions.”

The Mass is followed by an open-air lunch featuring typical dishes prepared by members of 13 different ethnic and cultural communities in Rome. Multiethnic folk dances will also be included in the celebrations, which will end with a final concert showcasing music from almost every corner of the earth.

The event “can be seen as a great melting pot, but I would say that it’s more like a mediator for encounter, dialogue, culture and faith,” Father Felicolo told Vatican News May 14. “This type of dialogue does not take place in the Festival of Peoples at an academic or institutional level, but – and this is very important for me – through direct human contact: it passes though the cuisine, though the square, it’s spoken about in seminars, it’s celebrated in Church,” he added.

The list of countries and ethnicities that will gather to celebrate multiculturalism on Sunday reads as a who’s who of those whom Salvini has attacked and criticized in the past, but for the organizers this is an opportunity to promote dialogue and reinforce the Church’s stance.

“I believe that in a time where fear, distrust, viewing the other as an enemy, prejudice instead of encounter seem to prevail, meeting one another, recognizing each other even in our differences and originality is, as the pope said, a discourse of civility to be done and brought forward with coherence and with strength,” Father Felicolo said.

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