The Mediterranean: ‘Holy Alliance’ of Bishops and Mayors

The Florence Congress Is Presented, Which Will Be Closed by the Pope. Prime Minister Mario Draghi and President Sergio Mattarella Will Also Be Present

The Mediterranean
The press conference to present the meeting

On one hand, Bishops, and on the other, Mayors, will come together to debate the same topics, regarding the problems and future of the Mediterranean. Their objective is to arrive at a shared “Charter,” which can be concretized in collaboration and growth projects, to present to Pope Francis. This is, in extreme synthesis, the program of the meeting “Mediterranean: Frontier of Peace 2”, which will be held in Florence from February 23-27. The presence at the opening of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and at the closing Mass of President Sergio Mattarella, has been confirmed.

The meeting, which follows the Bari event of two years ago, but which was attended only by the Bishops, was presented in the course of a press conference. Present at the latter were Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, Archbishop of Perugia and President of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI); Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, Archbishop of Florence, and Monsignor Antonino Raspanti, Bishop of Acireale and Vice-President of CEI. In connection from Florence was Mayor Dario Nardella, suffering from COVID.

In Giorgio La Pira’s Shadow

 In the background was the figure of Giorgio La Pira, the ”holy Mayor,” genuine point of reference of this meeting, which Cardinal Bassetti described as a sort of “Synod of the Mediterranean.” The Cardinal also recalled the genesis of the previous meeting in Bari as well as the forthcoming one, always with the encouragement of Pope Francis. “A polyhedric vision is necessary to address the various crises of the Mediterranean area,” the Holy Father has reminded. “This meeting represents a development in regard to Bari, where there were only Bishops.”

Why include the Mayors? “I thought it was necessary to have a follow-up to the Bari meeting,” said Cardinal Bassetti. “But I was tormented: how, where? Mayor Nardella telephoned me: “If you invite the Bishops, why not invite the Mayors, thus we broaden the meeting with the most significant people that have the responsibility of the cities?”, he said. I brought the proposal to the Pope who looked at me and then said “If you succeed in doing so, I’m happy.’”

La Pira described the Mediterranean as a “great lake of Tiberias.” “Considering this perspective, there is a common good of the Mediterranean, which is a decisive and essential element for peace. I’m certain that, as at Bari, but now, even more, we will put ourselves in the point of view, so dear to the Pope, of the <encyclical> Fratelli Tutti. The pandemic, the economic crisis, the migratory crises, cities in which there is the rubble of war . . . Mayors and Bishops represent the needs of people in flesh and bone. I’m certain that, together, they will mature desires and proposals of life, of wellbeing, and of spiritual serenity and we’ll all feel involved,” said Cardinal Bassetti.

The Program

 Monsignor Raspanti presented the program for the days. Cardinal Bassetti will open the works on Wednesday afternoon, with the greetings of the Mayor of Florence and of Prime Minister Draghi. The theme of the first debate will be “Mediterranean Cities and Citizenships and it will be somewhat the common thread. A topic chosen with representatives of the Bishops of the Mediterranean, divided by homogenous areas. Bishops and expert lay delegates from various nations will debate the rights and duties of the religious communities inside the city in view of a contribution for peace. It will be a “building of fraternity and peace from below,” said Monsignor Raspanti.

A “Florence Charter”

 On Saturday the joint session of Bishops and Mayors will be held in the Palazzo Vecchio [Old Palace], from which we will draw up a common Letter of Intent, which we hope to discuss and sign together in the late afternoon at the Florentine Teatro del Maggio [May Theater], in the course of a cultural event. If this document materializes, we “will deliver it on Sunday  to the Holy Father at the Palazzo Vecchio during the meeting with the delegates.” There will be 62 of them, from all 20 countries bathed by the Mediterranean but also others, such as Cardinal Sako of Baghdad, Patriarch of the Chaldeans, who leads the communities that appear on the “Mare Nostrum” [Our Sea]. Monsignor Raspanti thanked the Health Ministers, including the foreign ones, because, despite the difficulties linked to the pandemic and the green pass, the “Mayors and Bishops will benefit from diplomatic health channels and thus all will be able to enter.”

Symbolic Headquarters

 The Bishops will meet in the Santa Maria Novella complex. Cardinal Betori explained that “the former convent was made available by the Municipality, which is <now> the proprietor. It’s significant because it was the first settlement of the Dominicans in Florence 800 years ago, and it was the headquarters of the Council of Florence, the so-called Council of Union. Buried there is the Patriarch of Constantinople Joseph II, who died towards the end of the Council. It is a very significant symbology as a place of dialogue between the West and East of the Mediterranean.”

The Pope’s Mass

 The most awaited appointment is certainly the Mass, which the Pope will celebrate on Sunday the 27th in the Basilica of the Holy Cross, in which 800 people will be able to take part, between celebrants and faithful. There will be giant screens in the Square, which in normal conditions can receive 12,000 people but because of the security rules will be able to host only one tenth, just over 1,200 people. The poor, the sick, the disabled, and the frail and those assisting them will be privileged. At the end of the Mass the Pope will appear, overlooking the Square for the Angelus.

Mayors’ Works

 According to Mayor Nardella, the event completes “the course initiated by La Pira, “ who invited the Mayors of the world’s great capitals to Florence, at the height of the Cold War. This summit “is happening in the most critical moment of the last decades. The situation is very burdensome in Tunisia, in Lebanon, going through an economic and social crisis. The desertification of the Maghreb counties, due to climate change, is devastating cities and territories. The dead succeed one another in their desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean to find hope of life in Europe. The meeting is a sign of hope and strength as we have never before had occasion to see. We are experiencing a new way.”

The Mayors’ works will begin in the “Hall of the 500,” with the presence of Foreign Minister Di Maio. The same topics of the Bishops will be addressed, from the lay point of view: cultural cooperation as an instrument of economic and social growth, with a Report by Romano Prodi, who is working on a project of a University of the Mediterranean. Then health safety and social promotion; environmental protection and climate change will be addressed. Finally, migrations, with Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and former Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti.

The joint session with Bishops will be introduced by Rome’s Mayor Roberto Gualtieri and the coordination of Enzo Bianco, first citizen of Catania.

On Sunday the Pope will meet the Mayors in the Leo X Hall, and the families of refugees — some 50 people accompanied by religious realities, also of the Waldensian community and civilians from several Continents –, in the Hall of Arms.

Concrete Commitments

 However, is there a risk that the debate will remain an end in itself? “The topic chosen, that of citizenship, is all-inclusive; it encompasses all the problems and tragedies of today,” said Cardinal Bessetti. “To give an answer to what we might consider a good step forward in the logic of peace and of fraternity. They will not be abstract but concrete words because faces look at each other, people meet. I saw Bishops cry at Bari because they never had the opportunity to share these problems . . . there will be surprises, beyond the expectations that now we can only dream of. In any case, our intention is to establish a permanent council of young people, in the ambit of La Pira’s Youth Villages. Rondine, the citadel of peace at Arezzo, will be the reference point. The young people will go to study Italian but also to prepare themselves politically to lead their countries.”

According to Mayor Nardella the “Florence Charter” will be a “work program with tangible commitments regarding the cities and countries involved, a work instrument, not a mere statement of intent. We will propose a permanent network of cities of the Mediterranean to follow the progress of the works.”

Towards a New Europe

 Is it a “holy alliance” that surpasses Europe? “It’s a new concept of Europe, that which La Pira had, for whom Europe reached the Urals. The Mediterranean is a great lake of Tiberius but it’s the basin of three Continents. The symbol of all that is positive and of all the problems of humanity. For us Christians it has a vocation and a mission, which goes beyond the narrow Mediterranean basin,” replied Cardinal Bassetti.

“We will launch a very strong appeal to Europe because it cannot be disinterested in the Mediterranean, even if in the last years it pretended it didn’t concern it, being disinterested in the economic questions, those of migrants and of the environment, concluded Mayor Nardella.

Translation by Virginia M. Forrester