Will Catholics rise to Pope Francis' refugee challenge?

Pope Francis has urged every Catholic parish to take in a family of refugees.Reuters

At a recent meeting of Catholic parishioners in the small town of Castelgomberto in northern Italy, a man got up and shouted "My grandfather built that place for priests, not for Muslims".

"It was a pretty stormy meeting," said Father Lucio Mozzo, pastor to six parishes in the area, who was trying to convince residents to allow a family of refugees to move into a disused vicarage in a nearby valley.

In an unprecedented gesture last Sunday, Pope Francis appealed to every Catholic parish, religious community and sanctuary in Europe to take in a family of refugees, saying he would set the example by hosting two families in parishes inside the Vatican..

The Roman Catholic Church's capacity to help refugees in parishes from Sicily to Sweden is huge, but the success of the appeal will depend on how many parishes take action.

There are about 120,000 parishes in Europe, with the largest number – about 27,000 – in Italy. France and Spain have about 20,000 each. Iceland has among the fewest, with six.

The response has so far been mixed.

Official statements from bishops conferences have oozed with optimism. Grass-roots groups have preached a let's-roll-up-the-sleeves attitude, with a number of initiatives already taking shape.

But confrontations in Castelgomberto and elsewhere in Europe have illustrated the difficulties priests may face at the local level as suspicion and xenophobia have reared their heads.

"I think fear is prevailing. It is fomented by what people hear about crime, and they ask questions like 'how do we manage these people? What will they do? How long will they stay?'" Mozzo said in a telephone interview.

Mozzo was not the only Catholic priest who found resistance.

When Catholic monks in the village of Ladce in Western Slovakia proposed housing 30 families of Christian Syrian refugees in an empty monastery building last month, local opposition forced them to retract the offer.

Residents in the predominantly Catholic town of about 2,600 people signed a petition complaining that the building was too close to a school and a kindergarten. Slovak media quoted one resident as saying that "Syrian Christians are not like Slovak Christians".

Test of Christian-Muslim relations

Refugee experts said that since a majority of those fleeing violence in places like Syria and Afghanistan are Muslim, the pope's call was a unique opportunity to test, and hopefully improve, Christian-Muslim relations at a grass-roots level.

"This could be a very concrete way to counter a world that is manipulated by religious extremists," said Father Peter Balleis, international president of Jesuit Refugee Services, a Catholic organisation present in 50 countries and currently helping 600,000 refugees. More than 60 per cent are Muslim.

"It is about Christians and Muslims respecting each other's faiths and values. I believe it will benefit long-term relations in the Middle East because people don't forget those who helped them," he said in an interview in Rome.

Father Mario Ziello, pastor of a church in one of Naples' poorest and most crime-ridden neighbourhoods, said his parish would take in a family regardless of their religion and despite financial difficulties in his parish.

"The poor are often more willing to help others because they know what suffering is like," he said in a telephone interview when asked about resistance by some richer parishes.

The refugee crisis has also divided the continent's bishops.

Hungary's Cardinal Peter Erdo last week said the Church would not take in people because that would constitute human trafficking. He abruptly changed his tune after the pope spoke. "We will readily and happily follow your (the pope's) advice on taking in and helping refugees," he said.

Hungary is a major transit point for refugees heading into the heart of the European Union via the Balkans. Last week Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is not a Catholic, said Europe would be "lost" if it let all of them in, adding that he did not want to live alongside a large Muslim community.

Cardinal Erdo's initial stance was a stark contrast to that of the head of the Roman Catholic Church in neighbouring Austria, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn. Even before the pope spoke out, Schoenborn said his churches had the potential to accommodate as many as 1,000 refugees.

Bishops seek common position

Schoenborn, who last month celebrated a memorial Mass for 71 migrants found dead inside a refrigerator truck, has called for European bishops to find "a common line" on the refugee crisis.

Besides their local church, many parishes have structures such as rectories, schools, offices and apartments.

Cologne, Germany's richest diocese, had already turned to its extensive real estate investments to offer unused flats to refugees. It had opened about 75 flats to the newcomers and more will follow after the pope's appeal, diocesan refugee director Klaus Hagedorn told a Catholic radio station.

But many parishes don't have rooms available. "Where are we supposed to put the refugees?" asked Rev Wieslaw Johannes Kowal in the eastern German city of Naumburg.

Some parishes responded to the appeal with special collections.

In Poznan, in Western Poland, a parish in the rough Jezyce neighbourhood raised more than $6,000 at a Mass to rent an apartment and ready it for a refugee family.

In part of Italy's affluent north the pope's appeal quickly took on a political twist.

Castelgomberto, the Italian village where the man shouted the anti-Muslim slogan, is located in the traditionally very Catholic Veneto region, which is also a base of the fiercely anti-immigrant Northern League party.

As responses in favour or against come in, the juxtaposition could make the area a test case for the pope's appeal.

Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, the head of the Veneto church, jumped into the political fray with a letter read in all of the region's parishes saying that "women and children who are fleeing an almost certain death are calling out to us".