World

Amid wall debate, pope says fear of migration makes us crazy

Pope Francis (C) applauds along with Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela (L) and his wife Lorena Castillo upon landing at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City on January 23, 2019. - Pope Francis said fear of migration was "making us crazy" as he headed to Panama on Wednesday for a gathering of young Catholics, who expect to hear him speak out strongly in defense of Central American migrants. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
Alberto PIZZOLI /AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis applauded along with Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela and his wife, Lorena Castillo, upon landing at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City Wednesday.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said Wednesday that fear of migration is ‘‘making us crazy’’ as he began a trip to Central America amid a standoff over President Trump’s promised wall at the US-Mexico border and a new caravan of migrants heading north.

Francis was asked by reporters about the proposed border wall Wednesday on the way to Panama, where he is looking to leave the sex abuse scandals buffeting his papacy behind. Francis responded: ‘‘It is the fear that makes us crazy.’’

The pontiff’s plane touched down in Panama City in the afternoon and he was met by President Juan Carlos Varela and first lady Lorena Castillo, who escorted him along a red carpet laid on the tarmac.

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Spectators waved Panamanian flags in greeting and shouted, ‘‘This is the youth of the pope!’’ After a brief welcoming ceremony, he was driven away from the airport and did not have any more activities scheduled for the evening.

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Francis landed as Venezuela’s protracted political crisis flared up, with the opposition president of the country’s National Assembly declaring himself interim president and a number of regional countries including the US recognizing him.

The Vatican had said previously that the pope would refrain from making explicit reference to Venezuela while in Panama, but the developments ensured he would face questions about the South American nation during the trip.

The Roman Catholic Church’s first Latin American pope and the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy. He is also expected to offer words of encouragement to young people gathered in Panama for World Youth Day, the church’s once-every-three-year pep rally that aims to invigorate the next generation of Catholics in their faith.

Panama Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa said Francis’ message is likely to resonate with young Central Americans who see their only future free of violence and poverty in migrating to the US — ‘‘young people who often fall into the hands of drug traffickers and so many other realities that our young people face.’’

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The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities, while calling on governments to do their share as well.

The visit is taking place as the US government remains partly shut down in a standoff between the Trump administration and Democrats over funding for Trump’s promised border wall.

Francis famously has called for ‘‘bridges, not walls.’’ After celebrating Mass in 2016 on the Mexican side of the US border, he denounced anyone who wants to build a wall to keep out migrants as ‘‘not Christian.’’

Crowds are expected to be smaller than usual for this World Youth Day — only about 150,000 people had registered as of last week — but thousands more will certainly throng Francis’ main events, which include a vigil and a final Mass on Sunday. The Vatican conceded that the January date doesn’t suit school vacations in Europe or North America, both of which typically send huge numbers of pilgrims to World Youth Day gatherings.

Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy as the Catholic hierarchy globally is facing a crisis in credibility for covering up decades of cases of priests molesting young people.

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The pope is expected to soon rule on the fate of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the high-powered US archbishop accused of molesting minors and adults. And he is hosting church leaders at the Vatican next month on trying to chart a way forward for the global church.

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said there were no plans for Francis to meet with abuse survivors in Panama. Central America hasn’t yet seen the explosion of sex abuse cases that have shattered trust in the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, the US, and other parts of the world.