Pope Francis’ decision to fly Syrian refugees back to Rome with him after his trip to Lesbos at the weekend was “an inspiration of the Holy Spirit”, he said.
The Pope visited the Greek island along with Orthodox leaders Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all Greece, in what he has named a "humanitarian and ecumenical gesture".
The island has hosted hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty since the start of 2015.
12 Syrians – members of three families, including six children – flew with the Pope back to Rome where they will be housed in the Vatican, alongside the other eight refugees currently living there.
When asked why all the refugees who were provided asylum were Muslim, Francis replied “I gave priority to children of God”. Two Christian families had originally been on the Vatican’s list but their papers were not ready in time.
Spending about half an hour answering reporters' questions, the Pope insisted his visit to Greece was not about criticising a recent agreement between the European Union and Turkey to return to Turkey those entering EU territory without legal permission.
"What I saw today and what you saw in that refugee camp – it makes you weep," the Pope told reporters. "Look what I brought to show you," the Pope told them. He held up some of the drawings the children in the camp had given him. "Look at this," he said, "this one saw a child drown". "Really, today is a day to weep," he said.
Asked specifically about immigration to the United States and how it relates to what he had called a "catastrophe", Pope Francis insisted "it's a global problem" and that Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence also deserve the world's concern and assistance.
During the in-flight news conference Pope Francis confirmed he had met US Senator Bernie Sanders that morning as he was leaving his residence. Sanders and other participants at a Vatican conference were staying in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where the Pope lives.
"It was polite" for Sanders, who knew when the Pope was leaving, to go downstairs to greet him, the Pope said. "If someone thinks greeting someone is to get involved in politics, I recommend he see a psychiatrist."
The Pope was also asked to settle the debate about his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, particularly whether the document opened new possiblities for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion under some circumstances.
"I could say: 'Yes. Period,' but that would be too short a response," the Pope said. "I recommend everyone read the presentation made by Cardinal Schonborn" at the Vatican news conference presenting the document. The cardinal, archbishop of Vienna, had said the document represented "true innovations, but no break" with Church tradition.
The Pope bemoaned the tendency of the media to focus so much on the question of Communion for the divorced because it skewed the public's perception of the 2014 and 2015 meetings of the Synod of Bishops.
"Since I'm not a saint, this annoyed me and then saddened me," the Pope said. "Don't they understand that the family throughout the world is in crisis?".
"The family is the foundation of society," Pope Francis said. The great problems include a reluctance by young people to marry, extremely low birth rates in Europe, unemployment, poverty – "those are the big problems."