The pope has attacked what he calls the “globalisation of indifference” that greets migrants who risk their lives trying to reach a better life in Europe.
Francis travelled to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa to meet migrants who reached Italy from Africa and pray for those who died trying.
The tiny island, a treeless, strip of rock four miles long, is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland and is the main port of entry into Europe for African migrants smuggled by boat from Libya or Tunisia.
Francis decided to go on his first pastoral visit outside Rome, spurred by a particularly deadly crossing in which a dozen migrants lost their lives.
He greeted newly arrived migrants, and during Mass on the island's sports field, thanked the residents for welcoming so many men and women over the years. He prayed for those who died trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
"Who wept for these people who were aboard the boat?" he asked in his homily. "For the young mothers who brought their babies? For these men who wanted to support their families? We are a society that has forgotten how to cry."
Dozens of fishing boats accompanied Francis' coast guard ship as it pulled into port, a seaborne motorcade to honour the first pope to visit an island that often complains it has been forgotten by Europe as it processes the thousands of would-be immigrants who come ashore each year.
As his plane landed a boat carrying 162 Eritreans arrived in port, the latest in a new wave of migrants taking advantage of calm seas and warm weather to make the treacherous crossing. Officials said they were in good condition, just cold.
Francis, whose ancestors emigrated to Argentina from Italy, has a special place in his heart for refugees: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he denounced the exploitation of migrants as "slavery" and said those who did nothing to help them were complicit by their silence.
He repeated that message, denouncing smugglers who take advantage of the poverty of migrants to enrich themselves. While thanking the work of Lampedusans and volunteers who care for the newly arrived migrants, he challenged everyone to take responsibility for the migrants' desperation, urging them not to have "anesthesia of the heart."
"The culture of our own well-being makes us insensitive to the cries of others," he said. "It brings us to feeling indifferent to others, to the globalisation of indifference."
He prayed that God forgives such indifference, and welcoming Muslim migrants in the crowd, wished them a good start of the holy month of Ramadan.
"The church is with you in the search for a more dignified life for you and your families," he said.