ROME – When Pope Francis visits the island nation of Malta on May 31, his first international trip of 2020, it will likely be framed by key political issues for which he has often raised his voice: migration and corruption.
According to Father Joseph Borg, Director of the Maltese Catholic radio RTK, when Francis comes to Malta, there is “no doubt that when the pope comes, it’s only for a day, but one of his messages will be about migration.”
If the logo and theme of the visit are any indication, Borg is right. Depicting a boat with hands folded to represent passengers crossing the open waters, the logo also shows the theme of the visit, “They showed us unusual kindness,” taken from Chapter 28 of the Acts of the Apostles.
Malta has traditionally adopted more lenient policies toward incoming migrants, and the nation’s bishops have often echoed Francis’s call for European countries to have a welcoming and supportive attitude toward foreigners who land on their shores or cross their borders.
Francis recently praised Malta for its welcome of migrants during a Jan. 22 general audience during which he urged Catholics to welcome migrants just as the Maltese welcomed St. Paul when he was shipwrecked on the island in the year 60 A.D.
“In contrast to the brutality of rough seas, St. Paul was welcomed with the rare humanity of the island’s inhabitants,” he said during his address, noting that in modern times the same sea that Paul traveled has once again become “a dangerous place for the lives of other sailors. All over the world migrant men and women face risky voyages to escape violence, to escape war, to escape poverty.”
Though the number of migrants crossing the central Mediterranean from Libya has declined in the past few years, dropping from nearly 120,000 migrants in 2017 to roughly 23,000 in 2018, the Mediterranean remains the most dangerous route, and both Francis and Malta’s bishops have been outspoken on the need to welcome and assist those who made the risky voyage.
“(Migration) would be an important message I’m sure he’ll be pushing forward in this visit,” Borg said in comments to Crux, voicing his hope that Francis will also issue a clear and firm message to local government leaders on corruption.
Since November Malta has been reeling from revelations that top government officials were involved in both the murder plot of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in 2017, and the coverup.
Known for her in-depth stories exposing government corruption, Galizia’s death sparked outrage throughout Malta. Officials pledged an immediate in-depth investigation into her murder, however, that investigation was largely stalled until late 2019, when it was revealed that top government officials were implicated in Caruana Galizia’s death, including the chief of staff for former Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
In January, Muscat stepped down from his post after facing increased pressure, including public protests, from Maltese citizens, as well as the European Parliament, which in December issued a resolution urging the European Union to open a rule of law dialogue with Malta, a step which could lead toward an Article 7 procedure culminating with Malta losing its EU voting rights.
With the upheaval dying down but clearly far from over, Borg voiced his hope that Francis would speak out during his visit, noting that he has never been shy of making forceful anti-corruption statements in the past.
“The pope has spoken about corruption so often in different countries, so a message or references by him in this regard would be a strong sign in favor of people looking for good government,” Borg said, noting that when Saint Pope John Paul II visited Malta in 1990, he was outspoken about the debate at the time on whether Malta should enter the European Union.
During the visit, John Paul made reference to the “European vocation of Malta” at a time of intense political debate on the topic. “The issue of the government and the fight against corruption is as important, just as the issue of the European Union was important then,” Borg said.
News of the papal visit was announced by Maltese President George Vella at the end of a Feb. 10 Mass marking the feast of St. Paul’s Shipwreck in Malta, which has become a national holiday. He voiced hope that the pope’s presence would bring both blessings and national unity.
In a statement after the announcement, Malta’s newly elected Prime Minister Robert Abela welcomed news of the visit, also encouraging citizens to use the occasion to build stronger national unity.
“Helping our neighbor, tolerance and civil rights are all themes close to Pope Francis’s heart,” he said, insisting that “they are also values which this government believes in.”
Francis’s visit will be the 4th time a pope has traveled to Malta in 30 years. John Paul visited Malta twice, in 1990 and in 2001, and Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2010.
In a video message made after news of the pope’s visit went public, Archbishop of Malta Charles Scicluna noted that the pope’s visit will take place on the Catholic feast of Pentecost, marking the day on which the apostles received the Holy Spirit.
“I would like to welcome His Holiness to the islands of St. Paul and also thank him for the beautiful reflections he gave us in January of 2020 on this important passage from scripture,” he said, speaking of the pope’s general audience address.
In praising Malta’s welcome of migrants, Francis, Scicluna said, “reminded us of our heritage as a welcoming people,” not only in the figure of Paul, “But this is also a reminder that we need to welcome each other, to forgive each other and to welcome migrants who land on the shores of our islands seeking a safe haven and human dignity.”
“This is a tall order for a small nation,” he said, “but we will also take the opportunity of the visit of Pope Francis to heal wounds that have wounded our social fabric, but also commit ourselves to be that safe haven in the Mediterranean that gave the names to our island.”
Borg said that in his view, the pope’s visit to Malta would also undoubtably be a strong show of support to Scicluna, who also serves as the adjunct secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and has been Francis’s top point-man in both investigating and tackling clerical sexual abuse scandals throughout the world.
However, Borg insisted that the wider public is also eager to host the pontiff. General reaction to the announcement of the papal visit has been “very positive,” he said, with many hoping that it “will bring more unity in the island.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eharris_it
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