ROME – During his visit to the Maltese island of Gozo on Saturday, Pope Francis underlined the key role the country plays in the European migrant influx, urging citizens to be welcoming by returning to the essentials of the Christian faith.

Given Malta’s position in the Mediterranean, Pope Francis said it is “a magnet and port of salvation for people buffeted by the tempests of life who, for various reasons, land on your shores. It is Christ himself, who appears to you in the faces of these poor men and women.”

Speaking from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu on Gozo, which is a short ferry ride away from the island of Malta itself, he said, “this is the Gospel we are called to put into practice: welcoming others, being “experts in humanity” and kindling fires of tender love for those who know the pain and harshness of life.”

Pope Francis visited Gozo on the first day of his April 2-3 trip to Malta, which will also take him to three other cities.

The Ta’ Pinu shrine is a minor basilica near the village of Għarb on Gozo. A famous pilgrimage destination, the shrine was once a small chapel set to be demolished, but the demolition was halted when one of the workers broke his arm, which was taken as a sign that the chapel needed to remain standing.

It was restored but remained closed for several years, until, according to tradition, a peasant woman walked by one day in June 1883 and heard a voice calling her to enter. The woman, Carmela Grima, was then invited to recite three Hail Mary prayers, one for each day Jesus spent in the tomb.

When Pope Francis arrived at the shrine, he laid a gold rose in front of an image of the Virgin Mary and recited three Hail Marys before blessing the sick who were present.

Speaking to the roughly 3,000 attendees during a prayer vigil over which he was presiding, the pope focused his homily on the image of Mary and John standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus is crucified.

Jesus’ death on the cross, he said, does not represent the end of time or history, but rather signals the beginning of a new life.

“The Lord was to gather a people that continues to tread the winding paths of history, bearing in their hearts the consolation of the Spirit, with which to dry the tears of humanity,” he said, insisting on the need to return to the origins of the faith.

The first step is “rediscovering the essentials”, he said, stressing that going back to the early church does not mean looking back and trying to replicate the ecclesial model of the first Christian community. We cannot “skip over history,” as if the Lord never said or accomplished great things in the life of the church later on.

“Going back to the origins means, instead, recovering the spirit of the first Christian community, returning to the heart and rediscovering the core of the faith: our relationship with Jesus and the preaching of his Gospel to the whole world. Those are the essentials!” he said.

Francis then recalled the ancient spiritual history of Malta, where St. Paul shipwrecked and carried out a good deal of his ministry, saying the life of the church “is never merely ‘a past to remember,’ but a great future to build, always in docility to God’s plans.”

Pointing to the growing loss of faith and rising wave of secularism spreading over much of the west, the pope said this crisis of faith and apathy about religious practice, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, “are not issues that we should sugarcoat,” he said.

“At times, structures can be religious, yet beneath outward appearances, faith is fading. An elegant repertoire of religious traditions does not always correspond to a vibrant faith marked by zeal for evangelization,” he said.

Pointing to the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, the first phase of which he opened last October, Pope Francis said it is an ideal time to go back to the essentials of the faith, “not about importance and image.”

It is a time, he said, “to be a church centered on witness, and not certain religious customs. To be a church that seeks to go out to meet everyone with the burning lamp of the Gospel, not to be a closed circle.”

Going back to the beginning also means “developing the art of welcoming,” as the disciple John welcomed Mary into his home after Jesus’ death, he said, stressing the importance of fraternal love and an attitude of welcome in the Christian faith.

This means recognizing others as family, and “leaving behind suspicions, divisions, rumors, gossip and mistrust,” he said.

Keeping an attitude of mutual welcome, rooted not in formality but in Christian charity, “remains a perpetual challenge,” he said, but insisted that this attitude of welcome is also “the litmus test for assessing to what extend the church is truly evangelical.”

Christians cannot accept one another “only in the shelter of our beautiful churches, while outside so many of our brothers and sisters suffer, crucified by pain, poverty, and violence,” he said.

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