ROME – Pope Francis landed in Valletta Saturday for a long-overdue visit to Malta, offering the country’s leaders a Reader’s Digest-style version of his top social priorities, including corruption, migration, and peacemaking.
He also appealed for protection of the environment and praised the role of women in dialogue and peacemaking efforts.
Francis, who was visibly limping during the opening day of the trip, apparently a result of the same knee pain that recently caused him to curtail or cancel Vatican activities, spoke to Maltese authorities after holding separate meetings with Maltese President George Vella and Prime Minister Robert Abela on the first leg of his April 2-3 visit to the small Mediterranean island nation.
The country is made up of three main islands, and roughly 90 percent of its population of 460,000 is Catholic. Pope Francis will visit four cities in total, including the island of Gozo.
The fight against corruption
In his speech to Malta’s authorities, the pope stressed the importance of working together in the pursuit of peace and unity, and of “preferring cohesion to division, and of strengthening the shared roots and values that have forged Maltese society in its uniqueness.”
To ensure a sound social cohesion, “it is not enough to strengthen the sense of belonging; there is a need to shore up the foundations of life in society, which rests on law and legality,” he said.
“Honesty, justice, a sense of duty, and transparency are the essential pillars of a mature civil society,” he said, voicing hope that Malta’s commitment to “eliminate illegality and corruption be strong, like the north wind that sweeps the coasts of this country.”
“May you always cultivate legality and transparency, which will enable the eradication of corruption and criminality, neither of which acts openly and in broad daylight,” he said.
The pope’s words on corruption are especially poignant in Malta, which has been embroiled in corruption scandals since the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed in a car bomb in 2017.
After her death, an investigation was launched, which in 2019 revealed that top government officials were involved in both the murder plot of Galizia and its coverup, which prompted former prime minister Joseph Muscat to resign, with Abela taking his place.
The pope’s visit also takes place just days after Malta held a snap general election March 26 organized by Abela, who is accused of using the papal visit to ensure his Labor Party would maintain its majority in parliament, which it did.
In his speech, Pope Francis also praised western influence in terms of promoting values such as freedom and democracy, but he cautioned against pursuing a progress that ends up “cutting one’s roots with the past in the name of a false prosperity dictated by profit, by needs created by consumerism, to say nothing of the right to have any and every ‘right.’”
“A sound development needs to preserve the memory of the past and foster respect and harmony between the generations, without yielding to bland uniformity and to forms of ideological colonization,” he said.
He also urged Maltese to defend life “from its beginning to its natural end, but also to protect it at every moment from being cast aside and deprived of care and concern,” including the elderly and young people who “risk squandering all the good they have within them by following mirages that leave only emptiness in their wake.”
“These are the fruits of radical consumerism, indifference to the needs of others,” he said.
Pope Francis also waded into the issue of migration, which has been a topic of heavy debate in Malta, which for years has borne the brunt of Europe’s migration crisis. Usually known for its more lenient policies on migration, Malta has come under fire from humanitarian organizations for refusal to allow certain ships carrying rescued migrants to disembark.
Noting that “Malta,” according to Phoenician etymology, means “safe harbor,” Francis said this sentiment has been overtaken by fear, insecurity, discouragement, and frustration at the continual influx of migrants.
People from the densely populated south are increasingly and steadily coming to the wealthy north, he said, insisting that this “is a fact, and it cannot be ignored by adopting an anachronistic isolationism, which will not produce prosperity and integration.”
He encouraged each country in Europe to do its part by taking in a share of the migrants.
“Some countries cannot respond to the entire problem, while others remain indifferent onlookers! Civilized countries cannot approve for their own interest sordid agreements with criminals who enslave other human beings,” he said.
Pope Francis said the Mediterranean “needs co-responsibility on the part of Europe” in order to become a place of solidarity “and not the harbinger of a tragic shipwreck of civilization.”
He then recalled St. Paul’s shipwreck on the island, noting that as a foreigner, Paul was initially thought to be a criminal until he was bitten by a viper and miraculously did not fall ill. Then the people believed Paul to be a god.
“Between these two extremes, the really important thing was missed: Paul was a man, a man in need of assistance. Humanity is first and foremost,” the pope said.
“Today, when those who cross the Mediterranean in search of salvation are met with fear and the narrative of ‘invasion’ and safeguarding one’s own security at any price seems to be the primary goal, let us help one another not to view the migrant as a threat and not to yield to the temptation of raising drawbridges and erecting walls,” he said.
“Other people are not a virus from which we need to be protected, but persons to be accepted,” the pope said, asking the Maltese to “not allow indifference to stifle our dream of living as one!”
The need for peace and dialogue
Referring to the war that has been raging in Ukraine for over a month, Pope Francis said many in Europe until recently believed that “invasions of other countries, savage street fighting, and atomic threats were grim memories of a distant past.”
Yet with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, “the icy winds of war, which bring only death, destruction, and hatred in their wake, have swept down powerfully upon the lives of many people and affected us all.”
Pope Francis did not name Russia specifically, but simply noted that, “Once again, some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts, whereas ordinary people sense the need to build a future that will either be shared, or not be at all.”
“Now in the night of the war that is fallen upon humanity, let us not allow the dream of peace to fade!” he said, insisting on the need for compassion and care for others, “not ideological and populist visions fueled by words of hatred and unconcerned for the concrete life of the people, ordinary people.”
To this end, he praised the contributions of women, who he said, “are the true alternative to the baneful logic of power that leads to war.”
Francis warned against “the infantile and destructive aggression that threatens us,” as well as the risk of “an enlarged Cold War that can stifle the life of entire peoples and generations” that Europe currently faces.
He also cautioned against “the seductions of autocracy, new forms of imperialism, widespread aggressiveness, and the inability to build bridges and start from the poorest in our midst.”
“It is from there that cold wind of war begins to blow, and this time it has been encouraged over the years,” he said, and condemned the global arms trade, as he has often done in the past.
Pope Francis said he found it “distressing” that the enthusiasm for peace that was so acute following the second world war seems to have faded, “as has the progress of the international community, with a few powers who go ahead on their own account, seeking spaces and zones of influence.”
“In this way, not only peace, but also so many great questions, like the fight against hunger and inequality are no longer on the list of the main political agendas,” he said.
The pope closed his speech urging Maltese to help one another “to sense people’s yearning for peace. Let us work to lay the foundations of an ever more expanded dialogue.”
He voiced hope that Malta would be “the heartbeat of hope, care for life, acceptance of others, yearning for peace, with the help of the God whose name is peace,” especially for migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
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