Pope Francis set off on a two-day visit to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta Saturday, a visit that was postponed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The pope is expected to use this visit to address the issue of European migration, which has become an increasing concern with the war in the Ukraine.
The plight of migrants in Europe as the world watches an endless flow of Ukrainians seek refuge following Russia’s invasion is of utmost importance to Pope Francis as he embarks on a weekend visit to Malta, an island that has always been on the frontline in dealing with the large numbers of sea arrivals from Africa. Maltese authorities have often found the situation complicated and NGOs have accused the island nation of not doing enough to help people in distress.
Before leaving Rome on Saturday, the 85-year-old pope met with three Ukrainian refugee families hosted by the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio. In recent weeks he has often spoken of the need to assist fleeing Ukrainians forced to leave everything behind because of the war.
Francis is the third pope since 1990 to visit the three-island archipelago, where 85% of the roughly half a million population professes the Catholic faith.
At the end of a general audience in the Vatican Friday, the pope said he was looking forward to visiting that “luminous land,” following in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, who was said to have been warmly welcomed there after being shipwrecked on his way to Rome.
The pope added that this trip would give him the opportunity to experience for himself the Christian community there, whose lively history dates back thousands of years, and to meet the people of a country which is at the center of the Mediterranean and south of the European continent. Francis paid tribute to the Maltese people for their welcome and commitment to “so many brothers and sisters seeking refuge.”
Saturday the pope will meet Maltese authorities and after lunch take a catamaran trip from Valletta harbor to the island of Gozo where he will preside over a prayer meeting at the national shrine of Ta ‘Pinu.
Sunday he will visit the Grotto of St. Paul, the island nation’s patron saint, whose ship, according to account, washed up on Maltese shores in 60 A.D. He will then celebrate a mass before thousands of people in a square in Floriana. Before returning to Rome, Francis will meet with migrants at the peace center in Hal Far that was established in honor of Pope John Paul XXIII. The center is run by volunteers who help Franciscan friar Dionysius Mintoff, who founded it 50 years ago and still runs it today at the age of 91.