The Pope has now arrived back in Rome after what many are seeing as a highly successful trip – even if the chances of it being a flop in this very Catholic nation were slim.
In his farewell address at Malta international airport, he called on the Maltese people to be “an example, at home and abroad, of dynamic Christian living,” and to never allow their “true identity to be compromised by indifferentism and relativism.”
He also made reference to the issue of immigration on the island, saying he was confident that with its strong Christian roots and with the support of the international community, Malta would come to the aid of immigrants fleeing violence and persecution and respect their rights.
Overall, this 27-hour visit was undoubtedly a successful one - for the Vatican, the Maltese Church and the government. The Pope received a very enthusiastic and, at times, ecstatic welcome wherever he went which was precisely what the papacy needed after the sexual abuse crisis in Europe. Logistically, too, everything worked like clockwork. As The Times of Malta writes:
“The organisation of the visit went without a hitch, the only real worry having been that a cloud of volcanic ash drifting over Europe could have hindered the Pope’s departure from Rome, or his return. As it were, the Pope arrived in Malta with the Church under a cloud, and he must have left here satisfied that his visit had gone a long way to lifting it.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was very pleased with the visit, and impressed by the “great participation” of the Maltese people in the context of “difficulty and trial”. He said their enthusiastic participation showed the Catholic community to be “rich, joyous and festive.”
As on previous visits, it wasn’t clear if the Pope was going to meet victims of clerical abuse. To avoid a public spectacle, the Vatican prefers not to announce such meetings. But the decision to go ahead with the meeting earlier today will go some way to helping the healing process between the Church and the victims. There’s much work still to do – justice must be done and be seen to be done, as the President of Malta warned – but this will also have helped, albeit minimally and temporarily, to placate a baying press.
Talking to people in the street, they naturally recognized the gravity of the crimes, but they saw the Pope as unfairly treated by the media and sectors of public opinion. “I don’t believe the scandals have had any impact at all on the visit,” said Charles Messina, a Maltese pensioner. “I believe they are more premeditated than anything, and that they’re feeding other people’s agendas.” A policeman blamed the media for placing the sins of others onto the Holy Father. “I think it’s the view of most of the Maltese people that it’s wrong to pin all the blame on the Pope,” he said.
Charles and Marion Galea, a couple from Valletta, echoed what most told me: that the Church has faced worse crises in the past and yet always survived. “Let’s be clear, what is wrong is wrong, but remember the Church has always been persecuted and the good always wins through,” said Mrs Galea.
Even one of very few Maltese who have fallen away and left the Church sympathized with the Pope on this issue. Danny Scerri, 33, recognized that the Pope has acted effectively in the past to tackle this issue but naturally wished action had been taken earlier and felt people should have spoken out. Scerri said he knew one of those who abused some of the victims the Pope met this afternoon. He told me it was “open secret” that the perpetrator, a religious, was committing acts of sexual abuse but nothing was done. He felt angry that despite criminal charges being lodged in 2003, he has not been laicized and the case has yet to reach a conclusion. The accused is charged with abusing and raping children at the St. Joseph Home in Santa Venera in Malta, along with two priests.
Scerri did not say if the alleged abuse was the main cause of him deciding to leave the Church, but put it down instead to his experience of Maltese Catholics generally not living up to the values they profess, and what he perceived as an opulent Church.
For most people, the abuse scandal seemed to hardly figure at all. Of more concern to them was encroaching secularism which, unlike most of Europe, they are barely used to.
The Holy Father took pains to point them in the right direction, bringing Malta both “renewal and revival”, in the opinion of Miriam Cremona, a former headteacher.
Yet his well-chosen words could, as always, also apply to the Church facing challenges in the rest of the increasingly secularist West.