After weeks of a media siege over the clerical-abuse scandal, Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Malta was widely seen as timely and providential for the Church.
For the Maltese people, the April 17-18 visit was a stimulus to give greater witness to the rest of society.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said he was particularly impressed by the high level of participation by the faithful at a time of “trial and difficulty” for the Church.
The Pope’s visit came at a time when the country, for the first time, has had to seriously contend with secularism. Benedict devoted many of his speeches to offering a way forward, calling on the faithful to be examples of “dynamic Christian living” and to never allow their true Catholic identity to be “compromised by indifferentism and relativism.” Though he made no direct references to the sexual-abuse scandal, he met privately with several sexual abuse victims.
Addressing an estimated crowd of some 12,000 young people who met with the Pope at the Valletta waterfront, the Pope praised the Maltese for remaining faithful to the teachings of the Church on important social issues.
“May you always remain faithful to the teaching of St. Paul, who exhorts you to ‘be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.’ You should be proud that your country both defends the unborn and promotes stable family life by saying no to abortion and divorce.”
After thunderous applause, the Pope continued, “I urge you to maintain this courageous witness to the sanctity of life and the centrality of marriage and family life for a healthy society.”
In Malta to mark the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St. Paul off the island’s coast, the Holy Father took the opportunity to draw several times on the example of the Apostle to the Gentiles, stressing how, like Paul’s shipwreck, the Gospel can break into a person’s life and change its direction. He also stressed how Paul’s accidental stay on the island has led to Malta having a strong and deep-rooted Catholic culture and identity, and exhorted the Maltese to do their best to protect their Catholic heritage.
Back in Rome April 21, the Pope said, “For almost 2,000 years, the history of that people has been inseparable from the Catholic faith, which has molded their culture and traditions. It is said that there are 365 churches in Malta, ‘one for each day of the year,’ a visible sign of their deep faith!”
He said that the history of Catholicism in Malta “ inspires a sense of great wonder for the mysterious plans of divine Providence and gives rise to spontaneous gratitude to the Lord and also to St. Paul, who, in the midst of that violent storm, maintained his confidence and hope, which he was also able to pass on to his fellow travelers.”
In his address to young people on the waterfront, Benedict called on them to not be afraid to spread the Gospel, to respond to their vocation, and to love all people with an “all-inclusive” love, seeking out those who are vulnerable or in distress.
“God loves every one of us with a depth and intensity that we can hardly begin to imagine. And he knows us intimately; he knows all our strengths and all our faults,” the Pope said. “Because he loves us so much, he wants to purify us of our faults and build up our virtues so that we can have life in abundance.”
Archbishop Paul Cremona of Malta told reporters April 19 that although the Pope “was at the center of this visit, the real protagonists were the Maltese people, who came out in great numbers.” The Church estimated that 100,000 people turned out to greet the Pope on the first day — one quarter of the island’s population, which is almost entirely Catholic. Archbishop Cremona said he saw the Pope as giving two main messages: The first was a call to the Maltese people to give credible witness to Christ, and the second to incarnate their belief in wider society.
Meeting With Victims
But perhaps the most newsworthy event was when the Pope initiated a surprise meeting with eight victims of clerical abuse in the apostolic nunciature in Valletta on April 18. During the encounter, the victims knelt in silent prayer with the Holy Father, and each one was given time to speak with the Pope. Benedict then gave them his blessing.
One of the victims, Lawrence Grech, said he was “very satisfied” with the meeting, and added that “the priests who abused us are criminals, but the Pope is not.”
According to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Grech said he asked the Pope why it happened, to which the Holy Father replied: “I don’t know … I don’t know why they have done this to you. It’s too great a horror, perhaps too great even for God.” The Holy Father was reported to have had tears in his eyes during the meeting. Grech said he finally could return to his wife and children and “rediscover my faith.”
Danny Scerri, a Maltese citizen, told the Register he knew one of the alleged abusers. “He was at my school and one of our teachers,” he said. “It was an open secret that he was a child abuser, as he used to touch pupils in the changing rooms, but no one did anything.” He added that the priest is still “walking the streets”: The court case, which began in 2003, has yet to reach a verdict.
Scerri, who has formally severed all links with the Church, also welcomed the meeting and, like all the Maltese people approached by the Register, defended the Pope from unfair attacks. Many saw them as either feeding false agendas or as media-generated. Archbishop Cremona said he didn’t want to “hurt anyone,” but blamed reporters for smearing the Pope. “We used to call the media reporters,” he said, but added, “There is reporting and misreporting.”
‘They Came Out for Christ’
For many of the Maltese people, the visit was both a “revival and renewal” for the Church in the island nation. That sense of renewal could be felt even before the Pope arrived. The weekend before the trip, groups of youth appeared in the town squares, proclaiming the upcoming visit with drums, violins, tambourines, castanets and guitars. They carried large banners with a beautiful picture of the Madonna and Christ Child. The lay ecclesial movement the Neocatechumenal Way livened up the squares and streets with their music while handing out fliers.
“The Pope is trying to bridge the gap between the sacred and today’s [secular world],” said one young Maltese. “It is no easy task.”
This group also organized themselves on the day of the Pope’s arrival. They joined together with other Maltese who did their best to block the visibility of a controversial sculpture (a large phallic symbol that was installed in 2004 near the airport). Many Maltese considered the sculpture offensive not only to Maltese society but also to the Pope. As a means of showing their respect for Pope Benedict, the group held a large banner of the Blessed Mother and Child to block the view of this sculpture from the Pope as he drove by it in the popemobile just after his arrival.
“It is now the time for Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ and show our love and support for the Pope,” said one young student. “This is why we are here. We want to proclaim Jesus Christ.”
Father Charles Tabone of the bishops’ communications department referred to the negativity leading up to the visit and how people said that Benedict is not known to be a star attraction like his predecessor. But he pointed out that people still came out in the thousands.
In his April 21 remarks, the Holy Father said his trip to this deeply Catholic country was a personal consolation for him.
He noted that the public Mass he celebrated had fervent participation from the faithful.
“For me,” he said, “it was a joy and also a consolation to experience the particular warmth of the people there, who gave the impression of being one big family, united by faith and by the Christian view of life.”
(Jennifer Roche contributed to this report.)
Edward Pentin filed this report from Malta.