EWTN Reporter’s Notebook: Malta Welcomes 3rd Pope to Its Sacred Shores
Maltese shared their anticipation ahead of the April 2-3 trip.
As soon as we left our hotel in Malta to travel to our first filming location, we met our taxi driver, who was aptly named Francis. He was in his 70s and was quick to tell us that not only was he a grandfather, but he was a great-grandfather.
Driving through the narrow streets of Valletta, the Maltese capital, Francis was excited when he heard we were in town to film a report about the upcoming visit of the Pope on April 2 and 3.
He went on to tell us about the time Pope John Paul II visited in 1990 (he would again in 2001), and he was working for the national telephone company: They were in charge of providing communication links all over the world for the huge visit. With excitement in his voice, Francis remembered meeting the saint and told us he never forgot it. It made me realize that even after 30-something years, a papal visit can still have a profound effect on people. They are indeed powerful trips with spiritual significance.
We would meet Francis again a number of times over the week, as well as one of his daughters, son-in-laws, etc. Their taxi business was a family affair, and we soon realized that this was Malta, a small country that is more like a big community where everyone seems to know everyone. A group of three islands with a total population of about half a million, it seems to have everything: pristine blue lagoons, golden sandy beaches, and a slow, easy-going pace of life. No wonder it has earned the nickname of “little slice of heaven on Earth.”
Our first stop was St. Paul’s Basilica in Mdina, probably the most important site for Catholics and other Christians in the country. Built in the 12th century, it stands on the very spot where they believe St. Paul stayed for three months in the first century after being shipwrecked off the coast during a storm. The apostle was apparently sailing from Crete to Rome to face trial in front of Julius Caesar. It’s fitting, then, that the theme and motto for Pope Francis’ trip to Malta is taken from the Acts of the Apostles, “They showed us unusual kindness.”
Outside the basilica, workers were laying down new slabs of sidewalk, and two large statues were surrounded by mesh after being restored. This was where I meet Father Joseph Mizzi, the parish priest of the basilica. He, too, was excited and told me why Pope Francis’ visit to this sacred site is important: “This is the center of the Christian faith in Malta, so it is a very important place. When St. Paul stayed here, it is believed he celebrated the first Holy Mass, and he also baptized the first Christian people.” The Pope will follow in St. Paul’s footsteps and celebrate Mass inside this basilica.
Father Mizzi took me around the back of the basilica and into the sacristy. It was busy, with a group of men moving statues around. He told me they were all local men who had volunteered to come and help clean the statues and reorder them inside the basilica ahead of the visit. You could feel a great anticipation in the air. “The Pope is the figure of Christ for us. He will strengthen our faith to grow in discipleship,” Father Mizzi said.
This is something I heard a lot when travelling around Malta: that the people are hoping the visit of Pope Francis will help revitalize and reenergize the faith here. Traditionally, Malta has been one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, with more than 90% of the population professing to be Catholic. However, like in many other countries, Church sexual scandals, increasing secularization, and a decrease in Mass attendance has meant the faith has been weakened. There is a hope that the visit of Pope Francis will have a long-lasting effect on the people, just as the visit of Pope John Paul II had on our taxi driver, Francis, and countless others.
Another important site Pope Francis will visit is the stunning Marian Shrine of Ta Pinu on the island of Gozo, a hugely significant spot for Maltese Catholics. It is here they believed Mary appeared in 1883. There, we met Father Edward Vella, the parish priest. “I think the visit of the Pope is something very special. The Pope will renew us in our faith and draw us closer to Jesus, but also help us live in peace and respect one another,” he told me. It’s interesting that he emphasized “respect one another,” a message that Pope Francis will surely be conveying, referring to the migrants who have arrived in Malta over the last number of years. Being an archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea, an ocean that has been nicknamed Europe’s graveyard, Malta has taken in around 10,000 refugees in recent years.
As is common with the Pope’s trips, he will meet with some of these migrants at the John XXIII Peace Lab. This is a center for migrants offering accommodation, food and help finding work. It was established in 1971 by Father Dionysius Mintoff. We traveled to the Peace Lab, just outside the capital, on our final day to meet Father Dionysuis, who is now 91 years old. The francisan friar sat down with me on a bench under the shelter of trees in the center’s yard. He has become something of a beloved character in Malta, I’m told, often appearing on TV and radio, giving a voice to the migrant population. I asked him about the new migrant phenomenon that Europe is experiencing, and he corrected me to tell me that, for Malta, it’s nothing new. Over his nine decades, he has seen this pattern repeat itself time and time again: “We have in our blood the problems of migrants. Many times in history, our whole country had to leave to Australia, or to America, or to here and there. So you don’t see only those people [current migrants]; you see your parents, your relatives, etc.”
Father Dionysius has devoted his priestly life to helping migrants and those on the margins, and he remembers well the visits of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to Malta.
But for him, this visit of Pope Francis will be extra special. He told me, “I’m waiting for him every moment … every minute. … I never thought I would live to see three popes visit Malta. … Every minute I’m waiting.”
Finally, I congratulated him for reaching 91 still in good health. I asked him what his secret was. He paused and then moved forward, leaning on his wooden walking stick, and said with a smile, “Love. When you live, you love … and when you don’t love, you don’t live.”
Pope Francis is visiting Malta April 2 to April 3. Follow the ongoing news of the trip at NCRegister.com. Watch Colm’s full report on EWTN News InDepth.