VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Local organizers of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the small Mediterranean island of Malta expect him to bring a welcome to migrants and refugees who have taken refuge there, while urging the citizens of the ancient Christian nation to fight back against the rampant corruption in the country.
Christianity in Malta can be traced back to A.D. 60, when the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked off the island’s coast. His success in converting the locals led the authorities to imprison him for three months in a cave not far from the city of Rabat.
Francis will visit Rabat on Sunday (April 3), the second day of his two-day visit, and make his way to the grotto, where Maltese Catholics believe Paul administered the first Eucharist on the island. Both St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI visited this holy site when they came to Malta in 1990 and 2010 respectively.
Given Malta’s proximity to Rome — less than 500 miles as the crow flies — and its history — the island was the longtime base of the powerful lay Order of St. John, commonly known as the Knights of Malta — some are surprised that Francis, who looks to boost Catholics at the margins of the church, would follow his predecessors.
“I find it quite interesting that this visit is happening,” Nadia Delicata, a theologian at the University of Malta and a local organizer for the pope’s visit, told reporters at the Vatican last week. “Malta isn’t exactly the place that I consider to be the peripheries of Catholicism,” she added, using the pope’s phrase for those outside the church’s power centers.
But Malta is an apt site for Francis to address two issues he has made central to his papacy: welcoming people displaced from their countries by war or famine, and the effects of government corruption on the poor.
Malta ranks 54th of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Joseph Muscat, who served as prime minister of Malta from 2013 to 2020, has been embroiled in scandal since the release of the Panama Papers in 2016, leaked documents that unveiled Maltese officials’ alleged cooperation, among many others’, in money laundering schemes perpetrated by the world’s wealthiest.
Muscat has also faced controversy connected to the October 2017 car bombing that killed journalist Caruana Galizia as she investigated Maltese government ties to offshore shell companies.
“Corruption is a reality that is poisoning Maltese society,” said the Rev. Marc André Camilleri, a parish priest at the basilica of Christ King in Malta, speaking to Vatican reporters online last week.
When Francis meets with political and religious representatives on Saturday, he is expected to bring a message of transparency and ethics in public life. “Let’s hope he makes it clear that corruption is unacceptable in a civil society,” Camilleri said.
On Sunday, after paying homage at Paul’s grotto, Francis will tour the John XXIII Peace Lab, a center where migrants and refugees, mostly Africans, are offered asylum and integration services.
Paul’s experience in the perilous Mediterranean waters presaged the challenges faced by many migrants from the Middle East and Africa sailing much the same route today, and the pope will likely draw a parallel between the presence of today’s migrants and refugees and Paul’s conversion of Malta.