The episodes described in the Acts of the Apostles reflect the Maltese characteristic of being “kind, generous and welcoming people,” said Sara Zingariello, coordinator for migrant outreach at the Maltese branch of the Catholic charity Jesuit Relief Services, speaking to Religion News Service on Friday.
The pope’s visit “is an opportunity for us to rediscover perhaps this beautiful characteristic in a world and in a society that is increasingly becoming more defensive and closed as a result of fear and concern about the future,” she added.
Representatives from Jesuit Relief Services will be present at the pope’s meeting with migrants on Sunday. “Pope Francis’ focus on human dignity that goes beyond nationality, race and religion makes his message very universal,” Zingariello said. “It’s a message that everyone — migrant or Maltese — can really identify with.”
According to Delicata, migration flows are also causing the Maltese church “to change its face” to accommodate the Filipino, Colombian and Syro-Malabar traditions of the island’s new arrivals.
Francis was originally scheduled to visit Malta in 2019 at the Feast of Pentecost, a Christian symbol of rebirth. The current visit, coming shortly before Easter, is also intended to signal the pope’s hope to revive the church in Malta, according to Delicata.
Modern-day Maltese have embraced the secularism that is common across Europe. Malta was among the first states in Europe to legalize same-sex marriage and decriminalize recreational drugs, but the island also has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the world.
Only 37% of Maltese attend Mass regularly, according to a 2017 census published by the Times of Malta — though many more attend monthly.
There is a sense that Maltese Catholicism’s vitality is as antiquated as the Knights Hospitaller, whose grand master once wielded tremendous influence not only on the island but in Rome, where the group is now based. In 2017, Francis contested the Knights’ authority at the Vatican in a move seemingly meant to quell conservative dissent. The current archbishop of Malta, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, is currently one of the pope’s right-hand men in reforming the church.
On Saturday, Francis will go to the Sanctuary of Ta’Pinu on the island of Gozo, just off the Maltese coast, to say Mass for a crowd of 3,000 and local bishops, giving the pope the chance to encourage the local church to go back to its faithful roots.
The church in Malta, accustomed to being close to power inside the Vatican, must now find its new identity in charitable work and evangelization, Delicata said.
“The Maltese version of being Catholics is that it’s a family matter, a traditional matter, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to having a social conscience,” she said, adding that “the pope might be telling us not just to repent, but also to be courageous.”
This article originally appeared here.