Pope Francis told Catholics in Malta on Saturday that when they offer charity to the migrants and refugees who arrive on their shores, they are serving Christ himself.
Speaking outside of Malta’s national shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary on April 2, the pope said that Catholics “cannot only welcome each other, in the shelter of our beautiful churches, while outside so many brothers and sisters suffer and are crucified by pain, poverty and violence.”
“Yours is a crucial geographical position, overlooking the Mediterranean; you are like a magnet and port of salvation for people buffeted by the tempests of life who, for various reasons, land on your shores,” Pope Francis said at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu.
“It is Christ himself, who appears to you in the faces of these poor men and women,” the pope said.
The pope presided over a prayer meeting at the basilica on the island of Gozo, Malta’s second largest island.
Pope Francis arrived on the island after traveling aboard a catamaran named “Maria Dolores.”
This is not the first time that a pope has traveled on a catamaran. John Paul II was transported by catamaran during his 1990 visit to Malta, inspiring the name for the largest high-speed catamaran in the Mediterranean Sea.
The crowd of more than 2,000 people gathered in front of the Marian shrine on the island of Gozo waited eagerly for Pope Francis, chanting “Papa Franceso” prior to the arrival of the popemobile.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu became a popular pilgrimage destination for the Maltese in the late 19th century after a farmhand named Carmela Grima said that she heard the voice of the Virgin Mary, who called her to pray there.
The original chapel of Ta’Pinu, meaning “of Philip,” dates back to the 16th century, but it received so many pilgrims that a larger basilica shrine was constructed at the site from 1920 to 1931.
Pope Francis spent a moment in prayer inside of the basilica, praying three Hail Marys and offering a golden rose in front of its venerated image of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’Pinu. The pope then greeted and offered his blessing to the sick, elderly, and the disabled who were seated inside the basilica by the altar.
In his speech at the basilica, Pope Francis underlined the importance of witnessing to a living faith and proclaiming the Gospel in the country amid increasing apathy about Catholicism, particularly after church closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Brothers and sisters, the Maltese Church can vaunt a rich history from which great spiritual and pastoral treasures can be drawn. However, the life of the Church — let us always keep this in mind — is never merely ‘a past to remember,’ but a ‘great future to build,’ always in docility to God’s plans,” the pope said.
“At times, structures can be religious, yet beneath outward appearances, faith is fading,” Pope Francis continued. “We need to ensure that religious practices do not get reduced to relics from the past, but remain the expression of a living, open faith that spreads the joy of the Gospel.”
More than 85% of Malta’s population are baptized Catholics, but weekly Mass attendance in the traditionally Catholic country has steadily declined in the past 50 years.
A Catholic priest from Malta, Father Alan Joseph Adami, told CNA in an interview prior to the pope’s trip that Malta “suffers from huge indifference towards the faith that has become so identical with culture that it is no longer discernible in the fruits that it produces.”
Pope Francis’ visit to the country comes just before the first Holy Week and Easter in two years in which Catholic churches will be open to the public for liturgies.
Malta is known for its traditional Holy Week processions celebrated with much pomp through the island’s narrow streets each year on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
“Brothers and sisters, now is the time to go back to the beginning, to stand beneath the cross and to look to the early Christian community. The time to be a Church concerned about friendship with Jesus and the preaching of his Gospel, not about importance and image. To be a Church centered on witness, and not certain religious customs,” Pope Francis said.
“Do not be afraid to set out, as you have already done, on new paths, perhaps even risky paths, of evangelization and proclamation that change lives,” he said.