Pope Francis caused us an epiphany with his visit here to Malta on April 2 and 3. This small nation of ours, just over half a million citizens, including 100,000 non-Maltese, was gradually coming out of two years of Covid restrictions. We needed a sniff of incense.
Here came this pilgrim of peace and quoted from the holy book, the Acts of the Apostles, saying that when St Paul was shipwrecked on Maltese shores 2,000 years ago, the islanders “treated us with much kindness” (Acts 28:2).
Our new prime minister, Dr Robert Abela, had visited Pope Francis two years ago in the Vatican immediately after being installed in his post and he invited the Pope to come to Malta, only to postpone for the Covid pandemic. The PM intended to sweep clean and, indeed, he did just that: in spite of a political faction dead set on giving Malta a bad name, Abela started collecting accolades for his honesty from day one.
The echoes of years of controversy could still be heard when Pope Francis arrived, but he found a nation of do-gooders all out to give him a resounding welcome. The Maltese are going through a period of peace, finally. For the last eight years our government has concentrated fully on eliminating poverty. We have reached full employment, and thousands of Europeans have emigrated here to garner the more lucrative jobs of our new wealth. They were welcomed and encouraged to set up new businesses because they brought with them a lot of new know-how and skills. Year after year the government has registered a surplus in state finances.
During the pandemic, both Maltese and foreign companies received regular government aid to secure the jobs for their employees. Government wage supplements and running-cost subsidies were generous enough to ensure that, after two years, business hit the ground running. In many ways Malta survived better than most of its neighbours, perhaps because of its agility and its smallness. Malta still has to face afflictions from all over the world, but the astuteness and resilience of its people make her a good survivor.
Pope Francis likened Malta and the Maltese to the wind rose — a graphic tool, incidentally, first designed during the Renaissance precisely here in Malta. He told us that we are influenced by all the winds coming from the cold or the hot regions and we have learned to endure. He showed us his appreciation that, in spite of the Covid pandemic, the war crisis in Europe and bullying by the power of money, we still find it in ourselves to be kind and considerate to the unfortunate.
His Holiness was not painting a one-sided picture. He came prepared, and one of the first things he made clear is that we should not be greedy for money and power. We should not overexploit the land with excessive building and we should love nature in a better way than we have done so far. He warned us against the contamination of the spirit that comes from corruption. However, his emphasis was more on our sense of brotherhood.
Pope Francis did not need to visit any favelas here — because they have never existed. The Maltese are a generous people who love their neighbour. Yet again His Holiness did not bother to spend much time visiting ostentatious palaces except to follow a bare essential protocol. He spent his time mixing with the common people in the open.
Of the many voluntary organisations paying him homage, he singled out one run by Bjorn Formosa who, notwithstanding his limited movement capability caused by an ALS condition (a progressive disease of the nervous system), has raised millions to finance two special homes where people with ALS and motor neurone disease can live and receive the specialised care needed. Pope Francis had a tete a tete with Bjorn in front of a vast audience. Bjorn is a national hero and typical of the Maltese, who, in spite of their limitations, reach out to others who need help.
The Peace Lab
Francis had received a letter from Livingstone Ngetuny, an African immigrant who had tried to cross over from Libya a number of times on precarious boats and seen friends and relatives drown at sea. He had been rescued and brought to Malta with several others. He cannot return home — it’s a war zone — so he was welcomed by volunteers of a charity called the Peace Laboratory.
It’s run by my friend, Father Dionysius, a humble 91-year-old Franciscan friar, whose brother was prime minister Dom Mintoff. He is still just as dynamic as his late brother, a sorely missed national hero. Some 50 years ago Fr Dionysius turned a military installation into an international peace laboratory where young people from all over Europe could come and discuss how to promote peace and understanding between nations. Since the year 2000, the Peace Laboratory has offered shelter to a large number of homeless immigrants and refugees.
Pope Francis followed up on that immigrant’s letter and requested to be taken to the Peace Laboratory. While there, he hugged many of the displaced refugees and spoke to them quietly. It was here that he expressed how he was overwhelmed by the generosity of the Maltese and said: “I see all of Malta as a peace laboratory.” It’s an endorsement that Malta and the Maltese should cherish for years to come. His Holiness encouraged the Maltese to keep setting a good example with regard to this world problem of migration. (NB: The last time the Maltese civilian population was recognised for its gallantry as a nation was during the blitzkrieg of 1942, when King George VI awarded the Maltese people the George Cross, a non-military decoration that Malta still wears on its national flag.)
Malta is not the soft underbelly of Europe, it has never been an open border, welcoming anyone and everyone. But Malta is carrying a burden much larger proportionately, than its size might allow. The outgoing minister of Foreign Affairs, Evarist Bartolo, recently explained on TV that when Malta accepts 1,000 refugees, that amount is proportionately comparable to Germany accepting one million. It must have been this generosity of the Maltese people and its government that made His Holiness happily quote St Paul’s words in Acts.
It was at this epiphanic moment that the Maltese realised that, notwithstanding various harsh criticisms from domestic and foreign sources, their approach toward the immigration challenge must be a blessed one. Thank you, dear peace pilgrim Francis, for your loving visit. Peace on Earth to all those of good will.
Narcy Calamatta is a veteran writer, designer, actor and director on stage, TV and film. A militant in social causes, he regularly contributes to local print media in Malta in English and Maltese.
He has been editor of a left-wing political satirical bi-weekly gazette and a stringer for the international issue of the Hollywood Reporter. He was the drama and art critic on the first local electronic newspaper, maltastar.com.
His essays on the tourism and film industries have been published in a guide book in three languages and he has published a book with a collection of four of his plays in English and their translation in Maltese.
This year he published a dissertation on Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame and its translation into Maltese. He is the editor of two books; Survivors II by international photographer Joe P Smith and Somebody Up There Loves Me, his brother Peter’s saga in Maltese on his fight with cancer. Narcy has also written three scripts for award-winning short films and he wrote the scripts for seven episodes of a TV comedy series. His dissertation on The Beheading of St John, the Caravaggio masterpiece that hangs in St John’s Cathedral in Valletta, was published locally and he delivered it as a lecture at the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
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