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VATICAN LETTER Apr-9-2010 (840 words) With photos. xxxi

Friendly shores: Rousing welcome expected to greet pope in Malta

Students from a Catholic grade school attend Mass on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows in St. Publius Church in Floriana, Malta, March 26. Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate Mass outside of the church in Floriana on the site of ancient underground granaries during his April 17-18 visit to the Mediterranean island. St. Publius was the chief man of the island who was converted by St. Paul and became its first bishop. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope Benedict XVI lands in Malta for a two-day trip April 17 he is expected to receive the same warm and hospitable welcome as St. Paul enjoyed when the apostle and his companions washed up on the Mediterranean island 1,950 years ago.

Nearly 95 percent of the country's 443,000 people profess to be Catholic, and large crowds are expected to turn out for the trip's two major outdoor events: a Mass April 18 in Malta's biggest square in Floriana and a gathering with young people later that day at the port of Valletta overlooking the Grand Harbor.

The pope will have turned 83 the day before he arrives, and pope-watchers wonder if there will be an impromptu celebration waiting in his honor. The White House feted Pope Benedict with a four-layer lemon cake when his 81st birthday coincided with his visit to Washington.

According to the official schedule, the 26-hour visit will hit the essentials.

He will meet with the country's bishops and Maltese President George Abela in separate encounters. And he will meet the faithful, including young people. He will probably use those occasions to highlight how Christianity's moral and spiritual values help build a more peaceful and just society and a more fulfilling life.

While not planned as part of the trip, the sex abuse scandal is bound to be on people's minds during the pope's visit.

Church leaders in Malta have said, "This is a moment of great humiliation for the entire church," referring to revelations of the abuse of minors by priests and religious not only around the world, but in their own backyard.

Archbishop Paul Cremona of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo co-signed a letter April 8 expressing the church's "grave sorrow and repentance toward all those who have been abused."

To handle allegations of clerical sex abuse, the church in Malta set up a response team headed by a retired judge in 1999. A second team was established later that same year to expedite the investigations.

The two bishops said everyone involved in a suspected case of abuse must come forward and also cooperate with civil authorities. Christians are called to speak the truth rather than "disguising facts or remaining silent," they said.

According to The Associated Press, Malta's response team has received 84 allegations of child abuse involving 25 priests, since it was established.

Although it was not part of the official schedule, there is always the possibility Pope Benedict might meet privately with victims as he did on trips to the United States and Australia.

But Pope Benedict's main plan in accepting the invitation to visit Malta was to make a biblical pilgrimage to the grotto where, according to tradition, the Apostle Paul chose to live during the three months he was shipwrecked on the island.

St. Paul, the republic's patron saint, will feature prominently on this journey -- the pope's first of five scheduled foreign trips abroad this year. He is going to help commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul's arrival, which also marks the birth of Christianity on this five-island Mediterranean nation situated between Sicily and North Africa.

The Gospel took hold and flourished, making Malta one of the most Catholic countries in the world. When Pope John Paul II visited in 1991, he said Malta's full embrace of its Christian values should inspire the rest of Europe.

Pope Benedict has also made revitalizing Europe's Christian roots a centerpiece of his papacy and he is certain to encourage the Maltese to continue to hold fast to their Christian heritage and allow Christian values to inspire culture and politics.

While there are strict provisions protecting the freedom of worship in Malta, Catholicism is the state religion. Some key civil laws reflect that tie: divorce and abortion are illegal in Malta and remain opposed by a majority of the population.

One government policy that the church has taken issue with, however, is the problem of forced detention of many of the illegal immigrants who wash up in Malta on their way to other European countries. What to do with the thousands of immigrants who are fleeing wars, persecution or poverty is a hot political issue on the island.

All immigrants who are denied admission into Malta or who enter illegally are detained until they can be deported. Even asylum seekers and people who apply for refugee status remain in detention while their status is being determined. Detainees, which include children, may be kept for months in prison-like centers with sometimes abysmal conditions.

Archbishop Cremona has said today's immigrants and refugees should be welcomed just as St. Paul was in the first century.

In an interview earlier this year with the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, the archbishop said the Maltese demonstrated a "strong sense of openness toward someone who is 'different,' the foreigner" when they welcomed St. Paul.

The archbishop called on the Maltese to revive this attitude of acceptance and to eliminate prejudices, and treat immigrants first and foremost as people.


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