Pope Francis visited the grotto Sunday where St. Paul lived after washing up on Malta, recalling the welcome the apostle received and urging better treatment of modern-day arrivals on the Mediterranean island.
On the final day of his weekend trip to Malta, the 85-year-old pontiff will also hold open-air mass before visiting a migrant center that will soon host refugees from the Ukraine war.
According to Christian tradition, Paul was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD while en route to Rome and performed several miracles in his three months there.
Following in the footsteps of former popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis visited the holy grotto in Rabat, lighting a candle and saying a prayer.
He recalled how Paul and his fellow travelers were welcomed, even though “no one knew their names, their place of birth or their social status.”
He called on God to “help us to recognize from afar those in need, struggling amidst the waves of the sea, dashed against the reefs of unknown shores” and grant that “our compassion be more than empty words.”
The pope, who last summer underwent colon surgery and canceled an event in February due to acute knee pain, appeared to have trouble walking during the visit, where he also met the sick and disabled at the connected Basilica of St. Paul.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has overshadowed the pope’s first trip to Catholic-majority Malta, a voyage delayed two years by coronavirus.
Addressing politicians and diplomats Saturday, he warned that “some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts” in a thinly veiled accusation against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Asked by a reporter about a possible trip to Kyiv, he said a visit to Ukraine’s capital was “on the table.”
The war has caused the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, which feeds into a key theme of Francis’ nine-year papacy — the need to welcome those fleeing war, poverty or the effects of climate change.
Malta is on the frontline of the route from North Africa into Europe and thousands of people who risked the crossing in overcrowded boats have ended up here.
But charity groups have accused Malta of turning a blind eye to desperate people in its waters, and the pope on Saturday reminded the archipelago of its status as a “safe harbor”, while adding that other countries must also step in.
“The growing migration emergency — here we can think of the refugees from war-torn Ukraine — calls for a broad-based and shared response,” he said.
After visiting the grotto, the pope headed to Floriana, near the capital Valletta, where he was set to conduct mass for a 10,000-strong crowd of followers.
Awaiting him among the crowd was 67-year-old Anna Balzan from the nearby city of Qormi and her extended family. Over her shoulders was draped a Vatican flag she purchased during John Paul II’s visit in 1990.
“I’ve seen Benedict and John Paul when they came to Malta,” she said, expressing concern for the current pope’s health.
“I saw him as very tired yesterday… I think he is suffering.”
Later Sunday, Francis will return to the theme of migrants by visiting the John XXIII Peace Lab, a center inspired by the pope of that name, which is preparing for the arrival of Ukrainian refugees.
Run for the past five decades by a Franciscan friar, now 91, it already hosts around 55 young men from different parts of Africa who arrived in Malta without any legal papers.