ROME – Pope Francis visited a Maltese welcome center for migrants on Sunday, condemning the disregard with which they are often treated, and urging humanity and kindness instead. It was his final event during his weekend trip to Malta before returning to Rome.
In his speech at the John XXIII Peace Laboratory in Zurrieq, Malta, Pope Francis noted that the logo for his brief April 2-3 trip reflects St. Paul’s shipwreck on Malta, described in the Acts of the Apostles.
Thousands of men, women, and children have also experienced their own shipwrecks during attempts to cross the Mediterranean in recent years, and oftentimes, these voyages end in tragedy, he said.
“In these events we see another kind of shipwreck taking place: the shipwreck of civilization, which threatens not only migrants but us all,” the pope said, saying this can only be stopped “by acting with kindness and humanity – by regarding people not merely as statistics, but…for what they really are.”
Pope Francis visited the so-called “Peace Lab” Sunday, and was scheduled to go directly to the airport for his return flight to Rome.
Established in 1971 by Franciscan Father Dionysius Mintoff to promote social justice and human rights, the center is located in Ħal Far, one of Malta’s industrial estates that saw heavy fighting during the second world war, and which, for the past 20 years, has been dedicated specifically to helping migrants.
In a brief greeting to Pope Francis after his arrival at the center, Mintoff said no one ever wants to leave their home and loved ones behind, “but war, hunger and the inability to build their own future and that of their children” often pushes people into fleeing for safety.
“We know that these people, regardless of race or religious faith, are children of God, recipients of his unconditional, tender love,” he said, insisting that Christians “are called to offer them in a concrete way acceptance and the possibility of life.”
“Your urgent appeals to be close to the weakest spur us to do better and to continue our daily mission towards those who, whether for a limited time or permanently, land on our Island, to escape from misery and to have a better life,” he said.
Migration has long been a cornerstone of Francis’s papacy, and the issue has unsurprisingly loomed large during his visit to Malta, which for years has borne the brunt of Europe’s migration crisis.
Roughly 200 migrants were present for Pope Francis’s visit to the center Sunday, including two who offered brief testimonies.
One man from Nigeria, Daniel Jude Oukeguale, said he traveled through the desert to Libya and attempted to cross into Europe three times, finally making it on the third try. He said he paid smugglers large sums of money – migrants are often compelled to pay thousands of Euro – and would do odd jobs in between attempts to afford another crossing, and those who couldn’t pay were tortured until they settled their debts.
Oukeguale said he was confined to different detention camps along the way, which he said made him feel like a criminal rather than a human being, and almost made him lose hope.
The pope also heard from another migrant named Siriman Coulibaly, who has lived in Malta for four years, and who spoke about the risk of exploitation that migrants often face, saying those who flee do so to find peace, security, and democracy.
In his remarks, Pope Francis pointed to the plight of people now fleeing war in Ukraine, as well as those from throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas who have left their homes in search of safety. “All of them are in my thoughts and prayers at this time,” he said.
Leaving one’s roots behind leaves its mark, Francis said. “Not just the pain and emotion of that moment, but a deep wound affecting your journey of growth as a young man or woman,” which he said can only be healed through kindness and acceptance.
This kindness can be difficult to find in reception centers, he said, but stressed that for Christians, their faithfulness to Jesus, who in the Gospels said, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me,’ is at stake.
In this vein, he thanked all those who helped establish the Peace Lab and who work and volunteer there to make it a welcoming place, voicing hope that the migrants staying there, in response to the kindness they received, would in turn become “witnesses and agents of welcome and fraternity.”
“That is the dream I want to share with you and which I place in God’s hands. For what is impossible for us is not impossible for him. I believe it is most important that in today’s world migrants become witnesses of those human values essential for a dignified and fraternal life,” he said.
“This is the way! The way of fraternity and social friendship,” he said, calling this “the future of the human family in a globalized world.”
Francis noted that the dreams of freedom and democracy that so many migrants leave home with are often contrasted against the harsh reality of the journey and the many ways in which their human dignity is violated, “sadly at times with the complicity of the competent authorities.”
Progress begins with “the dignity of persons,” he said, adding, “Let us not be deceived by all those who tell us that ‘nothing can be done’; ‘these problems are too big for us’; ‘let others fend for themselves while I go about my own business.’ No. Let us never fall into this trap.”
Rather, he urged society at all levels to “light fires of fraternity around which people can warm themselves, rise again, and rediscover hope.
“Let us strengthen the fabric of social friendship and the culture of encounter, starting from places such as this. They may not be perfect but they are, truly, ‘laboratories of peace,’” he said.