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VALETTA, Malta – In another of his “blink and you’ll miss it” overseas trips, generally one or two-day affairs within Europe and the Mediterranean, Pope Francis arrives Saturday morning on the island nation of Malta and will be on the ground just 18 hours, sleeping in his own bed in the Vatican Sunday night.
Despite the quick turn-around, the pontiff has a full schedule with 10 separate events, including meetings with the country’s political leaders, a prayer meeting at the national shrine of “Ta’ Pinu,” a public Mass – and, in a vintage Francis touch, a meeting with migrants and refugees at Malta’s John XXIII Peace Lab Center for Migrants.
All that’s in addition to his customary face time with the local Jesuits, not to mention arrival and departure ceremonies at the Malta International Airport.
At first glance, it would not seem to be a trip destined to make major international headlines. Malta is not at war; it’s a relatively prosperous society – ranking in the top 40 nations in the world in terms of GDP per capita – and there’s no major crisis erupting at the moment, as the incumbent government recently won a landslide victory for a third term in office.
Yet widening the lens, the pope’s weekend stop in Malta can be seen as a microcosm of the main challenges Francis has faced over nearly a decade of his papacy.
Ad extra, the trip throws a spotlight once again on the fate of migrants and refugees in the early 21st century, which has been a cornerstone of Francis’s social and humanitarian agenda from the very beginning.
Though Malta, a nation of just over 500,000 people, has not been overwhelmed by waves of migrants and refugees in the same way that, for example, Italy and Greece have, its small size nevertheless has fueled fears. Both local and international monitoring groups have criticized Malta for allegedly harsh treatment of migrants, including detention centers with “inhumane” living conditions.
Francis already has signaled migration will be a top concern during the trip, saying during his Wednesday General Audience that just as Malta once welcomed St. Paul, so now it’s even more committed “to welcoming so many brothers and sisters seeking refuge.” Local media took the line as a clear challenge to the government of Prime Minister Robert Avela to improve the country’s treatment of new arrivals.
Ad intra, the trip – if not quite the pope’s official schedule, or likely to-do list- nearly encapsulates two internal headaches that have plagued Francis from the beginning, recalcitrance and ideological resistance from some quarters, and the frustrating messiness of reform.
Malta is the spiritual home of the Knights of Malta, the storied Catholic organization that’s a blend of a religious order, a global humanitarian and charitable organization, and a sovereign entity under international law.
From the beginning, some elements within the Knights of Malta have been part of the broader conservative antipathy to Pope Francis, sometimes shading off into explicit opposition.
Things came to a head in 2016 and 2017 when conservatives in the order, backed by the Knights’ ecclesiastical patron, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, were outraged to discover that a Knights charity in Myanmar had distributed condoms as part of an anti-Aids initiative. They tried to engineer an internal coup, forcing out the Grand Master at the time, at which point Francis essentially cried Basta!, “Enough!”, reinstating the Grand Master and appointing his own personal delegate to oversee a sweeping reform.
That reform is still very much a work in progress. The pope’s delegate, Italian Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, recently submitted a draft of a new constitution. It drew immediate criticism from elements within the order who felt it would compromise their sovereignty, essentially making the Knights subject to the whims of the Vatican. At a Feb. 26 meeting in the Vatican, Francis heard from both sides in the debate and counseled patience, saying there’s no rush to make final decisions.
Malta has also been an epicenter for the Vatican’s ongoing efforts at financial reform, which, so far, Francis has found easier to describe than to implement. At the moment, a Maltese investment company called Futura Fund is engaged in a nasty legal battle with the Vatican Bank related to the attempted purchase of the former home of the Budapest Stock Exchange. Basically, the Vatican Bank claims the fund duped it out of around $13 million, while Fortuna insists all transactions were fully approved by bank authorities. Now, the bank wants Fortuna to pay for its own losses on the deal.
“Futura strongly denies all wrongdoing, claiming that the investment was precisely performed in the very terms which had been openly discussed with, and fully approved by, [the Vatican Bank’s] own external advisors and top managers of the time,” a statement last month said.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, the mere fact it’s going on suggests that the clean-up operation of Vatican finances still has some ground to cover before full transparency and accountability will have arrived.
Unlike the migration issue, there’s absolutely no indication that Pope Francis will engage either the situation with the Knights of Malta or the litigation pitting the Maltese fund against the Vatican Bank during his two days in the country. It’s not part of his schedule, and, frankly, it’s hard to know what he might accomplish in 18 brief hours anyway.
Malta also highlights the ongoing clerical sexual abuse scandals, if only for the reason that Francis’s host will be Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who is also his go-to person on issues of abuse. From the beginning, Scicluna has been a leading voice for reform and a major architect of the church’s canonical response to the scandals. There’s no indication the abuse crisis will be a theme of this trip, but Scicluna’s presence alone is a reminder that the reform isn’t finished.
The fact those ad intra challenges probably won’t come up doesn’t mean they’re going to go away. Even if this trip isn’t perhaps the moment to face them, Malta is nevertheless a compelling reminder that the complexities waiting for Francis almost 10 years ago when he took over haven’t exactly gotten any simpler.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr