LUQA, Malta, APRIL 17, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is the text of the address delivered today by George Abela, president of Malta, on the ocassion of welcoming Benedict XVI to the country for a two-day visit.
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Merħba fil-Gżira ta’ San Pawl – Welcome to the Island of St. Paul on this Your first Apostolic visit to our Island coinciding with your birthday which was yesterday, on behalf of the People of Malta and Gozo, on my own behalf and on behalf of my wife Margaret, I wish you “Ad multos annos”.
I still have vivid memories of my inspiring meeting with you last June, during the customary first official visit outside Malta of every Maltese President, when your departing words were “I hope I will see you next time in Malta”.
We rejoice today that the Successor of St. Peter, St. Peter the Apostle friend of St. Paul, is amongst us to commemorate with his faithful flock, the one thousand, nine hundred and fiftieth (1950) anniversary of the shipwreck in Malta of St. Paul in the year 60.
St. Paul, as we find recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, was on his way to trial in Rome when a storm caused all the two hundred seventy six (276) passengers on board the vessel to seek shelter on the Island of Malta, then known as Melite, which was a Roman possession. The inhabitants, described by Luke as barbaroi, and therefore spoke no Greek or Latin, were pagan but treated the Apostle and all the shipwrecked with “unusual hospitality by kindling a fire because of the rain and the cold”. He healed the father of Publius, the Protos, chief man of the Island and afterwards, others came to Paul and were also cured. What appears from archaeological remains to have been a sophisticated Roman city, Melite, thrived at the centre of the Island where Mdina and Rabat are now built. It seems Paul had some freedom of movement since he was highly regarded by Julius, the Roman centurion guarding him and since he usually exercised his mission in an urban environment, it is likely that he went to this city and may have met members of the community living there. St. Paul’s Grotto, which has been traditionally associated with Paul for centuries, is found precisely in this neighbourhood.
Although the Acts are silent as to St. Paul’s preaching and the inhabitants’ conversion, it is unimaginable that the Apostle of the Gentiles, who described himself as “Zealous for God”, could have lived three months on the Island, as recounted in the Acts, without preaching to its inhabitants the message of Redemption. It is also natural to presume that a small community of Christians was born around the figure of the Apostle. The idea of God, as entertained by our ancestors before the shipwreck, had progressively changed during St. Paul’s stay in Malta from that “of the Avenging Judge, as recounted when the viper came out of the fire and stuck to Paul’s hand, into that of God the Healer, the Pardoner and the Saviour”. This is how the conversion of our fore-fathers happened.
St. Paul is therefore generally accepted as having sown the first seeds of evangelisation on this land and of having led its people to their first encounter with Jesus or “with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” as you aptly describe, Holy Father, in your encyclical letter “Deus Caritas Est”. This means that the people of our Islands were fortunate enough to have received the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven even before the first gospel is believed to have been written.
This was a definite moment in our history which has to be viewed not only in its historical and religious perspective but also in its moral and cultural implications because it laid the ethical and intellectual foundations of our State. It gave Malta a new identity: a Christian identity which gradually replaced the pagan, polytheistic culture into a Christian one.
While bearing in mind these historical roots, we must now look at the present time and ask ourselves the pertinent question: Where does Malta stand today? What would the same Apostle Paul say of Malta today had he been around to see all that has taken place since that time?
Malta is not only an independent country today but it has also reached a level of economic and social development which has enabled it to become a Member State of the European Union. Like all the rest of Europe and the western world, we are now facing a conflict between Christianity on one side and laicism or secularism on the other which in the words of philosopher Marcello Pera, as he recently described it in Il Corriere della Sera, whilst referring to Europe : “e in corso una guerra. La guerra e’ fra il laicismo e il cristianesimo”. [as in the middle of a war. The war is between secularism and Christianity.]
And, in drawing parallels with Nazism and Communism he reiterates that:
“Oggi come ieri, cio’ che si vuole e’ la distruzione della religione. Allora l’Europa pago` a questa furia distruttrice il prezzo della propria liberta’… la stessa democrazia sarebbe perduta se il cristianesimo venisse ancora cancellato”. [Today as yesterday, there are those who wish to destroy religion. So Europe pays the price of its own liberty for this destructive fury… democracy itself would be lost if Christianity were yet to be eliminated.]
Today, we face the wave of secularism which has as its starting point the strict separation of Church and State: a laicist model advocating that the State should be strictly separate from religion which is conceived as belonging exclusively to the private domain. This profane character which has developed in some European States is driving people to be laicist or even anti-Christian.
However, as we all know or as we all should know, the moral foundations of a society as a whole, comprising believers, agnostics or atheists, are better served not with the falling away from religion but with the reinvigoration of the moral consciousness of the State. As Your Holiness has splendidly described it in your book “Values in a time of Upheaval”:
“One point that is fundamental in all cultures, is namely, reverence for that which is holy to other persons, and reverence to the Holy One, God. One can certainly demand this even of those who are not themselves willing to believe in God. Where this reverence is shattered, something in a society perishes”.
Holy Father, those of us who believe, are fortified by these fundamental values enunciated by the Church and, though we acknowledge that church members, even its ministers, may, at times, unfortunately go astray, we are left in no doubt that these values have universal application and their validity transcends both time and space. It would be wrong in my view to try to use the reprehensible indiscretions of the few to cast a shadow on the Church as a whole. The Catholic Church remains committed to safeguarding children and all vulnerable people and to seeing that there is no hiding place for those who seek to do harm. It is therefore the Church and even the State’s duty to work hand in hand to issue directives and enact legislation so that effective, transparent mechanisms are set-up together with harmonized and expeditious procedures in order to curb cases of abuse so that justice will not only be done but seen to be done.
Holy Father, we are proud as a nation to have inherited a Christian heritage which is at the core of our historical identity, even though we are not a confessional state. We too are experiencing, like all the rest of Europe, the phenomenon of multiculturalism, but this does not mean that we have to renounce to the beliefs which are our own. We still cherish a code of values, nourished by our Faith, such as the cardinal value of marriage and the family. We acknowledge that our Maltese family is undergoing rapid social changes and challenges, greatly influenced by current Western-world lifestyles and the ever-increasing secularization of the Maltese society. But the majority of our people still believe in monogamous marriage, based on the relationship between a man and a woman, open to the procreation of children, and consequently to the formation of a family as the bedrock of our nation.
We treasure the inviolability of the human person and affirm our full respect for human rights and uphold the principles of social justice by providing equal opportunities for all and ensuring that everybody has access to one’s basic needs. We are against human trafficking and cherish the sanctity of human life from its conception to its natural end. We believe in the values of freedom, equality and solidarity, the fundamental principles of democracy and of the rule of law.
Being situated at the centre of the Mediterranean, Malta is exposed to and faces the burden of illegal immigration which is stretching our financial and human resources. In spite of these difficulties, we should however, never shrink back from our traditional values of solidarity and hospitality towards these migrants during their stay in Malta in full respect of their rights and human dignity.
We have made it our mission to work for peace and prosperity in our Mediterranean region and we refuse to countenance conflict between cultures and actively foster dialogue, including inter-faith dialogue, and understanding between peoples. I am sure I would be speaking for the majority of my countrymen when I say that in the Crucifix we see a symbol of our history, of our culture, and above all of our Faith. The face of the suffering Jesus on the Cross is the face of God who forgave his enemies while He was dying.
The great majority of our young people, although not immune to certain negative tendencies of the modern world, harbour positive values and are seriously dedicated to preparing themselves to be the good citizens of tomorrow. Our hopes for the future of our Nation depend on them. Tomorrow, Malta’s youth will have the wonderful opportunity of meeting the Vicar of Christ in person to share their experiences with him and I know how a large number of them have been involved in preparations for this memorable and fruitful event which will enrich their lives for many years to come.
Holy Father, I am proud to say that all this forms part of our national identity and heritage. Your predecessor, the Venerable Pope John Paul II, during His visit in Malta on the 27th of May 1990 had exhorted us by proclaiming that:
“Malta is called to contribute to the spiritual unity of the old Continent by offering her treasures of Christian faith and values. Europe needs Malta’s faithful witness too”.
This is what we promise You today, that we continue upholding these values and our Faith which seemingly started off by mere chance but which we now cherish by our own choice as our firm belief.
In the meantime, Holy Father, rest assured that we are welcoming You, as the successor of St. Peter, with extraordinary hospitality, “bi tjubija liema bħala” as our ancestors did with St. Paul.