Anthony, Mathilde, Marco, Carla, Jeremy and Jordan were among the group of young people with autism who welcomed Pope Francis to the Marian Shrine of Ta’ Pinu on the island of Gozo on Saturday, 2 April.
As is customary, the Pope presented a golden rose to be placed before the image of Mary, before praying three Hail Mary’s with those in the church. To his voice were added the voices of these autistic youth, whose incomprehensible exclamations rendered the familiar Marian prayer incomprehensible but no less meaningful.
Pope Francis individually greeted these young people and their parents before going out to meet the 3,000 people gathered at the Shrine.
The Holy Father’s gestures of closeness to these people reinforced the message he repeated seven times in his homily, which is that “the joy of the Church is to evangelize”. Evangelizing by going out to the people, even on a catamaran, which carried Pope Francis from Valletta to Gozo. The joy of thousands of Maltese people was heard in the ringing of church bells and the sound of ship sirens and cannons that accompanied Peter’s successor as he sailed to meet the people.
Pope Francis listened to the testimonies of people who make up the rich tapestry of Malta’s population. In Gozo, Sandi Apap told the Pope of her struggle with multiple sclerosis, sharing that, after being diagnosed with the degenerative disease, she often wondered where God was in her suffering. But, she said, she experienced the Lord’s love and close presence in her husband and daughter, a constant source of strength for her. Sandi’s husband, Domenico, explained that their shared experience of suffering has not pulled them apart nor weakened their relationship, but rather reaffirmed their reciprocal love as a family. Domenico said he slowly realized that supporting his wife through her illness was his mission, and that he learned that when suffering is lived out in love, it changes and turns into joy.
On Sunday, Pope Francis met with some of the people staying at the John xxiii Peace Lab, a refugee reception centre in Hal Far. Siriman Coulibaly spoke on behalf of countless people who left everything behind in search of freedom and democracy. And he asked those with decision-making authority to remember that “human rights and dignity are universal and innate, that they are to be recognized and respected, not granted”. He continued with a question inspired by the Pope’s Encyclial Fratelli Tutti: “We are all brothers and sisters, aren’t we?” And concluded by thanking Pope Francis for standing up for migrants’ rights and for his sincere love for them.
The Ukrainian community in Malta added their voices to those of these refugees. Wrapped in the blue and yellow of their country’s flag, they gathered outside the John xxiii Centre to greet the Pope and thank him for his tireless fight for peace.
Malta thus became a crossroads for people fleeing war and injustice in Africa and Europe, and the John xxiii Peace Lab, a refuge where all are welcome, where neither nationality nor religion matters.
As Fr. Dionysius Mintoff, the founder of the John xxiii Peace Lab, explained, “Every person is welcomed in his or her uniqueness; behind the shocking numbers of the ‘migration phenomenon’ are women, men, so many children”.
They are people from very different parts of the world united in the hope for a better future.