A Brief Trip to Malta Captures the External and Internal Challenges of Francis’ Papacy

VALETTA, Malta — In another of his “wink and you’ll miss it” overseas trips, usually one- or two-day affairs in Europe and the Mediterranean, Pope Francis arrives Saturday morning on the nation islander of Malta and will be on the pitch just 6 p.m., sleeping in his own bed in the Vatican on Sunday evening.

Despite the quick turnaround, 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, an encounter with migrants and refugees at the John XXIII Peace Lab Center for Migrants in Malta.

All of this is in addition to his usual face-to-face with local Jesuits, not to mention the arrival and departure ceremonies at Malta International Airport.

At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a trip destined to make international headlines. Malta is not at war; it is a relatively prosperous society – ranked among the top 40 nations in the world in terms of GDP per capita – and no major crisis is emerging at the moment, with the incumbent government having recently won a landslide victory for a third term.

Yet, broadening the lens, the Pope’s weekend in Malta can be seen as a microcosm of the major challenges Francis faced during nearly a decade of his pontificate.

Additionally, the trip once again sheds light on the plight of migrants and refugees at the start of the 21st century, which has been a cornerstone of Francis’ social and humanitarian agenda from the very beginning.

Although Malta, a nation of just over 500,000 people, has not been overwhelmed by waves of migrants and refugees in the same way as, for example, Italy and Greece, its small size has nevertheless fueled fears. Local and international watchdog groups have criticized Malta for allegedly harsh treatment of migrants, including detention centers with “inhumane” living conditions.

Francis has previously signaled that migration will be a major concern during the trip, saying during his Wednesday general audience that just as Malta once welcomed St. Paul, it is now even more committed “to welcoming so many brothers and sisters in seeking refuge”. Local media took the line as a clear challenge to Prime Minister Robert Avela’s government to improve the country’s treatment of newcomers.

Ad intra, the trip – if not quite the pope’s official calendar, or probably the to-do list – almost sums up two internal headaches that have plagued Francis from the start, recalcitrance and ideological resistance from certain quarters, and the frustrating mess of reform.

Malta is the spiritual home of the Knights of Malta, the legendary Catholic organization which is a blend of a religious order, a global humanitarian and charitable organization and a sovereign entity under international law.

From the start, some elements within the Knights of Malta have been part of the broader conservative antipathy towards Pope Francis, sometimes devolving into explicit opposition.

Things came to a head in 2016 and 2017 when the order’s conservatives, backed by the Knights’ ecclesiastical patron, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, were outraged to discover that a Knights’ charity in Myanmar had distributed condoms in the as part of an anti-AIDS initiative. They tried to stage an internal coup, expelling the Grand Master at the time, at which point Francis basically cried Basta!, “Enough!”, reinstating the Grand Master and appointing his own personal delegate to oversee sweeping reform.

This reform is still far from complete. The Pope’s delegate, Italian Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, recently submitted a draft of a new constitution. This drew immediate criticism from elements of the order who felt it would compromise their sovereignty, essentially subjecting the knights to the whims of the Vatican. At a Feb. 26 meeting at the Vatican, Francis heard both sides of the debate and advised patience, saying there was no rush to make final decisions.

Malta has also been the epicenter of the Vatican’s ongoing financial reform efforts, which so far Francis has found easier to describe than to implement. Currently, a Maltese investment firm called Futura Fund is embroiled in an ugly legal battle with the Vatican Bank related to the attempted purchase of the former headquarters 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 banking authorities. Now the bank wants Fortuna to pay its own losses on the transaction.

“Futura strongly denies any wrongdoing, saying the investment was made precisely on the very terms that were openly discussed and fully approved by, [the Vatican Bank’s] own outside advisers and senior executives at the time,” a statement said last month.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, the mere fact that it is unfolding suggests that the Vatican’s financial cleanup operation still has some way to go before full transparency and accountability has arrived.

Unlike the migration issue, there is no indication that Pope Francis will engage either the situation with the Knights of Malta or the dispute between the Maltese fund and 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 could accomplish in 18 hours anyway.

Malta also highlights ongoing clerical sex abuse scandals, if only for the reason that Francis’ host will be Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who is also his interlocutor on abuse issues. From the beginning, Scicluna has been a leading voice for reform and a major architect of the Church’s canonical response to scandals. Nothing indicates that the abuse crisis will be a theme of this trip, but the mere presence of Scicluna reminds us that the reform is not over.

The fact that those intra announcement challenges probably won’t arise doesn’t mean they will go away. While this trip may not be the time to face them, Malta is nonetheless an indisputable reminder that the complexities that awaited Francis almost 10 years ago when he took over have not really gotten any easier.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr

Shirlene J. Manley