According to Father Joe Borg, Pope Francis’ statements during his visit to Malta challenged the country – and the world – to overhaul an economic model that was failing the poor. And the Church of Malta, he added, would do well to act on his words.
Father Borg, who was editor of Newsbook.com.mt until his retirement last year spoke of Andrew Azzopardi on 103 in a discussion of the significance of Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Malta, including the various pointed statements he made throughout.
The issues addressed by the pope in Malta – including greed, corruption and migration – came as no surprise to the priest, who predicted these topics would be raised in an article written last month. After all, he pointed out, it was consistent with the messages he had conveyed throughout his papacy.
But Fr Borg stressed the importance of ensuring that the apostolic visitation is not reduced to a photo shoot, especially in a time when images predominate.
“We risk remembering the photos and forgetting what he said,” he observed. “The Church has a great responsibility here: it must ensure that this does not happen.”
Activist Russell Sammut expressed similar concerns, saying that while there were those who went to see the pope with genuine intentions, “others went to take a selfie and ignored his message.”
The malicious reactions that the pope’s remarks on migration have received on social media are an example of this, according to Sammut.
“I’m afraid we spent money preparing for the Pope’s visit and only got a photo op in return,” he said.
The threat of neo-capitalism
The choice of the papal name Francis by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, who grew up in wealth only to renounce it and lead a life of poverty. And as Father Borg pointed out, the pope is a proponent of continuing what he describes as “Francis’ economy.”
But the world has largely headed in the opposite direction, and Malta is no exception, with a widening gap between rich and poor.
“Right-wing economic policies have exploded in recent years and poverty has increased under this neo-capitalist model,” Father Borg warned.
“The pope has often pointed out that it is a fable that if the rich get richer, that wealth will trickle down,” he added. “But when their cup is full, it never overflows on those who need it, they get a bigger cup instead.”
Caritas Malta press officer Marica Cassar said the pope’s remarks on economic issues were particularly timely at a time when people were caught up in a rat race. His advice for living simply and minimizing consumption has proven to be particularly eloquent.
She recounts how a young man undergoing a residential drug treatment program with Caritas confided how obsessed he was with fashion and other status symbols, and the joy he found in discovering that having a handful of t-shirts was enough.
The logic that governs the incessant acquisition of objects also spills over into the workplace, as Sammut points out. He notes that in the pursuit of endless growth, companies will chain record years with even more ambitious objectives: to be satisfied with what has been achieved and to ease the pressure on its employees becomes unthinkable.
Charity is not enough
Caritas, of course, is held in high esteem in Malta for its charitable efforts on behalf of those in need, as are other charities under the aegis of the Church: this contribution is thankfully recognized by Sammut, a non -believer. So naturally, these charitable efforts must be maintained.
“But if we stick to charity alone and fail to attack the structures that cause these injustices, then we are only helping a system that we should be undermining,” Fr Borg warns. And the Church could not be complicit in such things, with Father Borg reiterating his criticism of the decision to accept €850,000 in funds from the sale of passports – “dirty money” – to modernize its system of ‘lighting.
About a fifth of Malta’s population is currently at risk of poverty, and while the rate may have been higher, Fr Borg points out that the falling rate actually makes the plight of the poor harder to solve.
“When half the country is poor, the poor can enjoy significant political power,” he explains. “But when it’s 20%, it can allow a political system that keeps them flexible through a few handouts to thrive, while keeping them poor.”
The Church should therefore seize the opportunity offered by the Pope’s visit to advocate more forcefully for a better economic system and society. Fr Borg recommends that his diocesan commissions, including the Justice and Peace Commission and the Environment Commission, highlight the key issues taken up by the Pope and make clear proposals on how Malta could address them: a kind of manifesto.
Avoid a “shipwreck of civilization”
These issues naturally include the controversial subject of migration, a clear priority of the Pope’s visit to Malta, which culminated in a visit to the Peace Lab in Ħal Far where he heard testimony from African migrants living in Malta.
Cassar points out that in this case, even the images alone tell a strong story: the pope avoiding protocol to stand up and kiss the migrants, rather than inviting them to kiss his hand as a sign of respect.
But as the pope landed in Malta and its leaders rushed to greet him, authorities refused entry to a ship that had rescued a group of people fleeing Libya in a bid for safety. Malta even continues to be accused of approving push-backs to Libya, despite the detention camps that the pope himself has condemned as inhumane.
“When the Prime Minister visited Libya, he wore a bulletproof vest… and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises Maltese people not to go to Libya because it is dangerous”, observes Father Borg. “But apparently we consider it safe for black people: it’s a joke.”
The racial dimensions of the migration debate were perhaps made more evident with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which generated far greater sympathy for Ukrainian refugees. Cassar says Caritas has received many calls from families wishing to welcome Ukrainians fleeing their homes.
“Sometimes I am tempted to ask if they would accept to welcome people from open centers instead,” she adds.
Fr Borg recalls the pope’s strong warning that if Malta and Europe continued to ignore the plight of migrants, the shipwrecks many of them have experienced in their quest for a better life would end in “shipwreck of civilization, which threatens not only migrants but all of us.”
He points out that the issue of migration was intrinsically linked to others affecting society, and that a society that did not care about those drowning just beyond its shores was a society that would ignore other values. : a scenario in which corruption could only thrive.
The Church would inevitably continue to face criticism and even insults if it continued to speak out on this and other issues, but in the end, according to Father Borg, this should not deter it.
“The Church must be a counterculture,” he says. She left herself at ease with any political or economic system: she must always tell us what can be done better.
The full debate:
Beacon Media Group will publish a book about the Pope’s visit to Malta and Gozo titled ‘They Showed Us Unusual Kindness’. You can place your order for the commemorative publication here.
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