It is now thirty years since the day Pope John Paul II set foot in Malta, on 25th May, 1990, at the beginning of a historic and memorable pastoral visit.
It was the first time that a successor of Peter came to the island of Paul.
The people of Malta welcomed him as best they could, in full proof that the motto chosen for the occasion, One heart with the Pope, could not have been a better choice.
“Siete stati meravigliosi,” a member of the Pope’s entourage said to one of the local organisers at the end of the visit. Another described the Pope’s entrance into Grand Harbour on the deck of a catamaran as “a magnificent and marvellous experience” and something he had never seen anything like it in all the Pope’s previous 47 trips outside Italy.
Foreign journalists were very impressed too. Il Mattino’s representative wrote that the Pope was welcomed by “a whole island in feast” and “an hosanna crowd along all the roads,” while the representative of Il Corriere della Sera wrote that Malta was “in exultation.”
Figaro’s correspondent wrote that the 52 hours the Pope spent in Malta were “a continuous feast under the sun…a spontaneous spectacle that no Mediterranean festival would ever be capable of programming.”
John Paul II himself, visibly moved, repeatedly exclaimed: “Gente buona, gente buona.”
The climax of the visit was a Mass for the faithful at the Granaries Square, in Floriana, on Sunday, 27th May, 1990. On that occasion, the Pope said that more than once in her history, Malta has been admired and praised for her “uncompromising defence of the Christian faithand her willingness to endure heroic sacrifices for the sake of the culture which that faith nourished and sustained.”
John Paul II added: “In our own days, as Europe prepares to enter a new period of its history, a period filled with fresh hopes and challenges, 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!”
Then, at the airport, before returning to Rome on an Air Malta plane, the Pope said: “Throughout my time in Malta, I have been impressed by the deep attachment of the Maltese people to their cultural and religious heritage. Your desire to be faithful to this precious legacy as you seek to promote your development for the good of all is certainly a sign of great hope for Malta’s future. Your traditions are a wonderful expression of your national character and identity. May they continue to guide your steps and strengthen your resolve.”
Three days later, in Rome, addressing the usual Wednesday public audience, the Holy Father said that the direct contact he had with the Maltese people gave him the opportunity to become aware of “the pride and nobility of these people.” The Pope added that he would preserve close to his heart the memory of the warm welcome given him.
Practically every time John Paul II used to meet Mgr Joseph Mercieca, the Archbishop of Malta, after 1990, he would repeat to him that, “I will never forget my visit to Malta.”