The Pope’s uncomfortable truths

One hopes that the local church will emulate the Pontiff, by showing the same political commitment for social justice: while refraining from the kind of self-righteousness which turns people away from the church

Just a week after general elections, Pope Francis gave the country an opportunity for some much-needed introspection on three key themes: corruption; over-development; and immigration.  

In many ways, His Holiness managed to spell out a number of uncomfortable truths which few can deny, but many choose to ignore.  And he did so firmly but gently, in a way which was clearly intended to make people think… rather than recoil from these issues (as they more commonly do). 

Perhaps his stature as Pope helped spare him from the usual opprobrium reserved for foreign critics, who – in particular, when it comes to immigration – tend to say roughly the same thing. Even so, it does undeniably make a difference, when the same criticism comes from someone who is clearly so respected. In this sense it was providential that the visit took place after the election: ensuring that the Pope’s words were safe from misinterpretation.  

In many ways, his message also filled an ideological vacuum which came to the fore during the election campaign: characterized by the lack of that passion for what the Pope calls “healthy politics.”  

In a context of widespread disenchantment with traditional politics, which saw many desert the polls in droves, it is crucial to speak about the need to instil in young people “a passion for a healthy politics”, which shields them from “the temptation to indifference and lack of commitment.”    

For Pope Francis, the “protection of the environment and the promotion of social justice” are “optimal ways” to instil this kind of  passion.   And once again, his warning was against the threats of “radical consumerism” which breeds “indifference to the needs of others.”  

Not surprisingly, Pope Francis’ strongest message was that against land speculation.  Instead of speaking generically about the environment and green spaces - as politicians so often do - he warned against “rapacious greed, from avarice and from construction speculation, which compromises not only the landscape but the very future”.  

This not only legitimises what environmentalists have been saying for decades, but also adds a sense of urgency. For the Pope’s words would mean nothing if not translated into action.   

Neither did he mince his words on that other blight which has been eating away at the country’s soul for decades: under different administrations, perhaps; but which thrust the country into the international spotlight, following the Panama Papers, and the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.  

In his speech Pope Francis augured that the commitment to eliminate illegality and corruption, would be as strong as the “north wind that sweeps the coasts of this country.” Once again, this comes across as an exhortation to stand up and be counted.    

It was certainly no surprise that the Pope would also address the immigration theme head on, without any fear of any racist backlash (of which Maltese politicians are so afraid).  He warned that people crossing the Mediterranean in search of salvation are met with fear and the narrative of “invasion”, and the temptation of “raising drawbridges and erecting walls.”  

“Other people are not a virus from which we need to be protected, but persons to be accepted.”    

It was also noteworthy that the Pope chose to allocate time to visit the migrant community, including the Peace Lab in Hal Far. Among those waiting to see Pope Francis at the centre were Amara, Kader and Abdalla: the three teenagers facing terrorism charges in Malta’s courts, after being accused of ‘hijacking’ a ship called El-Hiblu in 2019.  

Again, the gesture would be meaningless, without action. Dropping these charges would be a clear way of showing Malta’s commitment to the universal human values preached by the pope.   

The Pontiff’s strong message on immigration, environmental protection and against corruption, also comes across as a blessing for activism, as practiced by non-partisan civil society organisations: and also, arguably, by the Catholic Church itself.  

In many ways, the Pope’s message defied those who would like to relegate the church to a non-political purely spiritual role; and who constantly complain that it interferes too much in politics.  

But it also stands as a rebuke of those who expect the church to focus on entirely on sexuality, and controlling the bodies of others.  In fact, while he exhorted the Maltese to continue to “defend life from its beginning to its natural end,” Pope Francis’ main emphasis was on social justice. 

Moreover even in his homily on Sunday - where his focus was more spiritual - he lashed out against the self-righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees,  who “disregard their own faults, yet are very concerned with those of others”.   

Once again, we had a Pope who can touch the hearts and minds of both believers and non-believers alike. One hopes that the local church will emulate the Pontiff, by showing the same political commitment for social justice: while refraining from the kind of self-righteousness which turns people away from the church.

One also hopes that politicians who showed so much eagerness to shake hands with the Pope, will show the same enthusiasm for all the issues he raised: protecting the environment, and combatting corruption.

Otherwise, it would be precisely what Pope Francis warned us all against: self-righteous hypocrisy.