Pope arrives in Malta on last leg of pilgrimage
VALLETTA, Malta (AP) -After momentous gestures for reconciliation with other faiths, Pope John Paul II returned to a bastion of his own church Tuesday to end a journey that has challenged his stamina and displayed his determination to shape history.
Offices closed and school children were let out early to join the crowds welcoming the pope to the tiny Mediterranean island nation, where he first visited 11 years ago.
The pope, walking slowly after discarding his cane, carefully descended from the Syrian Airlines plane that carried him from Damascus. A strong breeze ruffled his hair and white vestments.
The 80-year-old pope appeared exhausted at times since beginning the pilgrimage last week to follow the steps of the Apostle Paul.
But the trip – which has included Greece and Syria – also has displayed the pontiff’s determination to continue the history-shaping acts that have defined his nearly 23-year-old papacy.
The two-day stop in Malta should offer John Paul a chance to catch his breath after two highly charged backdrops: festering Middle East conflicts and the 1,000-year estrangement between the Vatican and the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Nearly 98 percent of Malta’s 392,000 people are baptized Roman Catholic and identity with the faith is strong – stretching back to Paul and the centuries under the protection of the Order of St. John, or the Knights of Malta, which turned back a siege by Muslim Ottoman forces in 1565.
”You have a spiritual and moral heritage – perfectly able to heal and elevate the dignity of the human person,” John Paul said, sitting next to Malta’s president, Guido de Marco.
De Marco added: ”Our faith is our greatest asset.”
A huge billboard proclaiming ”Merhba Lill-Papa,” or ”Welcome Pope” in Maltese, overlooked a vast plaza where John Paul was scheduled to celebrate Mass on Wednesday for the beatification of a beloved local priest, Rev. George Preca. Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood.
Preca, who died in 1962, overcame initial obstacles from the Roman Catholic leadership in Malta to establish the Society of Christian Doctrine, a group of lay men and women who pledge themselves to celibacy, missionary work and a routine of private prayer. The society now has about 1,100 active members and operates schools in Malta and six other countries, including Australia and Peru.
The remains of Preca have been moved to a raised tomb at the society’s main church, and the pope plans to view an effigy of the body in a glass enclosure.
Also scheduled for beatification by John Paul are two 19th century religious figures: Maria Adeodata Pisani, a cloistered nun, and Nazju Falzon, who founded a Christian association that attracted many British military members in the former colony.
The pope’s six-day itinerary was built around the journeys of Saint Paul, who the Bible says spent three months preaching in Malta after being shipwrecked in A.D. 60 while being taken to Rome for trial.
But John Paul took advantage of the pilgrimage stops to offer historic appeals for religious cooperation.
In Greece, he astonished his hosts with an apology for centuries of Roman Catholic wrongs against Orthodox Christians. The pope urged for serious dialogue on bridging nearly 1,000 years of mistrust and hostility since the two branches of Christianity split.
In Syria, he became the first Roman Catholic leader to step inside a mosque and spoke the common bonds between Islam and Christianity. He also used his visit to Quneitra – a Golan city once occupied by Israelis – to offer a prayer for peace and forgiveness in the region.
The pope’s planned messages in Malta are not expected to touch on such deep complexities. But some clergymen in Malta hope, for a moment, to see beyond the nation’s intense political rivalries, including a divide over whether Malta should press ahead for membership in the European Union.
”We risk seeing the visit from a purely superficial lens,” said Bishop Nikol Cauchi of the island of Gozo. ”Let’s be united. Let’s forget our political differences. This is like a family. We are being reunited through the pope.”
John Paul is scheduled to return to Rome late Wednesday.
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.