VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis headed to the Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Saturday for a pandemic-delayed weekend visit, aiming to draw attention to Europe’s migration challenge that has only become more stark with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Francis is likely to encourage Europe’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees while also urging countries to extend the same welcome to migrants coming from Libya and elsewhere.
Rather than take the stairs up to the ITA aircraft, Francis stood inside a wheelchair lift, a sign that his painful knees were bothering him. It was the first time he has used the elevator and was an indication that the inflammation has gotten worse.
Malta, the European Union’s smallest country with a half-million people, has long been on the front lines of the flow of migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean. It has frequently called upon its bigger European neighbors to shoulder more of the burden receiving would-be refugees.
Francis has frequently echoed that call, and will certainly link it this weekend to the welcome the Maltese once gave the Apostle Paul, who according to the biblical account, was shipwrecked off Malta in around A.D. 60 while en route to Rome and was shown unusual kindness by the islanders.
The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said migration will top the agenda for Francis’ trip and said Europe’s reception of Ukrainian refugees was “truly admirable.”
“I hope that this tragic experience can also really help to grow, to increase sensitivity also towards the other migration, the one that comes from the south,” he told Vatican Media.
Although short, the two-day visit was already going to be challenging for the 85-year-old Francis, who has had increasing trouble walking due to an inflamed ligament in his right knee. He has struggled in recent days to stand up from his chair and climb stairs, and his limping gait from sciatica has appeared more pronounced.
While he was able to use the elevator to board the plane, Francis is due to board a catamaran Saturday afternoon for a sailing trip to the island of Gozo, and on Sunday plans to descend the steps into the Grotto of St. Paul in Rabat.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the elevator was decided upon in the past day to avoid subjecting the pontiff to unnecessary strain. He suggested a similar measure was expected in Valletta.
Francis had been due to visit Malta in May 2020, but postponed the visit after the coronavirus pandemic hit. The rescheduled trip comes as the Catholic Church in the overwhelmingly Catholic country is preparing for its first in-person Easter Week celebrations in two years.
Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who is also a top Vatican official, asked for prayers for the visit, not least because of Francis’ catamaran trip Saturday.
“That should be lovely if he has the right weather for it, but the last two weekends before the pope’s trip have been an unmitigated disaster weather-wise,” Scicluna told The Associated Press. “So we pray for something we cannot organize: the weather.”
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