Pope Benedict's 27-hour visit to Malta came to an end this evening after it made the international headlines when the pontiff looked the child abuse issue in the eye by holding an unscheduled meeting with its victims.

The meeting, at the Apostolic Nunciature, was a historic first for the pontiff and appeared aimed at reinforcing the Pope's expressions of regret, especially in his letter to the Irish bishops a few weeks ago.

The Holy See described the Pope's meeting with the victims as deeply moving. The victims themselves praised the Pope for his courage in meeting them and said the 35-minute encounter had given them peace in their hearts.

Earlier in the day, a crowd of some 50,000 people gathered in a drizzle for Papal Mass on the granaries in Floriana. The sun came out shortly before the Pope arrived at the historic square, where, in his homily he urged the Maltese people to reserve the faith and values

"No visitor to Malta could fail to be impressed by the devotion of your people, the vibrant faith manifested in your feast-day celebrations, the beauty of your churches and shrines. But that gift needs to be shared with others, it needs to be articulated, he said."


The Pope was received with enthusiasm wherever he went. People turned up in their hundreds particularly at Paola and Kalkara.

At the latter, the Pope boarded a catamaran for his crossing of Grand Harbour, accompanied by a flotilla of almost 100 small boats.

The Valletta Waterfront was heaving with some 10,000 young people who had been singing for some four hours before the Pontiff arrived.

The Pope told them that other nations could learn from Malta's Christian example.

"Here in Malta, you live in a society that is steeped in Christian faith and values. You should be proud that your country both defends the unborn and promotes stable family life by saying no to abortion and divorce. I urge you to maintain this courageous witness to the sanctity of life and the centrality of marriage and family life for a healthy society.

"In Malta and Gozo, families know how to value and care for their elderly and infirm members, and they welcome children as gifts from God. Other nations can learn from your Christian example."

The Pope's reference to other countries needing to follow Malta's example appeared to echo the call made 20 years ago in Malta by Pope John Paul II, who said that Europe needed Malta's faithful witness.

The Pope summed up his message to Malta in four lines in an address at the airport before departure.

"Be an example, at home and abroad, of dynamic Christian living. Be proud of your Christian vocation. Cherish your religious and cultural heritage. Look to the future with hope, with profound respect for God's creation, with reverence for human life, and with high esteem for marriage and the integrity of the family. Kunu wlied denji ta' San Pawl."


He also again referred to illegal immigration.

"I am aware of the difficulties that welcoming a large number of people may cause, difficulties which cannot be solved by any country of first arrival on its own. At the same time, I am confident that, on the strength of its Christian roots and its long and proud history of welcoming strangers, Malta will endeavour, with the support of other states and international organisations, to come to the aid of those who arrive here and to ensure that their rights be respected."

The two-day visit was a mixture of celebration and spirituality. The high point of celebration was undoubtedly the huge welcome which some 5,000 cheering children gave His Holiness at the Palace Square, Valletta, yesterday. The children sang Happy Birthday to the pontiff in four languages as he waved from the Palace balcony, and he praised them for their enthusiasm.

The cacophony of the Palace Square was later replaced by the silent stillness of St Paul's Grotto, where the Pope prayed, alone and in silence, before a statue of St Paul in Malta's most important shrine.

The organisation of the visit went without a hitch, the only real worry having been that a cloud of volcanic ash drifting over Europe could have hindered the Pope's departure from Rome, or his return.

As it were, the Pope arrived in Malta with the Church under a cloud, and he must have left here satisfied that his visit had gone a long way to lifting it.

See the Papal Visit section of this website for reports and videos of every stage of the Pope's visit. A supplement will be carried in The Times tomorrow.

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