Malta joined the rest of the world in mourning Pope John Paul II yesterday as the faithful took stock of his legacy.

Church bells tolled across the island, flags flew at half-mast and radio stations played solemn music as a mark of respect for one of the most influential figures of our lifetime.

The President and the Prime Minister sent messages of condolence to the Vatican (see story on page 48) and the government declared three days of national mourning - yesterday, today and on the day of the Pope's funeral, which has yet to be announced.

All government functions and public activities will be cancelled and flags on all public buildings and offices will be flown at half-mast during the three days.

Pope John Paul was the first Pontiff to have visited Malta - in 1990 - and beatified the first Maltese on his second trip in 2001.

At St Julians parish church, one of the places visited by the Pope during his first visit, a papal flag and a black sash were placed on the chair used by His Holiness.

At the law courts, Magistrate Antonio Mizzi observed a minute silence before an arraignment and in Marsa, the Malta Racing Club called off the horse races as a sign of respect, but other sports events were held as usual.

News of the Pope's passing spread like wildfire on Saturday evening, unfurling a veil of sadness on the thousands enjoying their weekend night out. Bells in several parishes tolled late into the night announcing the Pope's death, as was done in Rome.

Shortly after the Pope's death, Archbishop Joseph Mercieca ordered the solemn ringing of all church bells for half an hour at 7 p.m. yesterday and again today.

Masses yesterday were for the repose of the soul of the Pope and the Curia invited the faithful for a special Mass for the Pope tomorrow at 6.30 p.m. at St John's Co-Cathedral, in Valletta. Mass will be led by the Apostolic Nuncio Felix de Blanco Prieto.

As a sign of mourning, the Curia will remain closed today. The feast of St Publius, in Floriana has been postponed to April 24 as a sign of respect. It was due to be held this coming Sunday.

A number of people were critical of what they considered to be the lack of vigils and prayer meetings in Malta as the Pope neared his death. Callers to The Times complained they could find no churches open for prayers on Friday and Saturday night.

"In Valletta, churches were closing on the dot at noon, like on any other day, even though the Pope was dying" one irate woman said.

The Archbishop celebrated Mass at St John's on Saturday evening. A vigil was also held at the chapel of the Christian Doctrine Society, MUSEUM in Blata l-Bajda, which had been the last stop of the Pope's second visit to Malta in 2001.

"We pride ourselves in saying we're among the most devout Catholics on earth and yet all our churches were closed. Why did no ecclesiastic authority bother to organise a special event for the Pope?" one man told The Times yesterday.

Others pointed fingers at the various parishes for failing to organise something out of the ordinary.

One mourner said: "People were hungry for some national manifestation to show our love towards the Pontiff, they waited all week, and still the Maltese Church did nothing about it. Shame!"

Nonetheless, at the St Julians parish church as well as at the Mellieha Sanctuary, where a permanent exhibition on the Pope's 1990 visit has been put up, people said they had expected more interest. Most of the visitors at the exhibition yesterday were tourists.

When contacted, a spokesman for the Curia said the Maltese Church did all it felt it could do in the circumstances. Parishes were free to organise vigils and prayers for the Pope as they pleased, he said.

"But we sympathise with those people who wanted to see something more done," the spokesman said.

Fr Claude Portelli, vice parish priest of St Julians, said he could not stop shedding tears when he heard of the Pope's death. "He was a father figure to me and, yes, his dynamism and boldness inspired me to choose this vocation," the 30-year old priest admitted.

Fr Portelli said he felt the next Pope would have an uphill task to match the respect, charisma and teachings of Karol Wojtyla. The next Pope has to be a brilliant communicator who responds to the changes in society.

"But the Church has to take into account the prevalence of a liberal and materialistic society - it needs to find ways and means to open the discussion further," he said.

Sociologist Fr Charles Tabone said Pope John Paul had managed to unite the people of God on a global level. "The coverage of the Holy Father's health on the world media was impressive, even in those countries that aren't Christian. This just goes to show what an impact this man has had on everybody."

Pope John Paul II performed wonders in enticing people to the Church and was especially at one with youths, Fr Tabone said.

Asked what kind of Pope he would like to see being elected, Fr Tabone said it was essential for the next Pontiff to have the same pastoral mission as Pope John Paul II and to retain close contact with the people.

Many Catholics wanted the next Pope to carry forward John Paul's legacy but some hoped he would be more liberal on doctrine.

"We all know that Pope John Paul II had certain conservative ideas on certain moral issues, like contraception, divorce and homosexuality. I'd like to see the next Pope to open discussion on such issues, which I believe are ultimately keeping a number of people away from the Church.

"I'm not saying we need to change our principles but I think it's time to open discussion to try and include those people that are on the periphery.

"We have to remember that the pastoral ultimately speaks of the need to welcome everybody into the Church," Fr Tabone said.

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