“Melite... is a colony planted by the Phoenicians, who, as they extended their trade to the western ocean, found in it a place of safe retreat...” Diodorus of Sicily wrote these words a century before St Luke marvelled at the “unusual kindness” of “the natives” (Acts 28:2). Chosen as the motto for the papal visit to Malta expected since 2020, the words are echoed every February 10 in our churches, and worth pondering on this World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
An island of many harbours in the middle of tempestuous waters is not unlike an oasis in the desert: the difference between life and death; rest and exhaustion; hope and despair. Our ancestors from the Fertile Crescent – the Canaanites or “Phoenicians” as the Greeks called them – for almost a millennium before St Paul’s shipwreck, had forged a hub for hospitality and commerce. This was no trivial feat. In a world where drought and famine could quickly turn the farmer and craftsman into a migrant, and all travelling was hazardous, the obligation to tend to the stranger was as sacred as the Hippocratic oath. Indeed, the two were one, as “hospitality” and “hospital” remind us so glaringly.
Hospitality is the mark of civic excellence: the virtue that epitomises how, beyond mere local laws, “natural justice” orders relations among all peoples, based on their mutual recognition that we are all “human”. To be celebrated for hospitality is to have the reputation for benevolence and wisdom: not only attentiveness to a stranger’s immediate needs, but – as in the parable Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10: 25-37) – the sensitivity to make arrangements to respond to future ones. Our “unusual kindness” is re-echoed in the hospitals of the Order of St John and our healthcare and hospitality industries.
Hospitality is the mark of civic excellence: the virtue that epitomises how, beyond mere local laws, ‘natural justice’ orders relations among all peoples, based on their mutual recognition that we are all ‘human’
Hospitality heals the other, whoever they are, by offering to restore their strength and reinvigorate their spirits – expecting nothing in return. But the brief encounter with the stranger does not leave the host any poorer. It blesses with the greatest gift of all. A stranger deeply touched by the grace of hospitality becomes a friend. Wherever they go after leaving the oasis, their gratitude for being seen and cared for, forges invisible but powerful ties.
Today more than ever, all the world’s peoples know how our destinies are intertwined and security depends on the cultivation of relationships. Climate change, political upheaval, economic recession and pestilence can turn any family, settled in the comfort of a nine-to-five job, to homelessness; or to seek asylum begging for their children’s future.
Many are not even waiting for disaster to strike. Instead of lamenting lack of opportunity, they take the risk to seek greener pastures. Others are young, restless, modern-day ‘merchants’ thirsty to exchange experience and knowledge instead of gems, spices and gold.
The global village’s zeitgeist is of massive shifts… but resisted by the tyranny of nationalistic stagnation. The rare virtue of hospitality is key to bless our networks with the soulfulness of friendship, instead of fear, greed and war.
At these crossroads in global history, will the people of Malta, long celebrated for our “unusual kindness”, live up to our name?
Nadia Delicata is episcopal delegate for evangelisation of the Malta archdiocese.
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