Pope Francis holds a Holy Mass at the Granaries in Floriana, Malta, April 3, 2022.
Pope Francis holds a Holy Mass at the Granaries in Floriana, Malta, April 3, 2022. Reuters / DARRIN ZAMMIT LUPI

Pope Francis, struggling with leg pain, on Sunday said countries should always help those trying to survive "amidst the waves of the sea" as he wrapped up a trip to one of the Mediterranean countries at the heart of Europe's migration debate.

At the start of the last day of his trip, Francis visited the grotto in the town of Rabat, where according to tradition, St. Paul lived for two months when he was among 75 people shipwrecked on their way to Rome in the year 60 AD. The Bible says they received unusual kindness.

"No one knew their names, their place of birth or their social status; they knew only one thing: that these were people in need of help," the pope said in a prayer in the grotto.

The 85-year-old pontiff is suffering from a flare-up of leg pain and had difficultly walking in the small grotto. He has been sitting in ceremonies more than usual. At a Mass for about 20,000 people afterwards, he mostly sat while Valletta Archbishop Charles Scicluna led much of the liturgy.

Francis had to use a freight lift to board his flight in Rome and disembark on arrival in Valletta on Saturday, and at the end of Sunday's Mass, he skipped the traditional exit procession with all the bishops.

Malta, one of the more important routes used by migrants who cross from Libya to Europe, was a natural venue for the pope to repeat his appeal for the safety of migrants.

"Help us to recognise from afar those in need, struggling amidst the waves of the sea, dashed against the reefs of unknown shores," he prayed at the grotto.

The government of Prime Minister Robert Abela insists that the island, by far Europe's most densely populated country, is "full up", refusing to allow the disembarkation of migrants other than those rescued within its own rescue zone.

Malta says any rescued migrants must be taken to the nearest harbour.

On Friday, German NGO ship Sea Eye IV was off Maltese territorial waters seeking to disembark 106 migrants rescued from Libyan waters and was denied entry.

Human rights organisations have criticised the island for its involvement in "pushbacks" where migrants rescued in coordination with Malta are taken back to Libya. The organizations say this breaks international law since Libya is not a safe country.

Speaking to government officials on Saturday, Francis denounced "sordid agreements with criminals who enslave other human beings". He has in the past compared conditions in centres holding migrants in Libya to Nazi and Soviet camps.

Malta argues that Europe should have an effective "burden sharing" mechanism, saying that migrants want to go to mainland Europe. Francis also has called several times for shared responsibility for migrants among European countries.