Malta Diary Signs of a “New Spring” for the Church in Malta?
The Pope has just appointed a new Archbishop to the Diocese of Malta and Gozo who during his first public appearance announced that regular Sunday church (Holy Mass) attendance had plunged to 40%. Less than 50 years ago, willingly or unwillingly, Sunday attendance of the able-bodied was 99.999%. He is fully aware that whilst changes over the last 50 years were gradual they now flood in on an almost monthly basis at tidal-wave strength.
Previously unmentionable civil divorce was legislated in Malta in 2011 following a referendum, solely on the strength of the then Opposition Labour Party which was solidly in favour whilst the ruling Government Nationalist Party was split resultant from previously strong connections to the Roman Catholic Church.
The 2013 General Election went decisively in favour of the Labour Party and since then a whirlwind of social change has hit the islands. Same sex civil marriages, including child adoption but stopped short at IVF and surrogacy access to same-sex couples, were legislated in April 2014. This more or less guaranteed full rights to LGBT persons.
Recently, Malta became the first EU country to legislate the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act which guaranteed full rights to transgender persons to specify their own sex as they wished it, an Act that has been described as currently being “of the highest standard in the world”.
Abortion is strictly unmentionable although there is a small lobby in favour of terminations in cases of rape.
In a country which less than 50 years ago teemed with priests and nuns and in which in a land surface area of 316 square kilometres (122 square miles) one finds almost 400 churches and chapels, this legislation was tantamount to a tsunami and a volcanic eruption combined.
The obvious victim was the Church with many clerics voicing public opposition to divorce although learning a lesson and later keeping out of the LGBT and gender issue. The damage however was done and could not be undone. The Church was split asunder and suffered further aggravation when a number of cases of child and sexual molestation emerged.
This tumultuous upheaval proved to be too overwhelming for the then Archbishop Paul Cremona in trying to balance the cross-currents of Right and Left wing clerics and in the face of growing public indifference, skepticism and hostility to Church matters. Consequently he resigned and Archbishop Charles Scicluna was appointed by The Vatican to replace him.
Scicluna was born in Toronto, Canada to Maltese parents who returned to Malta when he was 11 months old. From the University of Malta he graduated as a qualified Civil Lawyer and later graduated in Sacred Theology, going on to gain a Doctorate in Canon Law. His abilities were promptly recognised by Rome and he was designated to head various committees and enquiries, including cases of child and sexual abuse and cover-ups and was the major investigator in the enquiry that eventually led to the resignation of Cardinal O’Brien.
When it was obvious that Cremona was facing grave difficulties in the Maltese diocese he was designated to return to Malta as his under-study until his appointment and installation ceremony last month.
Scicluna is a jovial man, short and somewhat rotund and makes no bones in making himself the butt of jokes concerning his height and width. Part of the traditional inauguration ceremony of a new Archbishop entailed his riding into Rabat and Mdina on a mare to symbolise Jesus Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. When asked whether he would follow the tradition his reply was immediate and brief.
No way! Think of the poor mare having to carry my weight. I abhor cruelty to animals”.
In his first live televised programme meeting the public he answered questions from LGBT persons and a transgender person with the message that under his jurisdiction even though the Church did not recognise such persons, the Church would simultaneously be “all inclusive in its love and respect of all human beings”.
When asked about his attitude to child and sexual abuse by clerics his reply of a “zero tolerance policy” was emphatic.
Primary indications are that his appointment has been well met and he is fully aware of continually changing opinions in view of social media proliferation with Malta being well in the forefront of all current developments whether it be facebook or twitter or whatever media. He also strongly hinted at drastic changes in the Curia, that is the Church Administration in Malta.
Whether as a result of his influence or a redefinition surge by the Maltese and Gozitan public to return to some of its religious grassroots, the recent celebration of Easter saw a massive resurgence in Church-related matters.
Traditional Good Friday processions were watched by many thousands. Over the years these have become pageant-processions with enthusiastic participants taking part and playing various roles as Roman soldiers, disciples and biblical figures, commemorating the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Easter Day Resurrection processions were attended with gusto.
Although not of a religious nature, the organisation Puttinu Cares (Puttinu is a mythical figure; this is a voluntary body providing relief and hospice to cancer sufferers but concentrating on child and youth cases by providing treatment and now owning a number of apartment blocks in the UK near oncology hospitals where sufferers and their families can lodge free of charge whilst receiving treatment not available in Malta) launched a fund-raising campaign to coincide with Easter and an emphasis on “Christian charity”.
An organised sponsored walk on Good Friday started off from Mellieha at 2am on Friday morning (so as not to affect traffic) on a 25 kilometre walk to Senglea and attracted an impressive 10,000 participants, raising €100,000. Later in the day a popular television programme devoted its content to the Puttinu organisation and via phone-ins raised €1 million in a couple of hours.
Definitely, signs of a “New Spring” in the attitude towards Church matters and towards Christian beliefs is on the cusp of a new wave of returning to grassroots, particularly aided by recent events in which fellow Christians in Iraq, Syria, Kenya and Nigeria have suffered severe persecution and death.
This also has its downside. An estimated 10,000 Muslims are in Malta, mainly illegal boat immigrants and many, many Maltese are not happy at this uneasy situation. A recent “sounding” of whether the authorities should allow the building of a new mosque (there is one major mosque in Malta) was met with extreme hostility and facebook and twitter were cluttered with vehement protests and threats.
The recent Tunisian Bardo Museum slaughter and voiced ISIS threats against Italy, the Pope and Europe in general have caused a raw awakening and have spurred plans for a wholesale and extensive celebration on 8th September 2015 when Malta and Gozo will celebrate the 450th anniversary of the lifting of the Great Siege of Malta and the debacle inflicted on the invading Ottoman Empire forces by the medical crusading Knights of St John and the Maltese.