Sunday, 18 April 2010

Malta’s Papal test: Scandalous Devotion?

By Anthony David Gatt

As soon as the plane’s wheels screeched on the Luqa runway the show was on. Did the Maltese people expose themselves as they really are? Did they hold back their anger towards the engulfing Church abuse scandal in a sign of respect to the Pontiff? Why did the Pope choose the miniscule island nation for his first historic meeting with the victims of sexual abuse by priests? Maltese journalist Anthony David Gatt analyses the islands reaction to the arrival of Peter’s successor on the island of Paul.

1950 years ago St. Paul’s ship which was on its route for the apostles trial in Rome, shipwrecked on the tiny island of Melita. 1950 years after, the successor of St. Peter and head of the Catholic Church Pope Benedicts lands on the same minute island, under a physical treat of Icelandic volcanic ash and a metaphorical black cloud of sexual abuse allegations.

Europe’s Catholic heartland

The Maltese are known around Europe as being fervent exponents of the Catholic Church and its beliefs. It’s one of the only countries in the Western world where both divorce and abortion are illegal.

Until some years ago if a married couple split, with the spouses entering another relationship, an aura of shame would follow them for the rest of their lives. In the same phase of Malta’s social development, conceiving a child out of wedlock would mark the birth of an omnipresent state of shame for the mother and her family. Yet the effects of physical proximity to Italy and a social proximity to Western lay-champions, such as the UK and the US, have changed the small bastion of Catholicism in the middle of the middle-sea forever. 

Whilst divorce is still illegal by church and state standards, legal separation has become the order of the day. The phasing-in of unions outside wedlock as an accepted part of the Maltese life has developed a number of legal lacunas. The state still hasn’t amended laws that safeguard the future of these kinds of new familial nuclei. There are no legal rights for partners who lose their other half after long years together; they cannot apply for any financial state help like their married counterparts.

This shows that the ancient omnipresent power that the Church has had on the Maltese society is not as strong as it once was. The Maltese laypersons have surely put themselves at least a couple of notches away from the Church with the capital ‘C’. Yet as the island’s most significant social traditions revolve around a series of religious festivities all Maltese live within staunchly Catholic communities.

These social developments coupled with the latest sexual abuse saga rocking the Church would mean that the arrival of the head of the Church amongst the Maltese community would be a strong test for the island’s religious leaders. 

Benedict is coming

In the weeks leading up to the 25-hour visit a number of billboards bearing the image of the German Pope were defaced. Some had a Hitler-like moustache sprayed on whilst others were branded with the Maltese word ‘PEDOFLU’, a direct translation from ‘Pedophile’. Virtual hate-groups were created on social networking sites drawing the support of intellectuals who lash out at the Church’s hierarchical empire, members of the Gay community who see themselves sidelined by the Church and individuals touched by the abuse scandal.

Another hot potato was the official recommendation from Malta’s Church authorities for Members of Parliament whose partners aren’t married to them, to attend the Holy Pontiff’s audience unaccompanied.

Furthermore the curious case of a phallic monument in one of the major squares of Luqa, the locality which hosts the nation’s international airport also took center stage. This as Luqa’s Local Council appealed for a temporal removal of the structure, avoiding a shameful photo-opportunity which would propose the Pope-mobile in the same frame with the suggestive sculpture.

This would not be the first visit of a Pope to the Maltese archipelago; Pope John Paul was in Malta twice, in 1990 and again in 2001. Yet the vigils of these arrivals couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

The Wall is no more

The Kosmo spoke to Vatican specialist and top Maltese political commentator Philip Borg about the differences between the two Pontiff’s receptions in Malta.

“An eminently catholic country, albeit more traditional than factual, was all ecstatic about John Paul II’s two visits over the last two decades. It was an all-time first for an island that cherished close – almost colonial – ties with the Vatican for centuries.

Both visits had rallied one and all for mega events, irrespective of the fact that the majority are simply ‘registered or part-time believers’ as opposed to a smaller but more effective chunk of staunch ‘activists’ who practice their belief via NGO-type lifestyle.

John Paul’s visits seemed to be convenient blanket opportunities for the Maltese people to camouflage everyday’s life with emotional and sentimental gatherings, in a typically Mediterranean fashion. The Polish Pope had the great ability to add that special human spectacle and charisma in his way of addressing the crowds through his characteristic physical gestures, over and above the rigid ritual believers were accustomed to”

But what about Joseph’s Ratzinger visit in Malta at the end of the Church’s 2010 Black April? As expected Philip Borg confirms that the scenario was totally different, but how?

“Benedict’s visit to Malta comes at a time when the whole Church is heavily shelled by the international media. One has to read this also in the light of the super-powerful Western media that was subconsciously grateful to Paul John’s historic intervention to bring down Communism and the symbolic dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The international media has nothing to credit Ratzinger with.

That same powerful media has inspired the underground minorities in Malta to come out and publicly show their revolt against church teachings on hot issues, namely gay issues, sexuality and other ethical challenges and controversies in today’s life. Until John Paul’s time – barely five years ago – it was unheard of that local media carry outspoken anti-Pope and/or anticlerical comments and reports. Fully aware that the eminent visitor happens to be target number one to both peripheral Catholics and non-believers alike, organizers are striving 24/7 to avoid any undesirable but potential manifestations while the world’s eyes are focused on an otherwise popular tourist resort that Malta is!

The Maltese Church’s influential pulpits and media gurus are working hard to encourage people to compensate for such rough waves hitting the church, through their mass participation in enthusiastic manifestations of support. This is a far cry from what these same people actually needed doing when Benedict’s predecessor touched Maltese shores!”

And he’s off

Yet what we have seen happening in the last hours has been a far cry from surprising. The Pope came, the Pope was cheered, the Pope was admired for being more humane than expected, and he was on his way off. 

No one dared physically interrupt any of the planned events, the Luqa monument was partially covered by a banner which read the name of a lay religious organization and apparently no protests were held to show opposition to the Pope’s visit.

On the other hand this trip might have served as an initial step in the Church’s master plan to recover the lost ground to the ‘hacks of the international press’. We have seen the Pope phase-out from his tired-troubled self as he walked down the stairs onto the runway, putting on a joyously-relieved facial expression during his meetings with children and youngsters. The ecstatic, vociferous and genuine love shown to him, and indirectly to his Church, by the Maltese managed to do the trick. He saw with his own eyes that even in such a perilous time, there are small groups of his large flock who will stand tall with their Church.

It was possibly this kind of reception and the intimate encapsulated feeling to the visit that made the Church take the first step in healing it’s present open wound. Benedict chose Malta for his first ever meeting with the victims of the pedophilia scandal. He promised he will pray for them. Pray is what Maltese believers have been instructed to do by the Pope himself, prayer and penance.

And as the Pope heads back to Rome, he will leave behind a society which has managed to discuss controversies, but which wasn’t capable of being true to its true realities. Yet, maybe just discussing was already enough.

(Images: Creative Commons/AFP)

The Kosmo Blog
The Kosmo is an online magazine, published by international journalism students from all over the world. It's free of charge so just lean back and enjoy! Don't forget to send feedback!

Subscribe to The Kosmo via e-mail
Subscribe in your preferred RSS reader

Subscribe feeds rss Recent Entries


My Photos on flickr

Subscribe feeds rss Recent Comments