The 8th of September is the day on which various localities across Malta celebrate the birth of Our Lady, better known among the locals as the feast of Tal-Vitorja or Tal-Bambina.
One of these localities is Xagħra, my home village, where the feast generates a lot of enthusiasm and is well attended. This year, the feast coincided with two particular events relating to two clerics from the locality, namely the fiftieth anniversary of the priesthood of Fr. Eucharist Sultana and the ordainment of Bishop Coadjutor George Bugeja. These events and their strong impact on the Gozitan community made me reflect on whether the Catholic Church in Gozo is really in decline, as some sometimes claim.
Most readers definitely heard about Bishop Bugeja, but maybe not about Fr. Sultana. Although at first glance the ordainmentof the former could appear more important, both events were equally important.
This is so because Fr. Sultana is a priest renowned in Gozo for his continued efforts to attract new vocations.
Throughout the first two and a half decades of my lifetime,Fr. Sultana was Xagħra’s archpriest and I could witnesshis constant efforts directly. In fact, I remember the initiatives he used to take to entertain the altar boys and to teach them the Catholic principles.
No surprise then that today Xagħra can boast the largest number of priests, various archpriests and chaplains in other Gozitan localities as well as two bishops, George Bugeja and Joe Bonello, who serves in Honduras. The priests who owe their vocation to Fr Sultana, most of whom I know personally, continue to follow his example and with very good results.
I mention all this because the achievements of Fr. Sultana are truly remarkable and the large crowd that attended the thanksgiving Mass at the Xagħra parish church for his priesthood anniversary confirmed that.
The day after Fr Sultana’s thanksgiving Mass, Gozo assisted to the ordainment of Bishop Bugeja, this time at the Ta’Pinu church. The event was important not only for Xagħrabut for the whole of Gozo. In fact, the ordainment of a bishop originating from this small diocese is not a common event.
Furthermore, the mission in Tripoli, to which Bishop Bugeja was assigned, is a very delicate one and any cleric serving at such a mission needs to have certain qualities.
Notwithstanding everything, the importance of this event doesnot lie simply with the fact that Gozo may now boast another bishop. The fact that Bishop Bugeja was ordained by Bishop of Gozo Mario Grech, who runs a small diocese, adds significance to the ordainment.
Attending the ceremony were several leading clerics and politicians as well as a large congregation. Such attendance undoubtedly amplified the power conferred on Bishop Grech. Definitely, all this stresses the political clout that the Church in Gozo carries.
I mentioned these two events that marked the recent history of Gozo for two reasons. First, I wished to pay tribute to the two priests for their achievements. Secondly, and more importantly, I wished to pay tribute to the Church in Gozo for the valuable work carried out on the islandand elsewhere.
The question that I ask myself is whether the strength of the Church should only be gauged by the strength of the clerical class
The positive impact of its work outweighs by far negative episodes that are sometimes attributed to the Church or its members.
As a Catholic, I would be pleased if local critics who usually portray themselves as very liberal but who take an intransigent approach towards the Church, would live up to their liberal beliefs and start to look at what’s positive in the Church, rather than just at what is negative.
The two events I referred to sent out the message that the clerical class in Gozo is still very strong. However, the question that I ask myself is whether the strength of the Church should only be gauged by the strength of the clerical class.
The answer is, of course, no. In fact, it can be said that the Church is strong if its message is credible. This is often the case, but as a Church member, I feel I have to highlight incongruencies in this respect.
One example where the credibility of the Church’s message is questioned relates to an issue whichis afflicting Gozo, namely the lackof employment opportunities on the island and the consequent social impact.
I recall that some years ago the Church was very vociferous on the subject and rightly so.
However, in recent times, it has become somewhat quiet on the matter and I find this strange because the lack of employment opportunities in Gozo is a problem that persists.
Of course, the Church is in no way responsible for this situation, but many Gozitans who have to leave the island to work will definitely welcome a strong message from the Church inthis respect.
Gozitans perceive the Church as a motherly figure and as such, they expect this institution to speakout with a strong voice on this delicate matter.
Another example relates to a proposal that the Church in Gozo made some time ago. The Church had proposed that each Gozitan locality should host a Christian family that was forced to flee from Iraq. The proposal was described as being in accordance with the teachings of God.
It is a known fact that the public reaction was not positive and the impression is that the Church had to retract.
The Church in Gozo recently pronounced itself again on the proposal, when Pope Francis made an identical proposal to all Catholic communities.
The behaviour of the Church in Gozo in this case certainly did not strengthen the credibility of its message, because the Church appeared unsure.
Of course, I understand the difficulty to pursue a position when the public reaction is not favourable, but the message which the Church seemed to be sending out was that its position was being determined by what’s popular and not by the teachings of God.
Despite these incongruencies and other threats which the Catholic Church in Gozo faces, I find it hard to conclude that these somehow weakened it to the extent that the Church may be said to be on the decline. As demonstrated at the events ofFr. Sultana and Bishop Bugeja, Gozitans continue to support the Church, although with a more critical mind than before.
Of course, support is not guaranteed and if this diminishes, there may be repercussions.
The Church and the com-munity in Gozo are so intertwined that a weak Church would lead to a weak community and this is something that as Gozitan and as Church member, I do not desire.
I also do not wish this to happen because of my role in politics. As a PN candidate, I get my inspiration from Christian-Democrat principles and without a strong Church showing the way, I admit this would be harder.
Dr Kevin Cutajar is a PN candidate for Gozo.