A voice in one of the most influential geopolitical groupings (i.e. the European Union) is not something to be dismissed lightly." This was part of the advice that the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Paul Poupard, gave the Maltese on November 18.

Cardinal Poupard was addressing a large and varied audience at the first Discern Annual Lecture organised by the Institute bearing that name. Cardinal Poupard spoke of globalisation and the role of women and sang the praises of Dun Gorg Preca and Dun Benny Tonna. All these he considered as signs of the times whose deeper meaning he tried to discover.

I met Cardinal Poupard during a meeting for a small group of people at the Curia. He immediately strikes you as an open-minded, highly cultured man of faith. A look at his curriculum vitae immediately indicates that someone with such an intense background in academia, diplomacy and pastoral life could not be anything but that. His speech in the evening confirmed all this.

He is not afraid to tackle controversial subjects - e.g. membership of the European Union - but he tackles them as a man of faith armed with the arsenal of sociological research and the insight and prudence of the wise man. The Christian should look on these controversies as signs of the times that can help us find the presence of the Spirit.

Discussing controversial subjects, he wisely says: "It would not be right for me to interfere in processes that are best understood by the people of these Islands." Quite naturally the Cardinal does not want to impose any perspective, saying that the question "is best judged by people here." On the other hand he adds: "I cannot simply leave things hanging in the air" and offers insights that provide us with food for thought.

Let's look at the way he tackled "what is probably the major political challenge for this country today": the controversy about EU membership, a subject on which he spoke "a great deal".

He first enunciates principles. The Church is not there "to advise the faithful how to vote in elections or referenda". This does not mean that the Church remains silent. In fact he continues, the Church authorities "clearly have the duty to help people pick their way through the minefield of issues that crop up in such circumstances".

Cardinal Poupard placed the debate about Malta's EU membership in the context of the wider debate happening in Europe.

"Christians across the continent are worried by the extreme reluctance of significant member states to mention the word 'religion' in official documents. There is a concerted effort in some quarters to dull the collective memory and to ignore the continent's religious heritage, or to reduce it to the level of exhibitions in folk museums. Yet it is difficult to conceive of Europe without recognising its Christian origins."

A person of smaller stature and lesser faith would have panicked in front of the worries expressed. He would start waving a red flag to the Maltese people while throwing in for good measure the pseudo-arguments of the legalisation of abortion and same sex marriage. Can one have a better introduction to portray Europe as the devil incarnate? The president of the Pontifical Council will have nothing to do with such scaremongers. Instead of being paralysed by fear he urges us forward. Read carefully what he says:

"This may be a sign that would help focus discussions on Maltese membership of the European Union. Your presence might have a significant effect on discussions about Europe's religious heritage, because your country is both a cultural crossroads and one of the most solidly Christian countries in the world."

He looks at the argument from its negative aspect. Would not joining make a difference? His answer is one of the strongest statements in his whole's speech. "Your absence would certainly allow the present amnesia to continue and develop."

What a fresh approach! What insight and deep vision that can easily be contrasted with the fear and trembling attitude so evident in certain quarters in our country! Cardinal Poupard, instead of looking at us as a small makku (whitebait) ready to be devoured by the big fish looks at us as useful net contributors - at least on the level of values. The Pope said almost exactly the same words when he visited us in 1990.

Fearing that no one is deafer than those who do not want to listen he widens the argument and throws in another very strong statement: "A voice in one of the most influential geopolitical groupings is not something to be dismissed lightly."

Further down in his speech, the cardinal returns to this argument. He reminds us that "the whole tradition of Catholic social teaching gives the distilled wisdom of 100 years on the fact that Christians must play their part in political life. Leaving it to people without our convictions means our convictions will be dumb, and part of the Church's vocation is the evangelisation of culture and the inculturation of the Gospel."

Cardinal Poupard has a rich vocabulary spanning several languages. But there are two words missing from his thesaurus: fear and panic. His faith in the victorious presence of the Resurrected Christ in history must have brought about this two-word amnesia.

Globalisation is another sign he explores. The cardinal addresses those who are afraid that global culture will threaten our cherished values. During such times we should both "recognise what is really good and precious" in our culture and see "whether there is any way in which Maltese culture can be enriched by its encounter with other cultures." He appeals against the "risk of becoming closed in and isolated" and recommends that we "find ways of sharing it with the wider world."

At the beginning of this piece I said that Cardinal Poupard armed himself with the arsenal of sociological research. His mentor was Fr Benny Tonna, whose name is synonymous with Discern - the Institute for the Research of the Signs of the Times, whose soul and founder he was. No one has ever sung the praises of Dun Benny as Cardinal Poupard did.

The fact that he based his speech on the research conducted by Canon Tonna is praise enough in itself. But Cardinal Poupard did more than that. "The Pontifical Council for Culture benefited greatly from his sterling work." He continued: "Fr Tonna was inspired by his faith in the presence of the Holy Spirit to seek the signs and develop an agenda."

Neither did Cardinal Poupard feel embarrassed to quote what could be considered by some as a "controversial" extract. Instead of trying to hide such a quotation, Cardinal Poupard preached it from the rooftops. "In his last report, Fr Benny drew attention to the question of membership of the European Union. He saw it in these terms: 'Not to join was individual-oriented. To join was relation-oriented'. His opinion is clear."

Cardinal Poupard, also heaped praise on Dun Gorg Preca, founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine (MUSEUM), whom he mentioned seven times by name during his speech. Dun Gorg, said the cardinal, has a lot to say about the present crisis hitting institutions, including the Church. The saintly priest's "revolution was not to tear down the institutional Church, but to renew it from within, to let God's Spirit work wonders in and through ordinary people made extraordinary by God's grace."

Dun Gorg is also someone who not only preached by words but also preached by deeds; and this is what we really need. The parting shot of the cardinal's speech is a reference to Dun Gorg's saying: "O Lord, may the whole world follow your Gospel." If we follow these words "Malta herself will be a sign of the times to show many other peoples the way in this new millennium."

Another sign which Cardinal Poupard commented on is the role of women in society and the Church. This should be "based on the recognition of their dignity... which has been a recurring theme in the ministry of Pope John Paul II". He looked forward to "a society that will regard men and women as being protagonists of equal importance for the universal divine plan for humanity." In this area the Church does not always lead by example. Unfortunately if one looks at the very long list of consultants of the Pontifical Council for Culture, one finds only one woman.

Those who followed Cardinal Poupard's speech must have felt a sense of gratitude to Discern - the Institute for Research in the Signs of the Times. Such initiatives are a very valuable contribution. It would be very positive if Discern is now given enough resources to expand its present work.

One hopes that a visitor to these Islands in ten years time will be able to base her speech on the ongoing research commissioned and published by the present incarnation of Discern.

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