The faces on Church pews are disappearing and they have been doing so for quite some time. The latest figures published by the Church show that Sunday Mass attendance stands at 40 per cent, down from 51 per cent in 2001. But are the figures that grim?

The Church says its findings indicate that 92 per cent of Maltese are Catholics and 74 per cent go to Mass at least once a month. A telephone survey, also commissioned by the Church, showed that those who did not attend Mass either disagreed with Church teachings or did not find the time to go. And then, impressively, 75 per cent of Catholic respondents said they prayed every day. If true, it is not a case of religion on the decline.

A cynic may apply the old adage that going through the motions of attending Mass does not make one a good Catholic. True, but it does help to go to the Church’s holiest liturgical ritual.

Maybe more revealing was a recent MaltaToday survey on religious practice which actually showed Mass attendance at 53 per cent. On the preoccupying end, the survey indicated that 65 per cent of under-35-year-olds did not attend Sunday Mass, which does not bode well for the future. Then, as much of everything else in this country, the survey categorised respondents according to political allegiances. And the findings came as no surprise.

Outspoken Archbishop Charles Scicluna suffers a major trust deficit among Labour voters. He is trusted by 43.3 per cent, with Gozo Bishop Mario Grech enjoying a trust of 76 per cent. Among Nationalist voters, Mgr Scicluna hits 89.6 per cent, while his Gozitan counterpart received 80.5 per cent in trust. Whether this affects church attendance is hard to tell.

A congregation that is distrustful of the archbishop is not new and generally a holdover from the politico-religious disputes of the 1960s and the subsequent clashes between Labour governments and the Church, which came later. But that does not make them truly less Catholic. Like everything else in this country, their thinking is thwarted by partisanship.

Catholicism, as witnessed in the summer during the parish feasts, is an integral part of Maltese society and culture, though not always religious. A MaltaToday survey found that 88.8 per cent of people were against the removal of Catholicism as Malta’s official religion. People may not be exemplary Catholics in Sunday Mass attendance but appear to feel lost without their religion. The Church has much to build upon.

Catholicism still plays an enormous role in society. The challenge is to remain contemporary and relevant. The manifestation in favour of life in Valletta on Sunday was a prime example of how the Church could operate in an increasingly secular world. The bishops were there among the crowds, not leading, but very present, getting their message across on the ethical dangers in the proposed amendments to the IVF law. They conveyed a very powerful message that appealed to people’s conscience. That was more effective than any Sunday sermon inside a crowded church.

The bishops took their message out in the streets without any airs of importance or pretensions. They are convinced of their message and they stand by it. They are, as they have always been, the conscience of society, whatever the Sunday turnouts.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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