Five years after seven vehicles belonging to the Jesuit community were torched after their support for irregular immigrants’ rights, St Aloysius’ College rector Fr Patrick Magro tells Ariadne Massa the order still receives threats.
Just after midnight on March 13, 2006, Fr Magro received a phone call from a panicked watchman saying he thought the grass in the college grounds were burning.
“By the time I got to the school one of the cars had exploded and with the blast was catapulted higher than one of the palm trees,” he says, smiling at the irony of how different the scene that greeted him was from the one described on the phone.
It was a time when anti-immigration emotions were running high, fuelled by an influx of irregular immigrants and right-wingers, so the Jesuits, who ran the Jesuit Refugee Service and openly condemned racist sentiments, became a target.
Four months before this arson attack, two cars and a motorcycle belonging to the Jesuit community at Tal-Qroqq were also burnt.
Then, in April 2006, the car belonging to JRS lawyer Katrine Camilleri as well as the front door of her home were torched while she was asleep at home with her family.
“It was a difficult situation,” Fr Magro says, recalling the powerful experience of recognising the raw hatred the order faced.
While the anger has abated in the past years there is still antagonism, and Fr Magro admits the Jesuits are still receive threats connected with immigration.
There are fewer threats than before, but “now and again” they get an anonymous phone call or letter, threatening to destroy their property.
“The gist of every threat is ‘why don’t you shut up and let us live in peace’,” he says, adding that he tries not to attach much importance to these matters.
“The situation has improved and I believe that slowly, and I stress slowly, people are recognising the work Jesuits are doing in this field to help the government deal with immigration,” the 41-year-old says.
He is reluctant to speak much more about the threats, preferring not to make a big fuss. Instead, he takes the opportunity to explain how the Jesuits are often misunderstood on immigration.
“There are those who feel Jesuits are more prepared to stand up for immigrants than Maltese, which is not correct. Fighting for human beings’ rights does not come at the expense of Maltese identity, but because we believe there is a way we can all live together especially in the light of the global situation.
“We want the easy way out, but this is a global matter,” he says, while accepting that the island needs help on a political level to ensure Malta, the closest country to Libya, does not end up taking more than it can handle.
“As Jesuits we’re not in favour of bringing immigrants to Malta; isn’t it obvious that we have huge infrastructural problems and that we need help?” he says.
“Nobody is happy with the situation, but to have so many people fleeing their country in search of a better life is a global phenomenon and there are huge immigration problems out there that are much bigger than what we are facing here.
“An immigrant’s heart is a heart plagued with hurt.”
He goes to great pains to show how immigration is a global phenomenon – “wherever there is a war there are displaced people” – and the Jesuits worked to give them a helping hand.
He is also quick to point out that accepting people of a different culture is not easy, and when he lived in Africa, he saw the flip side when he experienced language barriers and had to overcome his ingrained characteristics – “they thought I was the strange one”.
Having travelled extensively, Fr Magro witnessed the lengths displaced people go to in order to escape. In Los Angeles he worked with Latin Americans who fled across the Mexican border under direct fire – “you have to run and hope a stray bullet doesn’t kill you”; and helped refugees arriving from the Dominican Republic or Cuba crossing to the US by boat.
The only difference with Malta’s situation is that the refugees were crossing the shark-infested Caribbean, not the Mediterranean.
Hearing the birds chirping peacefully from the trees on the college grounds the burnt carcasses of the cars seem eons away, but threats are something Jesuits across the world have learnt to live with as a consequence of standing up to social injustices.
This is not the first time Fr Magro has confronted threats or come face to face with the barrel of a rifle during his travels.
One day he was travelling with three other Jesuits along the border between Columbia and Venezuela when teenagers brandishing Kalashnikovs stopped them, dragged them out of the car and were about to pull the trigger.
Luckily, they believe that if you kill a priest a curse will befall their family, so Fr Magro and his friends, who were dressed in jeans with nothing much to symbolise their vocation, started pulling out the Bible, chalice and anything they had to hand to prove who they were.
On another occasion, when he was still a student, he went to Pakratz, Croatia, to help rebuild destroyed houses in the parish. But what should have been a three-week trip turned into a three-month adventure-packed experience when the war for the liberation of occupied territories broke out.
“It was a very tense situation where Croats, Serbs and Bosnians lived together and there was a lot of hatred; neighbours would place mines to blow each other up,” he recalls. He felt that having travelled to the area to help there was no way he was going to take the next flight out at a time when the parish needed him most, so he stayed on.
The church had been blown up and its facade was pockmarked with bullets. Fr Magro and the parish priest had spent a day working on rebuilding the church and were exhausted, so by 8 p.m. they went to sleep. They woke up to the sound of gunfire, which was nothing untoward, but this time the rebels broke in.
Fr Magro huddled under the bed, barely breathing as they fired haphazardly. He found two bullets embedded in the mattress after they left.
These hair-raising experiences have dogged Fr Magro, and three years ago he again had a gun pointed to his head during a formation programme in Venezuela. He was staying with eight Jesuits in a rundown area when youngsters broke in to try to rob them.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had a love-hate relationship with the Jesuits because they were the only people speaking very openly and bluntly against his social injustices, making them a constant target.
“When you live in such a place you’re mentally prepared. If you cannot handle it psychologically then it’s best to leave, otherwise you will be a burden,” he says.
His adventures and close shaves are countless and his family barely know half the details, as he attempts to keep these experiences – which he recounts with a certain nonchalance – to himself not to worry them.
How does he overcome this fear? Is it simply strong faith or his spirit of adventure?
“My father would always question why they sent me to these hot spots and I’d try to explain that I had pushed to go on this trip and that I enjoyed it. It’s in my nature to seek wild, different environments,” he says with a mischievous grin.
But he also feels that as a Jesuit these experiences are an integral part of his vocation. He believes it is fundamental for his formation to be close to those who are suffering and facing injustices, and one of the reasons he chose to abandon his engineering career and girlfriend to become a Jesuit.
“What attracted me to the order is that we are encouraged to find God in everything, not in functions, but in our realities.” He has fond memories of the six months he spent in the Guatemala jungle in 1998 helping displaced locals returning from Mexico to reclaim their land.
It revolutionised his life to live with people who had never seen cars, roads, or technology and lived in tremendous poverty. He survived on a handful of rice and beans a day – he lost 12 kilos while there and contracted an amoebic infection in his stomach after drinking from the stream. But he still considers himself lucky.
He would sleep with the locals, spending four days at a stretch in every village under banana-thatched huts, shower in the stream, machete his way through the jungle or kill a snake that crossed his path. Apparently, the best way to kill a snake is to cut its head straight off with one strike – otherwise it will attack.
“In fact, one of the things that bothers me a bit in my role as rector is that I’m so tied down – I cannot just up and leave. It’s like running a family business,” he concedes.
He laughs when he recalls how just before he was handpicked to become college rector he had just asked his superiors to post him in Guatemala, Bosnia or a prison... a “bit of a wild place where I’m in my element”.
“The reply was: ‘We’re sending you to a jungle, but of a different type – at St Aloysius where you won’t encounter snakes, but children.’ True, it’s a jungle but a beautiful one, and I don’t regret the eight years I have already spent here. There’s so much to do, but it’s worth it,” he says.
His biggest satisfaction is meeting ex-Aloysians who left college having had a good experience and are appreciative of the character formation the school imbued them with on various levels.
As a ex-Aloysian himself, what does he try to do that’s different?
“One of the things I believe is fundamental is that a child grows up to be all-rounder,” he says.
Being an all-rounder is something Fr Magro excels in – he runs for 45 minutes every day, plays football, plays the guitar, speaks fluent Spanish, has the antidote to a poisonous snake bite... It is what he absorbed from his college years and is keen to pass on to students.
He believes youngsters are receptive to this concept and is pleasantly surprised by how much more outgoing and confident students are these days.
“When the provincial told me I was going to be a rector, the first time I set foot in this office I did so with trepidation. As a student you only entered the office when you faced a calamitous situation – big, big trouble.
As kids, we’d step up a gear and zoom past the rector’s office,” he says, adding he was fortunately never called in during his student years.
Things are certainly not what they were and Fr Magro is impressed with students’ self-assurance – just before Easter recess a student knocked on his door asking for an appointment to discuss how things at the college could be improved.
“We wouldn’t have dreamt of doing such a thing, so it’s a welcome difference to see they’re confident; they’re not ready to accept things without challenging them, which is good,” he says.
“Obviously, they’re more arrogant these days. We wouldn’t open our mouths back then, which was bad. But now we’ve gone to the other extreme, and while I ensure we listen to students, we have to be firm.”
He has adopted an open-door policy and is readily accessible to students and their parents through his mobile phone and on Facebook, but ensures he establishes clear boundaries to retain his authority, while still being a friend.
He believes it is impossible to succeed in a school without contact with students.
“Schools these days have to serve as a teacher, father, mother, babysitter, psychologist... it’s a challenge.”
He focuses on making personal care for every student a priority, to ensure structures are in place to know every individual student and in turn give them better formation.
A student can seem to have problematic behaviour but once you get to know his reality, three quarters of the problem is won over, he says, adding that the school steers away from a one-size-fits-all education.
For Fr Magro the trick is getting to know each student well, and he comes close – he knows pretty much all the names of the 1,700 students and dedicates time to being present to help them understand their difficulties.
One of the biggest challenges the college is facing is helping students overcome the lack of support structures at home.
“To go home and not find anybody for long periods of time is a problem, and children suffer. Neglect is a modern-day type of poverty and I think it’s on the increase,” he says.
“It can be a situation where both parents are working, or they are separated, but the number of secondary school students returning to an empty home is increasing and I’m not talking of just an hour alone.
“When there’s no agreement between the separated parents there’s a lot of friction and the children suffer. But we have to distinguish between those who really have their child’s welfare at heart and have a support network in place for them.”
He estimates there are at least two to three students who come from broken homes in each class, and says the debate on divorce, which is set to peak with four weeks to go before the referendum, has naturally entered the classrooms.
Fr Magro said he had discussed how this “complex subject” should be tackled with teachers. Students are encouraged to discuss and think about the issues at stake and teachers are advised not to express their own opinion, while listening carefully to protect those who face different situations at home.
“We’re a Church school so we debate the values of marriage while respecting those families whose relationship has broken down. We discuss the Church’s stand and the meaning of commitment in life, whether it involves marriage or not,” he explains.
“Our main aim is education. We don’t want to create divisions or piques, but encourage them to discuss issues... I respect people’s opinion and I’m not imposing anything.”
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