Fr Martin Cilia is refurbishing the neglected MSSP oratory because he believes a modern environment may address some of the Church’s problems. He admits with Fiona Galea Debono Mass no longer offers a sense of community.

The first thing the director of the refurbished and modernised MSSP Oratory in Birkirkara does from his stylish and welcoming study is offer a good coffee from a sleek machine.

Faith cannot continue to be just a question of culture. We cannot continue to impose it

Fine things, tasteful décor, aesthetics and art top the list of Fr Martin Cilia’s priorities and the building he took over 18 months ago is a far cry from what would normally be expected of a parish centre. The MSSP Oratory is not the repository of old, neglected and unsightly furniture others have discarded.

On the contrary, Fr Cilia, a self-confessed aesthete, “fixated with beauty”, has overseen every design detail, choosing the enveloping colours of the feature walls, highlighted by strategically positioned lighting, ensconced in clean-cut soffits.

“We do not need to be surrounded by rubbish,” says the priest, who has a fresh and refreshing take on his role and that of the Church.

But interior decoration is not his design in life – nor is it the topic of the interview. He has only used his “hobby” to create a space for people to feel at home.

“The Church is selling product Christ, but if it is wrapped in the old, traditional way; youngsters, young couples and those still searching can refuse the content for the covering...”

Around for 80 years, the oratory was originally linked only to boys. But today it has been transformed into a centre of catechesis and liturgy for both children and adults; a safe haven and a space for those who want to grow in their spiritual life, complete with a media room, multipurpose hall, flat-screen TV in the foyer and other comfortable amenities.

The sex abuse scandal has marked the Missionary Society of St Paul, Fr Cilia acknowledges, and it could have closed down, or pitied itself. Instead, it chose to learn and look ahead, he says.

An old boy and the first to become its director, Fr Cilia has first-hand experience of the centre’s evolution and an understanding of where it needs to go.

“One of the major problems of the Church is that Mass does not offer a sense of community. It is like a supermarket – no one knows each other.”

People do not feel they belong and his aim is to reinstate that feeling. After a whole week at work, they need to find themselves in a relaxing environment and not one that is worse than the office.

The environment is vital and “mood manipulative”, Fr Cilia believes. So among his mini “revolutions”, he has changed the church structure, pushing the altar into its midst to ensure the priest is not separated from his congregation.

Mass is not always the best experience, he admits. It can be “so boring” – all the more for children. Asking them to remain quiet for an hour is asking for the impossible, Fr Cilia believes. In fact, during his homily, the young ones leave for their own liturgy, which even includes activities they then demonstrate to their families back in the church.

The children’s liturgy is prepared by laymen – a vital part of Fr Cilia’s community – and “sometimes, their explanation is better than mine,” he admits.

He also acknowledges – even though, in his case, the numbers may have grown and he is surprised the oratory has “caught so many fish” – that churchgoers are declining rapidly.

“Faith cannot continue to be just a question of culture. We cannot continue to impose it. Christianity is a choice. It is not part and parcel of being Maltese. Just because you are born in Malta, it does not mean you are a Catholic. This is the shift the Church in Malta has to make.

“People are intelligent and cannot be treated like children. They may be rejecting the form, but not necessarily the spirituality. Yet they are not finding a space for it to grow.”

The Church in Malta is going through a hard time, he acknowledges. “Things are changing and fast – but the Church is moving slowly. It is too tied to tradition, and faith is too tied to religion. But the Church is not just religion and doctrine; it is an experience.”

For some, however, that experience is based only on their catechism classes as children, which means many are religious, but their faith is not deep. Every time something happens to them, their faith is shattered.

The innovative centre has also started to offer courses that have proved to be popular. Its seminar on sexuality attracted 240 people.

But it also faces criticism from the community’s older members, who are only concerned with tradition.

“I hope those who come because of their faith influence those who come for tradition. They are like two different religions,” he says.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us