Michael Grech writes:
I will not attempt to write a mini biography of the late Fr Ġwann (Joao) Xerri, the Dominican friar who died recently in Brazil; the country that adopted him way back in 1974, and which shaped considerably his thought, commitment, and religious vocation. Nor shall I dwell on how our paths crossed in the 1990s through what he would call a non-coincidental chance encounter, and how a friendship had developed since.
Apart from referring to incidents and happenings that are relevant only to those involved, such a recollection might run the risk of having the subject end up as a bit-part player in an exercise that centres around the writer, as is the tendency in many such obituaries. What I will do is simply jot a few lines on some of the facets of Ġwann, without pretending that these provide an exhaustive account of the individual, or that they are the aspects of his personality that will necessarily have impressed others who also knew and befriended him.
Ġwann was first of all a Dominican, a member of the Order of Preachers. He knew that an integral part of his calling was to deliver the Good News, and he invested a lot of energy doing this. This is something which is critically missing in most of our churches, where (with some exceptions) sermons tend to be shallow and ill-prepared, and where the tendency is to implicitly assume that the congregation is immature and intellectually lazy.
Not merely were Ġwann’s homilies biblically and theologically sound and relevant (linking local events and happenings to others around the globe), but they were also pedagogically sound and tailored to the various audiences to which he ministered. His reflections were deep, but also (thankfully) lacking in intellectual bravado, and hence accessible to people from all walks of life. He could cite Aquinas, Nelson Mandela or Fidel Castro without this being empty rhetoric or vain name-dropping, and in ways that would help his audience discern the holy texts and how these are pertinent to what is going on today.
Ġwann could also adapt the manner of delivering the Word. In masses he celebrated to congregations made up primarily of immigrants, or in others where he officiated to a congregation made up of friends, he would invite those attending the service to contribute to the homily, either through recalling some experiences that would be related to the holy texts, or through giving their own views on the topics and episodes that were being discussed and discerned.
Ġwann was also a ‘man of the people’, though not in the clichéd and much abused manner in which this phrase is usually employed. He was not a man of the people in the sense of projecting the image of someone who is approachable and ‘down to earth’, but nonetheless seek little and big limelights, and create a cohort of susceptible devotees.
Ġwann wanted friends more than followers, even though there were many who rightly considered him to be a master. He tended to recognise, develop and give value to the thoughts, insights and experiences of those whom other militants ignore, or at best prefer to paternalistically champion. For instance, in male-dominated contexts and institutions (not just the ones that immediately spring to mind), he would make it a point to prioritise the voices of women; especially the type of women who are not likely to be included in recent exercises supposedly aimed at making political institutions more egalitarian in terms of sexes.
Something else that made Ġwann a man of people was his tendency to engage and dialogue with everyone. Unlike those who want to engage with a romantic caricature of the exploited or the downtrodden, where the latter would lack xenophobic, homophobic and bigoted vices which afflict many exploited and downtrodden in the concrete world, Ġwann would engage in a horizontal manner with people across most barriers, social classes, and groupings.
He would engage with migrants, and with the old lady who laments that Malta is no longer what it used to be; with environmentalists, and with others whose hobby is hunting. While retaining his firm convictions, Ġwann would listen and seek to grasp different lines of thought. If he felt the need to challenge someone on some point, he would do so in a manner that neither belittles his interlocutor, nor turn the opportunity into a stage where he would exhibit his dialectical prowess under a protagonistic limelight. (Had what goes on as ‘the Left’ – in Europe and elsewhere – adopted such an approach and attitude, less ‘white trash’ and local born have-littles might have turned their ears to the sirens that are attracting them to the Right.)
One final thing regarding militancy. Something that I always appreciated about Ġwann is that he never shaped a martyr’s wreath and laid it on his own head. (Even though it transpired in a recent obituary by his friend Frei Betto, that in the mid-1980s in Brazil he was subjected to threats for a stand he took on a particular issue.) He never attempted to portray himself as some Che Guevara in a white tunic.
Ġwann was aware of his privileges as a white, European, and member of an established institution, and knew that his militancy for the downtrodden had to be cognisant of the limits and possibilities his position entail. He was also very honest about the fears and doubts that afflict us who are all too human, and no heroes of sorts. (This is a characteristic he shared with another militant for social justice and common friend who died three years ago, Charles Miceli.) Ġwann’s attitude calls to mind the words of Blaise Pascal: “We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us is everything.”
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