Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s brave decision, on All Souls’ Day, to bless the tombs of those buried in the formerly unconsecrated part of the Addolorata Cemetery has rightly been hailed as “the boldest step ever”.
That section of the island’s main cemetery (known, rather crudely, as il-Miżbla, or rubbish dump) holds the remains of, among others, members of the Labour Party executive who had been interdicted by the Maltese Church for supporting Dom Mintoff’s often vitriolic campaign against the Archbishop at the time, Mgr Michael Gonzi. In April 1961, that campaign culminated in the adoption of a notorious resolution by the party executive which the Maltese bishops deemed to be highly offensive and thus worthy of severe censure.
Interdicted persons could not receive the sacraments, which meant that some members of the MLPexecutive, including former minister Joseph Micallef Stafrace, and the late Lino Spiteri, could not marry in church but in a sacristy, while the deputy leader, Ġużè Ellul Mercer, who died in 1961, was denied a Christian burial.
The interdiction was lifted by Archbishop Gonzi in 1964 on the occasion of Malta’s independence, but peace between the Labour Party and the Church was only formalised in 1969. Since then, steps were taken to bury the past, but the memory of Church strictures on Labour officials and supporters, including the imposition of mortal sin, continue to rankle to this day.
Pointedly, Archbishop Scicluna blessed Ellul Mercer’s grave to underline the import of his courageous gesture. It was the final step in a long but hesitant process to heal the wounds of the Church-MLP dispute of the late 1950s and early 1960s. One important step taken in 1988 was Archbishop Joseph Mercieca’s apology for any actions by the Church which had hurt so many Labour supporters.
However, as leading historian Joe Pirotta has pointed out, the Archbishop’s bold gesture should lead as well to an honest admission that the wrongs of that dark period in Maltese history were not one-sided, since, as he explained, “there were hotheads on both sides”.
Actions in the past should always be seen from the perspective of the times.
In this particular instance, the Catholic Church as a whole had yet to make the great transition to a more tolerant institution, which it became following the watershed Vatican Council II of 1962-65.
And if properly read, Archbishop Scicluna’s brave gesture has a wider significance which is precisely this: tolerance of other opinions, of other beliefs or of no belief at all, tolerance of other races, of those who may be judged out of place in our society or who fail to conform.
This tolerance should mean an end to hate speech of all kinds, to hostile behaviour towards immigrants, for example, and to the kind of populist discourse which seems to be gaining ground in Maltese society. As if to underline that message, the Archbishop in his homily asked for remembrance of migrants who died while crossing the Mediterranean and are buried at the cemetery.
The Church’s rehabilitation of the notorious Miżbla should go a long way to heal the wounds of the past, even if the number of those who were directly affected is diminishing. It should also engender, in the inevitable cut-and-thrust of local politics, a greater degree of fairness, mutual respect and, obviously, tolerance.
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