Only one thing, it seems, is rarer in Malta than someone making an apology or symbolic gesture; and that’s such a thing being positively received.
A month or so ago, Adrian Delia laid a wreath at the Great Siege Memorial, which has been used since Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination as focal point for remembrance and protest. He was rebuked at the scene in the strongest possible terms by a family member. Emotions were understandably running high since it was the second anniversary of the journalist’s horrific murder.
But the matter did not stop there. He was subsequently pilloried on Facebook and Twitter in the mob-style fashion to which social media users have become accustomed. It happened by the very same people who have, quite correctly, lambasted the government for repeatedly clearing the site of candles, photos and flowers.
The sense of irony in slating an individual for actually placing flowers, rather than taking them away, was palpable. And the feeling of bemusement from moderate observers distinct, for the Opposition leader was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Whatever Caruana Galizia and Delia said about one another during her lifetime ought to fade into insignificance in light of the fate that befell her. And the latter is what he, as the legitimately elected representative of the PN, was there to acknowledge.
Last Saturday, as Catholics marked All Souls Day, Archbishop Charles Scicluna made what he later explained was an unplanned visit to the once-unconsecrated area of the Addolorata Cemetery, where activists and supporters of the Labour Party were unceremoniously dumped during the infamous interdiction period in the early 1960s. He proceeded to bless the graves, lay a wreath on the tomb of former deputy prime minister Ġużè Ellul Mercer and apologise for the Church’s actions that occurred at a time when he himself was probably still crawling around in nappies.
Some feel more comfortable persisting with the tribal narrative
There were some positive reactions, not least from Joe Micallef Stafrace, who lived that period and described the Archbishop’s gesture as the “boldest step ever” taken by the Church; and from the Prime Minister, who thanked Scicluna for taking a “brave step” (brave?) in relation to a wound that “is always changing but was never closed”.
However, not everyone on the Labour side was pleased. Quite the contrary, social media forums were awash with cynicism – as terms like ‘PR exercise’, ‘not genuine’ and several choice words that cannot be reproduced on mainstream media were fired at will to cast a shadow over what, whichever way one looks at it, was a significant moment in post-interdiction history.
As ever, there is a context: In the 1970s, Auxiliary Bishop Emanuel Gerada and later Archbishop Joseph Mercieca both made moves to address the needless pain inflicted on Labourites and, as Eddie Fenech Adami recalls in his autobiography, a number of priests openly admitted they had granted absolution to them when the directive was still active. It is also pertinent to note that Dom Mintoff made his peace, and privately expressed a begrudging respect for, the man under whose direction this dark episode took place: Archbishop Michael Gonzi.
What motivated Scicluna to raise this issue now, and go further than his predecessors – if not a genuine desire to do the right thing as a pastoral leader?
In light of the above, one obvious question occurs: what motivated Scicluna to raise this issue now, and go further than his predecessors, when it has been dormant for so long and was not even remotely in the public consciousness – if not a genuine desire to do the right thing as a pastoral leader? Never ones to concern themselves with much reason lest it impedes their natural inclination towards perpetuating tribal division, social media commenters did not offer any insight on this point. What does emerge clearly is that a number of those who claim to be aggrieved would actually have preferred the Archbishop to refrain from making the apology because they feel infinitely more comfortable persisting with the tribal narrative against the person, and/or Church, rather than acknowledging his act for what is a positive step forward.
Scicluna may not be the first Church leader to have made an attempt to treat the interdiction wound.
But he is the one who has presented a gilt-edged opportunity to finally heal it. As the popular Chinese proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
However, it takes two to tango. What the Prime Minister could not bring himself to say in his reaction – ever mindful of the sentiment among his grassroots support no doubt – was that the Archbishop’s actions should precipitate a process of closure. Now that would have been a brave step.
Steve Mallia is Times of Malta’s former editor-in-chief.