When I first met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger 20 years ago, he had asked timidly but expectantly: “Do you know Scicluna?”
Such was the star power of Mgr Charles J. Scicluna even then, that just a surname sufficed. So when Scicluna was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Malta on the October 6, 2012, the news was greeted with incredulity since it was a foregone conclusion that as Pope Benedict XVI’s clergy abuse czar and a global superstar in ecclesiastical circles, Scicluna would go on to trail-blaze an even more stellar path in the Church hierarchy. Some muttered that he was “kicked upstairs” because Benedict wanted him to be out of swatting distance from disgruntled prelates on whose toes he stepped in the course of his work as the Chief Prosecutor of the Vatican.
This week marks the third anniversary of Scicluna’s appointment by Pope Francis as Archbishop of Malta. Unlike 2012, the news was expected and it was welcomed with unbridled joy by some and with apprehension by others, for his detractors knew that he would not be a silent pushover.
With Scicluna as Auxiliary Bishop, we had already glimpsed that he would be a bishop like no other, for good or for ill, depending on which side of the fence one sits. The fact that Mgr Scicluna’s installation took place on March 21 reinforced the hope that this would be a new spring for the local Church.
During his time as Auxiliary Bishop, the buds of a new spring were already in bloom. By joining the digital continent that is social media, the new bishop ensured that his voice could come across unshackled by the usually carefully crafted Curial releases. Who can forget the furore that his tweets about the new Castille lights, spring hunting, uncontrolled construction and the fake New Year’s Message kitchen caused among those who splutter that the Church should not wade into the political sphere and should stick to sprinkling holy water in the catacombs?
Funnily enough, such critics are usually very keen to have a man of the cloth bless, say, some water tank, perhaps hoping it will turn into wine. After each relentless backlash, a lesser bishop would have retreated to his sacristy, but not Scicluna.
He went one better.
Archbishop Scicluna commissioned a major overhaul of the Church’s media which had become rather sclerotic and largely irrelevant to public discourse, so that the Church’s message will not be distorted by zealous apparatchiks.
Nevertheless, Scicluna does not limit himself to speaking on friendly media only, and this is where the Archbishop confounds his critics. For contrary to his predecessors, he does not shirk from vigorously engaging in the public arena and doing rounds with his opponents. He does not dispatch anyone to deputise for him on populist programmes like Xarabank, where the atmosphere is sometimes akin to a spectacle in the Colosseum, but faces his most vociferous and aggressive critics with erudite arguments, good humour and razor-sharp wit. His manner is direct, and like all direct people, he might not be everyone’s cup of tea. He certainly is a refreshing glass of water in a sea thronged with double-speak and tu quoque retorts.
By being sent to Malta, his international visibility has not diminished. A year ago, Scicluna, together with the Bishop of Gozo, Mgr Mario Grech, published the Maltese guidelines for the controversial papal document, Amoris Laetitia. It is not a secret to state that half of the Catholic world was alarmed at the position taken by this Maltese document. Reams of blogs and articles were written decrying and praising these guidelines.
Scicluna did not cower in fear and declared defiantly that ‘no one will shut me up’
Many concede that they had traction because Scicluna’s name and canonical expertise were attached to them, for in the Catholic world, ‘Scicluna’ is a reliable brand. Some were left stunned by such a document bearing his name and reacted accordingly.
However, supporters of the guidelines opine that this is vintage Scicluna, going out on a limb for the Pope when necessary, having done the same when Benedict needed him to help clean up the Church from the plague of clerical sex abuse. Scicluna had drafted the new norms for the Church’s handling of these cases, norms that are now operational throughout the Catholic Church.
One can make the same argument now, with Pope Francis entrusting Scicluna with the delicate Chilean clerical sex abuse mission of the past days. Only recently, the influential New York Times called Scicluna the ‘Vatican’s Eliot Ness’, for his reputation as a tenacious clerical abuse investigator, incorruptible and fearless in going after targets previously deemed untouchable. Under Scicluna’s watch, between 2002 and 2012, no fewer than 3,000 priests were removed from the ministry.
All this was largely unknown by many who love him or hate him in equal measure. Scicluna had yet to make the leap in inspiring people to rally behind him and take to heart his message of the common good.
Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination changed everything.
Within hours, Scicluna was denouncing Daphne’s murder for what it is: an assault on our basic rights and a “defeat of our democracy”. While others were talking about the usual ‘shock and sorrow’, much like US politicians who send ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a gun rampage, Scicluna was already framing Daphne’s murder in the context of the collapse of the rule of law and the result of a “State without accountability and transparency”.
While other leaders, of the political class or otherwise, were waffling on about unity and reconciliation, or worse, shamelessly bickering to score sordid political points, Scicluna was transformed as the moral leader of a beleaguered people reeling from this barbaric killing by fearlessly talking truth to power.
The usual orchestrated mob came at him with pitchforks for “interfering” in politics, but Scicluna, like he did when he went after the untouchables of the Church, did not cower in fear, and declared defiantly that “no one will shut me up”.
By persisting in speaking out plainly about the “Mafia style” tactics of co-ordinated attacks on the Church, Scicluna is making it plain that he will not be held hostage to our recent history, he will not allow it to paralyse him into inertia, he will not use the categories of the past to talk about the crises of today. By not remaining silent, and by articulating the horror of Daphne’s barbaric murder by stating that “no one is safe”, Scicluna has also attracted those who are usually indifferent or antagonistic towards the Church.
The Archbishop can be direct. But he is also the master of the subliminal message. Last December, he presented State authorities with a replica of the statue of Christ the King by Antonio Sciortino. This gesture is laden with meaning for, like the Great Siege Memorial in Valletta, the statue of Christ the King is a political, non-partisan, statement that depicts the allegory of Malta kneeling in prayer before Christ the King whose kingdom is primarily that of truth, justice and peace. Malta, in this representation, is not defenceless but is armed with the sword and shield of faith – one nation under God. Instead of launching crusades against the mooted reform of the Constitution, the Archbishop cleverly chose to use the language of symbolism to make a point.
Though much has been said about the Archbishop’s diminutive stature, one can certainly say that he punches above his weight. Like his mentor Benedict XVI, who was called ‘the Rottweiler’ for his dogged pursuit and defence of the truth, Archbishop Scicluna is often likened to a small breed of dog that persistently bites at the ankles of the powerful.
When I met Benedict XVI last April, I conveyed, as usual, Scicluna’s greetings. At the mention of the Archbishop’s name, Benedict’s kindly and wise face lit up and exclaimed softly: “Ah, Scicluna! Piccolo grande uomo!”
Who am I to quibble with such a verdict?
Alessandra Dee Crespo is the Chancellor of the Church Tribunal of Appeals.
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