Mgr Charles Vella, who founded the Cana movement, is a committed but outspoken priest. He tells Herman Grech it is high time to stop the "twinning" between the Church and the State.

During the infamous period of the interdict in the 1960s, babies could not be baptised in a Church if their parents or godparents were members of the Labour Party.

The controversial ecclesiastical penalty was steered by Archbishop Michael Gonzi in the midst of his very public rift with then Labour leader Dom Mintoff.

Labour MP Patrick Holland turned to his old friend Fr Charles Vella to help baptise a Naxxar couple's nine-month old child whose godparents were Socialist members.

Fr Vella, the then Archbishop's public relations officer, decided to seek permission from Apostolic Nuncio to Malta Martin O'Connor who gave him the go-ahead. Mgr Gonzi and the parish priest were unaware of the move though they both later gave their blessing.

Fr Vella used to drive a very conspicuous white Alfa Romeo car at the time so he parked far away from the parish to evade the prying neighbours' attention.

"I walked into the church at 8.30 p.m. and I saw the godparents reciting the rosary. And soon after we baptised the child," he says.

Mgr Vella has been driven by the motto that life is full of shades of grey, and not black or white.

The 81-year-old monsignor describes himself as "conservative" but his outspoken attitude and some of the projects he has steered throughout his 52 year pastoral life make him anything but conventional.

The author of several books, Mgr Vella has been a successful lobbyist, convincing the Nationalist government in the early 1990s to conceive the San Raffaele Hospital, before it was modified into Mater Dei Hospital.

In 1954, he had the foresight to launch the Cana Movement, which to this day counsels couples for a life of marriage.

A media man at heart, Mgr Vella was in charge of religious broadcasting for 20 years and sitting down for an interview is a piece of cake for him. He weaves his dialogue carefully, sprinkling it with Italian words and quotes by Italian cardinals and philosophers, courtesy of the 32 years he has been serving in Milan.

As the Curia's first media man he clearly recalls the events which unfolded in the corridors of power in the 1960s during the clash between the Church and the Labour Party.

"What we did was right during that moment in history. We had few resources but a great will to safeguard not only the Church as an institution but also values, especially those values which today, unfortunately, are in great crisis."

Rejecting accusations that the 1960s was a shameful period for the Maltese Church, Mgr Vella says it is easy nowadays to criticise the events of the past.

He admits certain incidents were blown out of proportion, but he says it was down to the need to defend the principles of Maltese Christianity.

While the Church needed to change and do away with the privileges of the past, it did not deserve the vicious attacks from some Labour Party diehards, he says. The Church felt the questions being raised by the Socialists at the time ran contrary to the real values of the Maltese family.

"When a foreign official came to Malta and said the Maltese breed like rabbits, the Socialist press applauded."

Considered a moderate at the time, Mgr Vella prides himself on the fact the Archbishop accepted his proposal that the interdict should not apply to all the members of the Labour Party but to limit it to the members of the central committee.

The monsignor says the rift between the Church and Labour was also down to the two strong and unyielding personalities of Mr Mintoff and Mgr Gonzi.

"There was too much tension at the time. It wasn't a game of ping pong, but a game of rugby - I would say mistakes were committed by both sides. There were some busybodies who pushed Mgr Gonzi to take certain measures and he would flare up. He wanted to accomplish his dreams by the next morning. But he had vision."

Does that make a good archbishop today?

"It might not make an archbishop but it makes a good leader, and today what we lack is leaders who have the vision and the action of men like Mgr Gonzi... though he rarely had charisma. When I come here I see that people want a charismatic, spiritual leader - and this we have. Today we have bishops who have gone to the people. The people also want to see the Church is relevant in today's world - in a changing society. And this is urgent.

"We need new people to guide the two bishops. You cannot keep the same sailors on board. The clergy is expecting these changes. There are many gaps which need to be filled," he says, though he refuses to mention names.

Mgr Vella feels comfortable debating the controversial issue of divorce and he is clearly qualified to speak about it - setting up the Cana Movement at the age of 20. Though some consider the courses as merely a rubberstamp for their Catholic marriage certificate, Cana has proved to be a blessing for many unprepared and unsuspecting couples.

Mgr Vella's views on the possibility of re-marriage are likely to shake the more conservative elements within the Church.

"I keep reading that marriages in Malta will disintegrate if there is divorce, but it didn't happen in Italy. In the first couple of years, the divorce rate (in Italy) rose because there were people waiting for years to get it. But now the figures have levelled out. It's not increasing."

As a founder of the Cana Movement, he says he would not like to see divorce introduced, but as a priest and as a human being, he cannot close his eyes like the "three wise monkeys" who don't want to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Malta keeps persisting in seeing things in black or white, often forgetting the shades of grey.

Mgr Vella says it is high time for the roles of the Church and the State to be clarified: "There should not be any twinning between the two - and there still is."

He cites former Italian Senate President Marcello Pera who wrote about the need for an ethical State.

"The ethics of the State should be based on European Christian traditional values - in Malta we have this but the State has to come to grips with the problem of divorce. It has a duty to do it, but before doing it, the State has to give more help to families because divorce legislation doesn't solve the needs of the people. The people on the ground are crying for help from the State - for example, young married couples are facing difficulties, as is the unmarried mother, the working mother... we need to change the current marriage law."

On the other hand, the Church cannot stop the State from legislating, Mgr Vella insists.

Underlining the need for the Church to present guidelines, values and principles, Mgr Vella says the government should not follow Italy's example and hold a referendum on issues like abortion or divorce.

"For heaven's sake that's a thing of the past - let's not crusade. We need to sit at a table and discuss."

Asked whether the Church was putting pressure on the government behind the scenes to stop it from enacting legislation on divorce, he says: "I don't know and I hope not. The Church is carrying out its mission to preach and teach. Perhaps, where the Church is failing is in prevention. Why should the Church spend tens of thousands and employ 30 people for marriage tribunals and annulments, while Cana counselling practically has no support? Cana Movement used to employ 30 people - now there are 16. The Church should invest more."

Mgr Vella says he opposed cohabitation but asks whether it is justified that children have no identity because their parents cannot marry.

"The State should face it in the tradition of democracy and of Christian Europe. It's better for their parents marry than cohabit... We have so many problems in society and you cannot solve the problems by preaching but by healing. Remember Jesus said we should preach and heal."

Mgr Vella insists the Church should avoid quoting certain statistics in a bid to water down the alarming number of marriage breakdowns.

"These are not figures, they're people. There are families behind this. I feel for the couple whose first marriage was a big mistake but is now living a very good life," he says.

"The Church needs to look to the future. I won't be alive but this will also happen in Malta. I don't want to alarm people but it pains me when these couples living a good life come to tell me they want a common union and ask me why they should stand aside when their child is having his first Holy Communion. They yearn for Christ.

"Very often their first marr- iage was a mistake; they want a more stable and happy second marriage. If we prepare couples well for marriage then we shouldn't be afraid. The introduction of divorce doesn't scare me, the same way the introduction of condom vending machines at University doesn't scare me. What scares me is the lack of edu-cation on human sexuality and relationships. There's none of this."

He quotes from the speech of a Cardinal who says public opinion and statistics do not decide what is morally right or wrong but it is important to acknowledge the many people who are suffering today.

He claims many of the marriages in Malta are invalid on grounds several couples tying the knot are still immature, and they are often hounded by family pressure.

"I feel these members need healing and my theory is that while divorce from the Catholic viewpoint is considered a menace for the stability of marriage it does not mean it's going to wreck marriages. If we build our marriage on rock and not on sand, the Christian family will become stronger."

In Milan nowadays, there are more civil marriages than religious marriages and more cohabiting couples than families. While the institution of marriage is facing a crisis, the Maltese family is not, he insists.

Mgr Vella says it is up to every couple to take stock of its faith and values and it is down to the government and the two main parties to push forward any legislation.

He does not subscribe to some religious communities' stories of gloom should divorce be introduced.

"Let's not be prophets of doom. Let's stop scaring people. People tell me to fight on. Some of the Church exponents - not the bishops - are going overboard. They should either stay silent or be updated."

Asked what advice he would give the State if he were in a position to do so, he says he would tell the government to carry out its business in the most Christian way.

"I will tell the government not to drag in the Church with it, like the case of the St John's Co-Cathedral Museum. Why did the Prime Minister have to say he consulted the Archbishop? Just decide. Parliament is there to decide. I don't approve of any crusading as we did in Italy, or holding a referendum. I wish everybody will assume their responsibility."

Mgr Vella says Cana is trying to intensify its message and improve marriage preparation to ensure those couples getting married make a mature choice. He adds he would not be alarmed if some couples refuse to marry in Church - he will not, however, pass judgment on anybody.

Likewise, he refuses to condemn Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who is at the centre of a sex scandal.

"Berlusconi's behaviour hurts the nation and the Catholics. He is branded a gigolo and a playboy, but there is a grey area. Clearly, there is a strategy to ruin him; you might also say Mr Berlusconi is too honest and speaks his mind too much."

Mgr Vella is not alien to controversial statements - or friendships. In Italy, he had befriended Bettino Craxi, the late former Prime Minister whose self-imposed exile to Tunisia freed him from the grip of the mani pulite judges, probing political corruption.

He insists Craxi was merely hounded for being honest. And unlike other politicians who were doing the same thing, he admitted he had accepted illegal financing for his party. Craxi died in 2000 but the Maltese monsignor still visits his widow.

Mgr Vella criticises former Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi for barring Craxi from receiving treatment at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, rather than the makeshift camp in Tunis.

Mgr Vella's connections with the Istituto Scientifico San Raffaele at Milan as general coordinator for ethics reaped dividends and in the 1990s he successfully lobbied the Nationalist government to start the construction of a state-funded 400-bed hospital and research centre which runs the chain of San Raffaele hospitals.

The construction of the hospital was mired in controversy over the awarding of tenders before former Prime Minister Alfred Sant decided to change the hospital's remit and double it in size.

Does Mgr Vella feel it was a mistake to build another general hospital?

"I think the Maltese regret it. I'm not angry, I have no resentment. I am happy to be in the foundation of the new hospital. We have to realise curing is not enough. We need research. We help wherever we can," he replies diplomatically.

Mgr Vella is also happy that the Pope decided to sanction the Maltese monsignor's idea for the setting up of a Pauline Centre - but expresses disappointment that instead of basing it in Malta, the Pontiff opted for Rome.

Mgr Vella had proposed an ecumenical centre for the studies on St Paul last October to the Archpriest of St Paul's, but he says he did not receive much-needed support from Malta.

"I asked for a Maltese priest to take charge of this project, but would you believe I was told that there wasn't one available. No-one helped me," he says, adding the project was in line for $80,000 worth of sponsorship from the US.

"I thanked the Holy Father after he approved it. The will of Peter is the will of Christ and I said that when the Americans give me the money I will divert it to Rome. So to those who thought Fr Charles was dreaming, I forgive them. But Malta lost out on a great opportunity."

Mgr Vella might be getting on in years, but his determination to challenge the foundations is certainly not on the wane.

Watch excerpts of the interview on timesofmalta.com

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