Matthew Psaila, the 19-year-old soldier who died tragically after a military training exercise, had some time ago told his priest he wanted a "nice" funeral when he died.
"I told him 'no', adding that I will die before him. Then he looked at me with his trademark half-smile, shrugged his shoulders and said: Who knows?" Fr Joseph Gerada, a close friend of Gunner Psaila, said during an emotional funeral homily yesterday.
"The pain is huge because the loss is huge," he said as he mourned the young man.
"We have a right to cry because Matthew leaves an enormous void. We have a right to turn to God and ask him: Why? Why did this have to happen to a young man full of energy, with solid Christian values? There are no words to console us at a time like this. All we can do is remain silent and God understands."
Gunner Psaila, who would have turned 20 on Monday, was yesterday buried in a grave bearing the number 19/20 at the Addolorata Cemetery.
He died in the early hours of Monday. Neither the sophisticated medical equipment nor the dedicated hospital staff could revive the young man, who was brought out of Chadwick Lakes on Friday after spending some 10 minutes submerged and another 20 without a pulse in the ambulance.
"In a world where everyone is concerned with speaking, Matthew knew how to listen," Fr Gerada said, adding that the military should be proud to have had a soldier like him.
The St John of the Cross parish church in Ta' Xbiex, where the funeral was held in the afternoon, was filled to capacity, with people overflowing onto the church parvis.
Most of the rows were taken up by uniformed soldiers, including those who were with Gunner Psaila during the exercise, many of them just as young as he was and trying desperately to fight back the tears.
Outside the church, people huddled under umbrellas as they tried to follow the Mass, their tears as wet as the weather.
Some people spoke of the tragic death of the young gunner and the hardship of losing a son. Others discussed the sudden manner in which he died and were heard questioning why he was in the army if he could not swim.
Gunner Psaila's parents, Anthony and Marion, were distraught throughout the ceremony, constantly staring blankly at their son's coffin.
The coffin, draped in a Maltese flag, was carried into the church by military pall bearers. On the coffin lay the young soldier's forage cap, belt and bayonet frog.
Once it was laid before the altar, where the gunner had served as an altar boy just a few years ago, the flag was removed and replaced by a Bible.
At the end of the Mass, Gunner Kevin Chircop, one of the soldiers who was taking part in the fateful training exercise in Chadwick Lakes, described Gunner Psaila as a hero and asked him to watch over his friends and family from heaven.
The Mass, which the priest described as a celebration of Gunner Psaila's life, ended with heartfelt applause, which continued as the AFM pall bearers carried the coffin outdoors.
At his parent's request, the €1,000 collected during the ceremony was donated to the Community Chest Fund.
At the Addolorata Cemetery, where Gunner Psaila was buried in the servicemen's graves, an army unit fired three rounds in a final salute and a bugler sounded the Last Post. The soldiers then individually placed flowers on the coffin and saluted their comrade.
During the burial, Gunner Psaila's emotional mother sobbed on the coffin, which she hugged and kissed in her final farewell to her young son.
Although the family is still tormented by questions as to what exactly happened, during Mass they praised army commander Brigadier Carmel Vassallo for being present during this tough time.
"He died while he was in the process of forming himself into a good soldier, while preparing to help those in need. The Kingdom of Heaven thought he was a good soldier and chose him for its army where he will now be looking after us all," Fr Gerada said, fulfilling Gunner Psaila's wish of having a "nice" funeral.
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