Louis Cilia: Il-Ħajja Mqanqla ta’ Mikiel Gonzi u Żminijietu (1885-1984)
2017, Klabb Kotba Maltin.

The life of the redoubtable Archbishop Michael Gonzi spanned nearly a century during which his beloved Malta and Gozo experienced harrowing and exhilarating times, tumultuous changes and remarkable social and economic progress.

Louis Cilia, a retired senior civil servant, regales us with a meticulously researched biography of this controversial and extraordinary cleric who was devoted to the Catholic Church with all his might and was always ready to meet any perceived threat to it from any quarter.

Cilia deftly weaves his biography – fruit of years of research — through a detailed description of the historical, political, social and economic development of the Maltese Islands, in which Gonzi invariably played an important part. 

Historian Joe Pirotta, in his scholarly introduction, praises Cilia for his objectivity when he writes that Gonzi had failed to realise the fast-changing socio-economic climate since he was brought up before World War One. Increasing contacts with foreigners and the ever-growing reach of the mass media drove these far-reaching changes in Malta’s attitude to religion – Gonzi wanted to resist this in what Pirotta describes as a “mission impossible”. Yet Gonzi was a man of strong social commitment which, Pirotta says, Cilia could have emphasised more strongly, but he failed to read the signs of the times, Pirotta concludes.

Michael was born on May 13, 1885, to Ġużeppi Gonzi, a Dockyard foreman, and his wife Margerita Tonna, seventh of their eight children, and baptised at Vittoriosa parish church. The Gonzi family moved to Kalkara when Michael was five. According to Cilia, Gonzi’s whole-hearted dedication to the Church began when, aged nine, he became an altar boy. At 12 he entered the minor Seminary in Floriana as an external student, since his father could not afford the boarding fee.

The young Gonzi soon excelled as a student. He then entered University, finishing first in his Theology course, and was ordained in December 1908. He was assigned to serve in Kalkara, and soon became well known for his sermons.  In 1911 Gonzi won a scholarship from the University of Malta to study at the Gregorian University in Rome, graduating in Canon Law, and at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, where he studied Scripture and Hebrew.

On returning to Malta, Gonzi taught at the Seminary and at the University, where he became a professor – a post he held until he was appointed Bishop of Gozo in 1924. Meanwhile, in 1915, Dom Maurus Caruana, who taught at the Benedictine Abbey of Fort Augustus, in Scotland, had succeeded Mgr Pietro Pace as Bishop of Malta.

The first world war brought great prosperity to Malta, but this soon evaporated once peace was restored. The rising cost of living, growing unemployment, food shortages, discharges from HM Dockyard and widespread poverty, led to the anti-British riots of June 1919. Two years later, Malta was granted self-government, and the Constitution provided for a 32-member Legislative Assembly, elected directly, and a 17-member Senate, of whom seven were directly elected.

Cilia says that Gonzi was more or less obliged by Bishop Caruana to enter politics (the clergy were allowed to do so at the time) and was elected senator for the newly-formed Labour Party. He soon became one of the Senate’s foremost speakers, defending workers’ rights as enunciated by Pope Leo XIII in his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891. In June 1924 Gonzi resigned from the Senate on being appointed Bishop of Gozo.

According to Cilia, Gonzi considered the highlight of his pastoral ministry to be the Gozo Eucharistic Congress of 1929 which ended with the blessing of Mġarr harbour. Another highlight was the building of Ta’ Pinu Basilica, consecrated in 1931. In 1926 Gonzi visited Maltese and Gozitan settlers in Canada and the US and continued to show a strong interest in migrant communities abroad – an interest which eventually led him to set up the Church’s Emigrants Commission.

Meanwhile, the great politico-religious dispute between Lord Strickland, who became prime minister in 1927, and the Church was raging. Strickland saw in Gonzi a principal adversary. Indeed, when he met Mgr Pascal Robinson, who was appointed by the Pope to look into the dispute, Strickland told him he did not want Gonzi to succeed Bishop Caruana.

Matters came to a head when the two Bishops issued a joint pastoral letter on April 27, 1930, declaring a vote for Strickland and his allies (the Labour Party, led by Dr Paul Boffa) a mortal sin. In view of the pastoral, the elections due on May 1 were cancelled and the self-government Constitution was suspended.

Eventually, on May 28, 1932, Strickland made an apology in which he regretted his attacks on the Church’s authority. The apology was conveyed to the Vatican by Gonzi himself, and the 1930 pastoral was withdrawn. The Constitution was restored and the Nationalist Party won the elections held in June 1932 by a landslide.

The Robinson report included a reference to Gonzi, not published at the time, in which the Bishop of Gozo was praised as a good and competent administrator but also as an arrogant, aggressive and intrusive character, and generally hostile to Strickland.

Bishop Caruana became seriously ill in 1930 and depended on Gonzi more than ever before. Though Gonzi was clearly in the running to succeed him, Strickland and his daughter Mabel opposed him and waged a vigorous campaign against his appointment. 

Gradually, the antagonism between Gonzi and Strickland began to thaw. Gonzi visited Strickland on his deathbed. The old adversary passed away on August 22, 1940, with Gonzi describing Strickland’s death as that “of a true Catholic”. However, Mabel Strickland continued to oppose Gonzi’s nomination as Bishop Caruana’s successor.

A couple of months before, Mussolini had declared war on Britain and France, and the next day Italian bombs were dropped on Malta. Thus the island underwent its second siege. At the height of the siege, in 1942, Lord Gort, the hero of Dunkirk, was sent to Malta to replace the Governor, Sir William Dobbie.

As food shortages on the island worsened, Gonzi persuaded Gozitan farmers to release their stocks of wheat to feed Malta’s population. This move was received with gratitude by Gort and indeed by the entire population. As Bishop Caruana’s health was deteriorating, with Mgr Emanuel Galea appointed his auxiliary, Gort had no hesitation in recommending Gonzi as Caruana’s successor, overriding Mabel’s lingering objections.

Gort spoke highly of Gonzi to King George when the latter visited Malta in June 1943. A few months later Gonzi was named coadjutor Bishop of Malta with the right of succession. He did not have to wait long, for Caruana died on December 17, 1943. Gonzi became the first Archbishop of Malta, as the island’s status had been raised to that of an archdiocese (Caruana was Bishop of Malta and titular Archbishop of Rhodes).

Cilia gives a colourful description of Gonzi’s solemn entry into Mdina, riding a white mare, on May 22, 1944, to be formally installed as Archbishop. By this time the war had definitely receded from Malta, and Mabel Strickland became one of Gonzi’s staunchest supporters. In 1946 Gonzi was made Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

As leader of his new flock, Gonzi was greatly worried at the loosening of morals and the growth of materialism; he was even more worried at the new threat of Communism and socialism which was sweeping Europe. His alarm bells sounded after the notorious incident of May 1, 1948, when some youths sang the Red Flag and voiced anti-clerical feelings at a dinner in St Paul’s Bay in the presence of Dom Mintoff, the 31-year-old deputy leader of the Labour Party and Minister of Works and Reconstruction. In a statement in Parliament (which Cilia reproduces in full, together with copious extracts from the debate, as an appendix), Mintoff denied he was a Communist and had indeed rebuked the youths, telling them to “stop this nonsense”.

However, the incident put Mintoff in a bad light as far as Gonzi was concerned and it was probably the beginning of their mutual diffidence, distrust and eventual hostility. These feelings were accentuated in 1949 after Mintoff split the ruling Labour Party, wresting its leadership from Dr Paul Boffa.

Cilia dedicates a whole chapter to Gonzi’s encouragement and promotion of the lay apostolate in Malta – Catholic Action, the Social Action Movement, the Cana Movement, Caritas Malta, Young Christian Workers, MUSEUM, the Church newspaper Leħen is-Sewwa – and their wide-ranging activities.

Gonzi with Mintoff in 1976Gonzi with Mintoff in 1976

The 19th centenary celebrations of St Paul’s shipwreck at Malta, held with great pomp in 1960 – at the height of Gonzi’s clash with Mintoff – were a highlight of Gonzi’s episcopate. Cilia gives a detailed description of these festivities, which culminated in a memorable gathering at the Floriana Granaries, where the crowd was addressed by Pope John XXIII, who gave a salutation in Maltese – a pleasant surprise to those present.

Cilia lives up to the title of this outstanding biography

Other notable achievements of Gonzi’s episcopate were the opening of the Catholic Institute in Floriana in 1960, the St John’s Cathedral Museum in 1965 and the Mdina Cathedral Museum in 1969.

In 1955 Mintoff’s now reunited Labour Party swept into power with a mandate to bring about Malta’s gradual integration with Britain. Integration was another in a series of events which soured relations between Mintoff and Gonzi. Gonzi insisted that the Church’s position in Malta be guaranteed under integration and that some UK laws, affecting the Church, marriage and the family, would not apply to Malta.

The outcome of the 1956 referendum on integration was controversial in view of the widespread abstention, but the British government accepted the result. Negotiations on Integration, however, broke down over the UK’s contribution to the Maltese government’s budget. 

Mintoff then demanded independence. He resigned in April 1958, but before doing so he settled a long-standing dispute with the island’s doctors, and returned – at the dead of night – the two Caravaggio paintings to St John’s Cathedral. On their return from restoration in Italy, Mintoff had ordered them to be hung instead at the National Museum, thereby adding to the growing list of issues he had with the Church.

Mintoff’s resignation was marred by violence by his supporters, which Gonzi condemned, increasingly viewing Mintoff as anticlerical and socialist. Mintoff, in turn, accused Gonzi of siding with Britain against Malta’s interests.

Mintoff’s relations with the Church continued to sour when he affiliated his Labour Party to the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), widely considered to be a Communist front organisation.

In 1961, Malta was given a new self-government constitution and elections were set for February 1962. By this time, five parties, declaring their loyalty to the Church were ranged against Mintoff’s MLP – the Nationalist Party, the Progressive Constitutional Party led by Mabel Strickland, which had been formed in 1953, Herbert Ganado’s Democratic Nationalist Party, which had broken away from the Nationalists, the Christian Workers Party, led by Toni Pellegrini, former secretary of the MLP, and the Democratic Christian Party led by George Ransley, a retired senior civil servant.

The electoral campaign was bitter, with the so-called Junta, grouping all Catholic lay organisations, organising mass rallies in support of Gonzi, and eventually directing voters to give preferences to all non-MLP candidates to ensure no votes were wasted.

The dispute took an ugly turn on April 8, 1961, when the Church imposed a general interdiction (barring the receipt of Sacraments) on members of the MLP Executive who had signed a policy statement which the bishops deemed highly offensive. The Church had already imposed mortal sin on whoever read, sold or contributed to the MLP organ, Il-Ħelsien. Undoubtedly this second, even greater, politico-religious clash in which Gonzi was a protagonist left much rancour and ill-feeling, with many hard-core Labour supporters feeling totally alienated from the Church.

In their pre-election pastoral letter the bishops reminded voters of their “grave moral responsibility” of voting only for those candidates from whom the Church had nothing to fear. The PN won the 1962 election, thanks also to the Junta directive, although three of the other four parties managed to win seats in Parliament, among them Mabel Strickland.

A few months after taking office, Borg Olivier formally asked the British government to grant Malta independence. Cilia argues that Gonzi feared independence, since he was convinced that if Mintoff were to return to power he would be unstoppable. Gonzi’s fears were stoked when, in the multi-party talks leading to independence, the MLP came out with its ‘six points’, which Gonzi opposed since they were intended to undermine the Church’s position and influence.

With the Vatican’s backing, Gonzi had meetings with Duncan Sandys, the British Colonial Secretary, and the position of the Church and the Catholic religion were assured in the draft Independence Constitution. The Constitution was approved in a referendum in May 1964 and independence day was set for September 21 of that year. To mark the occasion and as a sign of goodwill Gonzi took what Cilia calls “a courageous step” and lifted the interdiction on the MLP executive.

In 1967 Mgr Emanuel Gerada, who for years had served in the Vatican’s diplomatic service, was made auxiliary bishop to Gonzi, by now in his 80s, and his chosen successor. He was specifically tasked by Pope Paul VI to restore peace between the MLP and the Maltese Church. An agreement was eventually signed on April 4, 1969, which, among other things, removed mortal sin and other Church sanctions as an instrument of censure during elections but acknowledged the Church’s right to define right and wrong.

From then on, relations between Gonzi and Mintoff became distinctly warmer. After Mintoff returned to power in 1971 and unilaterally abrogated the defence and financial agreements with Britain, relations between the two countries worsened considerably – and this at a time when thousands of Maltese were still employed with the British Services in Malta.

Gonzi intervened with the British Government on Malta’s behalf and called on Italy and NATO to support Mintoff’s demands for a higher rent for Britain’s use of Malta as a military base. A seven-year agreement was signed in March 1972.

 Gerada’s path to succeed Gonzi became rougher as the Church lost considerable sums of money in the BICAL and Lovett affairs. This caused anger among many of the clergy and laity, who blamed Gerada for the losses. He later left Malta to take up the post of Nuncio, and in 1974 a Gozitan priest, Joseph Mercieca, was made Gonzi’s auxiliary bishop. Mercieca succeeded Gonzi as Archbishop of Malta when the latter finally stepped down in January 1976. He was 91, and had been Archbishop of Malta for 32 years, and Bishop of Gozo for 19 years before that.

In May 1983, when he was 98, Gonzi had a bad fall and broke his hip. He was operated upon but his situation got worse. He died on January 22, 1984, and was buried in Mdina Cathedral, after a funeral Mass at St John’s.

Cilia lives up to the title of this outstanding biography, as he devotes equal space to the historical, political, religious and social events of the time as to the stages of Gonzi’s remarkable career, underlining this militant Churchman’s lasting imprint on Maltese society. The appendices of relevant important documents (some of which have been referred to), figuring in the text, are a very useful aid to understanding many of the issues at stake throughout Gonzi’s remarkable career.


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