This is the title of a historical novel. Penned by Nicholas Monsarrat, the novel recounts the parish work of Father Salvatore, a humble Maltese kappillan – parish priest – in his assiduous endeavours to hearten and inspire his parishioners in the dark and turbulent years of World War II.
Although Father Salvatore was a fictitious character, he embodied many past and current parish priests who served/serve their communities with enthusiasm, out of the limelight.
Sadly though, recently, a newly appointed kappillan in the picturesque Gozitian village of Żebbuġ made news for the wrong reasons. Regrettably, he was videoed parading through the village streets in a very expensive car with an air of pomposity. To make matters worse, the car was being ‘hauled’ by a number of children.
Frankly, I must confess that it was surreal, like a leaf out of the chronicles of Cleopatra recalling her grand entrances, also heaved by a number of slaves. To add insult to injury, his response to critics who found his choices inappropriate left much to be desired from a man chosen to be an inspiration to his community.
Who am I to judge, one may muse? Although no one should judge a book by its cover and the newly appointed kappillan ought to be given the benefit of the doubt for his choices, on the other hand we are not sheep.
We must call a spade by its name. Even Archbishop Charles Scicluna, with his usual curial tactfulness, distanced himself.
Personally, it was not only demeaning for the parish priest himself and for the new office he holds but he cast a negative shadow on us, the community of believers.
In such times when we are being overlooked with disdain, suspicion, mistrust and indifference by the younger generation in particular, who aggressively question our values, surely this cast a misleading image over the Christian community, further alienating the faithful away.
A triumphal Church chose to speak about God’s vengeance rather than about God’s abundant love, acceptance and mercy
I say this with a heavy heart, not only as a former Capuchin priest myself, who had similar pastoral responsibilities, but as a believer. Sadly I am not alone in expressing my disappointment.
As much as the political class has a credibility issue, so does the Church. As much as particular politicians are their worst enemies by making the wrong choices and embracing dubious lifestyles, the same can be said of our Christian leaders.
And, as much as the political class is experiencing an overgrowing defiance and mistrust, so is the Church, especially in the aftermath of a number of scandals.
Going beyond this episode, the event itself highlighted another deeper and more worrying issue. Although Vatican Council II ushered a new approach to faith and established a healthier relationship with society 50 years ago, the Maltese/Gozitian Christian communities seem as though they are not only stuck in a time warp but are continuing to experience a pre-council triumphal Church within its fold.
Does a parallel Church exist within the same Church? Does a triumphal Church seek to hinder the Maltese/Gozitian Church from becoming the servant and merciful Church as Vatican Council II had highlighted and which Pope Francis is trying hard to underline?
The triumphal Church is a Church which seeks power, control and pomposity for itself. A triumphal Church is a Church which subsists in its own bubble preoccupied with its own archaic language, rituals, pageantry and traditions. It lives with nostalgia but then fails to inspire.
A triumphal Church fails to engage with civil society and learn from it but is judgemental, ready to exclude all those who do not fit in its rigid norms. A triumphal Church chose to speak about God’s vengeance rather than about God’s abundant love, acceptance and mercy.
It does not seek to experience Jesus but to impose him. Sadly, the triumphal Church considers the world as the devil’s playground.
This is not my Church. I do not subscribe to this inward-looking Church.
My Church is a servant Church. It is made up of Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Don Bosco, Teresa of Avila, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Oscar Romero, John XXIII, John Paul II, Mikiel Azzopardi, Dun Ġorġ, Joseph Mercieca, Patri Stiefnu and many others.
All were compassionate men/women for others. All had sought to take an inclusive attitude and make a preferential option for those most vulnerable. All were enablers/promoters of what is good and truthful. All had the ‘odour’ of ‘sheep’.
All sought to live humbly and serve with humility. All sought to engage and connect with their own detractors. They are our mentors because they were not afraid and neither deterred to follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth. They did not shy away from being witnesses of the core values of His Gospel, even if some had to pay a high price for doing so.
This is our calling. This is our challenge. Like them we are called to be the light and the salt. Like them we are called to be active citizens/believers. Like them we are called not to be afraid to promote and sustain the values of solidarity, honesty, inclusion, dialogue, social justice, peace, faith and human dignity.
I would like to acknowledge those religious (males/females), diocesan priests and lay people who silently but diligently day by day have served/are serving our communities.
They are our unsung heroes.
Albert Buttigieg is deputy mayor of St. Julian’s.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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