Malta’s new icon in red
Malta is an island riven by sharp differences. In itself that is no bad thing, if it gives right to healthy discussion of civilly presented opposing views and proposals which encourage the clash and contrast of ideas. All too often there is great clash, hype and fury without much sense emerging from it all. That is most evident in the way we do politics.
Mercifully, we have distanced ourselves from the times when shameless exploitation of religion played an integral part in politics. The Lent pastoral letter issued by the bishops yesterday could not have been more different than that issued 50 years ago almost to the day, when Archbishop Michael Gonzi held sway at the height of that sad politico-religious dispute.
Archbishop Gonzi had heightened division at the socio-political level. Yesterday Archbishop Paul Cremona and Bishop Mario Grech spoke gently to the faithful, urging them back from modern exile into the arms of an ever loving God. Not a word was out of place and every word wended a persuasive course to one’s mind and heart.
Fifty years ago, the whole pastoral letter, inflicting mortal sin on those who dared exercise their right to vote freely and select the Malta Labour Party, was out of place. Instead of leading one closer to an ever forgiving God, that pastoral letter shoved thousands of practising believers away from the Church.
By the mercy of God, politico-religious division is a thing of the past. Nevertheless politics has not become any less harshly divisive at all levels of society. Partisanship is encouraged and practised as if it were the essence of political activity. People are not simply taught and urged to follow a particular line. They are trained to view the other side’s stand with disgust and disdain.
There is no excuse of extraordinary circumstances, as existed during the 1981-87 period. Yet today’s political language once again drips with bitterness. That is being shown even at the level of local elections. In the campaign leading to them the political parties have drawn up their lines as if preparing for atomic warfare. Granted, much is riding on the forthcoming elections.
Their outcome will be an important if not yet conclusive indicator to what might happen when the general election is held. The parties are desperate to perform well. So desperate that in the process they are making people forget that at the local level what counts is neighbourhood organisation and solidarity to bring about what is best for the area.
The national division, which goes beyond politics, reflects the fact that we have little to unite us. We are not blessed with a fair number of national icons, whom we all could applaud and accept as our own, whatever our political power. We have Joseph Calleja, the international tenor who does us proud wherever he performs and is loved and admired for being and remaining so proudly Maltese. And that is all.
Until, that is, the last few days and the weekend. Now, through the wisdom of Pope Benedict, we have another icon. Fr Prospero Grech has been appointed cardinal, only the second in Catholic Malta’s history. Hitherto very well known in the Vatican as a leading theologian but little known in Malta outside Church circles, Prospero Grech’s name is now on everybody’s lips.
He has already found a place deep in the people’s heart. And the great thing is that this has happened not only because he has done us proud by becoming a cardinal.
The revelation has been the man himself. His humility. His gentle humour. His goodness.
Yes of course, we are happy to have one of ours in high places, even if our man in red, because of his venerable age, will not have a vote when the time comes to elect a successor to Benedict. We are happy for him. Happy for us. But above all we are happy to find that there can be so much goodness in a Maltese who, reluctantly, has risen so high.
Prospero’s appointment comes at a particularly significant time. If only his goodness and humility, his wisdom, could rub off on our leaders and inspire them to stand by their views, certainly, but to do so in a context devoid of bitterness, to be an example to their troops and to the rest of us.