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‘The Church is here to propose... not impose’

Ahead of his ordination as Auxiliary Bishop, Mgr Charles Scicluna spoke to Steve Mallia about the Church’s challenges as well as cracking a joke or two about his height. This interview was first published in The Sunday Times of October 14.

When did you first you hear of your new appointment?

I will not play to the crowd, but I will be loyal to them and listen to them

I was advised this was being considered at the end of August but the Pope’s official decision was communicated to me on September 26, when I was called to the offices of the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops to be told the Pope had decided to nominate me Auxiliary Bishop of Malta... I said I obey and that I would do it gladly.

If you had a free choice between staying in Rome and returning to Malta, which would you have chosen?

Malta, because I think I can contribute. After 17 years in the Roman Curia, I am more than willing to be involved in direct pastoral action. It’s an important experience in the Church to go from being in headquarters to being on the frontline because that’s what Archbishops and Auxiliary Bishops are: they are on the frontline... I’m now on the receiving end so to speak.

Who’s the first person you told when you learnt about the nomination?

I told my mother and told her not to say anything of course – so she was also under the pontifical secret. The problem was that she was very embarrassed when La Stampa broke the news 24 hours before the official announcement. She had a dilemma: she couldn’t tell our relatives because I had instructed her only to tell them as the nomination was being announced, but they phoned her a little upset because they had heard it first on the news. But that’s what you guys manage to do in the world – create lots of embarrassing situations among lots of good, of course!

Some reports appeared saying you were kicked upstairs because of your aggressive approach to the clerical abuse issue within the Vatican itself. How do you see those reports?

I wouldn’t call what I did in the past 10 years aggressive; I did my job. Being prosecutor isn’t really being a softy on crime... I was very clear on what my job meant and I was also clear on what Church policy was. I did not make this policy, this policy is in Church law... I was following the lead of Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger when he was Prefect (of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith) – and I had the privilege to work with him at close quarters on this very issue.

Your approach won you respect outside the Church, but was it welcomed in the same way inside the Church?

It has always been welcomed in the local churches. The Roman Curia was a bit shocked that we had to go down this road until the problem came close to Italy and Europe... people then realised this was the way forward.

In terms of perception, has the Church’s battle with clerical abuse been won? Has it been lost? Is it somewhere in between?

This is something that will never go away because sin will never go away and it will be a sad day in the Church when we will say ‘mission accomplished’. We will have to be watchful and have systems of prevention and also systems of addressing sex abuse when it unfortunately happens...

Is morale low at the moment in the Vatican with the scandal regarding the Pope’s butler?

Now the decision concerning Paolo Gabriele has cleared the air a bit, it was a very difficult time, what the Italians call un’aria pesante because everyone was under the prospect of suspicion and security became more stringent... the Pope has been wounded but he is still serene and is the great leader that he is in spite of all these difficulties... I’ve read a lot of Church history and that teaches me never to lose hope. And what Cardinal Consalvi told Napoleon is always true: ‘If we haven’t destroyed the Church, nobody will’.

You’ve said you want to give your life to the people. What does this mean?

Being available and not being afraid of telling people what the Lord wants to tell them. It’s not a case of looking at telling people what’s going to be for my benefit, but what Jesus really wants from me at that moment. Which means I will not play to the crowd, but I will be loyal to them and listen to them...

You bring this great experience from the Roman Curia, but you have limited pastoral experience because of your work at the Vatican. Is that something that can hamper you in your new role?

I don’t think so. I was privileged to work for five very active years at the Curia, University, at Iklin, at St Gregory’s. But probably because I am a canon lawyer, I find it very difficult to distinguish what we do at the Roman Curia and pastoral work since taking care of child protection at headquarters is also highly pastoral.

Do you feel welcomed by the Maltese Church?

Very much so.

Even though you’ve clashed in the recent past over the issue...

...I wouldn’t say clashed. People know me for what I am and for who I am. I will always express things with great respect but according to the truth. The motto I have chosen is fidelis et verax – loyal and faithful. I would like to be the same to my people. Faithful to them but also truthful. People expect from me the truth of Jesus Christ. Even if they don’t like it, they expect me to express it. This doesn’t mean being arrogant or imposing it, but proposing it with respect. I would like to emphasise that. I said what I said a year ago because I love the Church and I think people know that.

Are you going to be a cat among the pigeons in the curia?

Not at all! I hope I won’t be the pigeon among the cats!... I have a very good relationship, for example, with Mgr Anton Gouder who was my mentor as a deacon in Paola so we go back quite some time... I know the people at the Curia personally so I’m not landing from Mars.

Should priests fear Charles Scicluna?

I hope not. I think priests know that priests will find a friend and a brother in Charles Scicluna.

You’ve said in the build up to this that there is much good in the Church preserving and promoting. What’s good about the Church?

First of all, the gospels. We need to go back to bringing a fresh edition of the gospel. It’s not about ink and paper. This is the great challenge we have today... How can I teach something which is difficult to sell to a human? I need to be compassionate without betraying my mission.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said that in doing this, the Church is 200 years behind the times. One, do you agree with this statement? Two, do you believe the Church hasn’t been doing this especially in Malta?

Communication has always been a challenge. Look at St Paul at the Areopagus in Athens: he was wondering how to talk about a person who rose from the dead to the Athenians... Of course it was a disaster... We always have difficulty because we have a product which is always quite difficult to sell. I think we try to jump the gun. We expect people to follow us on very difficult issues without preparing the ground by talking about the fundamentals of the Christian message – which is: God loves you, God sent his Son to the world, the Son of God died for your sins but rose again so that you may find true peace and joy.

Was Martini right in using this expression, 200 years behind the times?

I don’t know because the Church deals in centuries and millenniums! We’ll have to change, we’ll have to adapt. If you had to read the extraordinary answers Pope Benedict gave to Peter Seewald in the book Light of the Word, you see a Church which is trying to pass on a message in a language people understand. This is one of the things I love about the Pope. He has engaged conversations with (German philosopher Jurgen) Habermas, who is not a Christian, with Jews, with non-Catholics in a very respectful way.

Do you think the Church in Malta has been doing the same, in a respectful way?

I don’t think that criticism is our enemy. People who criticise us think that we mean something. The worst thing is indifference

We need to learn more from the Holy Father himself. Archbishop Paul Cremona’s smile was a good step forward...

Do you think that was tempered by the approach to divorce, followed by IVF...

Everybody acknowledges that we could have done a better job in the divorce debate, but these are things we need to learn from.

How could the Church have done a better job?

By being very clear on its message and also united on its message. We had different people saying different things and this caused confusion. We need to be clear on our values but should be respectful in how we propose them. And we need to tell people we are not here to impose, but that we are here to propose and this is why we are proposing them.

Do you think the local Church came across as heartless?

No, I don’t think so because when I look at Mgr Cremona I cannot see a heartless person. But I do think we were not as one.

Some people see Mgr Cremona on the one side, and the rest of the Maltese Church on the other.

I wouldn’t say so. I don’t think there is a chasm between the Archbishop and his people. But I am hurt, for example, when members of the clergy play a tune which is not under the Archbishop’s leadership. When we are not united under the Archbishop we will create confusion.

Is that widespread in Malta?

I don’t know. This is something I will have to come to terms with more and more as I start working in this new mission. But I look at my new mission as Mgr Cremona’s auxiliary as a promoter of unity with him. So I pray, I hope and I also promise that the Archbishop will find in me a friend; who is fidelis et verax so I am not going to spare him the truth as I see it... As I have done in Rome, I will speak my mind with respect. But then he is our leader and we have to be united. My mission is to ensure we follow under his leadership.

It’s public knowledge that the Archbishop has experienced certain health problems in recent months and that this has had an effect on the way he operates. Were you brought in to supplement that?

I’m sure that the Holy Father wanted to send me – not because I was the only one – to be of support to the Archbishop in the present circumstances whatever they are.

So you think the current state of the Archbishop’s health played a part in the appointment of an auxiliary bishop at this point in time.

It was the Archbishop himself – I think with great loyalty to the Holy See and to his people, and he said it publicly so that’s why I can say it – who asked for an auxiliary bishop. We owe him our gratitude for being so loyal and being so humble to say ‘I need help’. I don’t know what the Archbishop told the Pope when they met last May, but when a bishop goes to the Holy Father – and this is why the betrayal of Gabriele is so great – we tell him everything. And I’m sure the Holy Father responded in his usual way.

Some people see you as a successor in a relatively short period of time.

Well, I don’t have the crystal ball and I’m not Harry Potter. I realise that people have great expectations but I hope that this will not turn into great frustration because I don’t have a magic wand. I’ve read Harry Potter and you realise that Rowling, intelligently enough, teaches you that it’s not about magic – but about love. This ideal image of the fighter against evil was protected by his mother’s love and also his own love for his friends. At the end of the day, in a very Christian way, Harry Potter gives his life and that’s why he wins. I’m not Harry Potter but I’d like to be like the Good Shepherd who guides us in love.

It’s also being said that there’s no way you would have left such a job in the Vatican to be the sidekick to the Archbishop for a long period of time.

Well, time will tell.

That’s a very short answer.

I’m very short!

Is there a danger that you’ll have this ordination next month, there will be the fanfare that surrounds it, and then there’s an evaporation afterwards? Is that something you’re conscious of?

That’s quite normal. It’s like weddings. I will be given a ring, there will then be a honeymoon but the honeymoon will not last forever. I will then be sitting at the desk at the Curia that was occupied by another great mentor of mine, Bishop Annetto Depasquale. He was slightly taller than me – most people are – but I realise that part of my cross is to be in front of the wooden desk. From there I need to be of service to parish priests, to individuals with problems and to help with the administration of the Curia.

Is your view that it’s better to have a few dedicated flock or the more, the merrier?

The Gospel is for everyone and the Church will never stop being missionary but we need to count on quality...

Does that mean you discard the rest?

No, never. The message Jesus gave the apostles fishing at Tiberias is that we take everybody in though we realise that people are at different stages of their pilgrimage.

Some would say that with the way the Church in Malta has been operating in the past few years, it has been discarding the people who are not the committed core.

I don’t think so because the Church is great with her schools, and with her charities...

But is it great in the way it communicates a message, particularly through the media?

This is a continuous challenge. We have a product which is extraordinary and we have to get our act together to bring it to as many people as possible.

Does it currently have a problem in that regard?

I think we do and we have to do something about it. We need to start using language that people understand. I’m not saying that because we have a problem there’s somebody to blame – the pace is fast-moving and there are circumstances that keep challenging us. No sooner do you overcome one wave, than another one comes and hits you. This is going to be a challenge all the time.

Is the secular media an enemy of the Church?

To the extent that they are unfair, yes, but I don’t think that criticism is our enemy. Firstly, people who criticise us think that we mean something. The worst thing is indifference. I am quite hurt when we’re treated unfairly but I wouldn’t put everyone in one basket. I am not afraid of criticism if it’s loyal and respectful. And I think a large part of the media have done a good service to the Church by pointing out weaknesses because this has become part of our structure of accountability – which is very important I think.

Some people might say that with Charles Scicluna in the Maltese Curia the victims of clerical child abuse will now receive compensation.

I hope they do. When I said previously they deserve compensation I was referring to the principle of natural justice which is personal responsibility. That is, a person who does damage to somebody is liable to pay for that damage.

Do you believe in vicarious liability in this context, since the English Court of Appeal has made rulings in that regard with respect to the Church?

No I don’t and I find the rulings unfair in the sense that we ordain a priest to be a good shepherd and never to harm his flock. An individual priest should pay for his sins, not the community, and he has a duty to pay.

So you won’t be advocating that the Church should pay.

No. But I do support the stand of the Maltese bishops in offering victims pastoral psychological counselling because they are part of our flock. It’s up to the courts to decide whether there’s going to be monetary compensation. I feel that victims have an extra title to the Church’s concern and support. They are members of our family who have been wounded. The people responsible for that need to pay for their sins and for their crimes and they need to pay compensation whereas the Church needs to take care of the victims.

The Maltese bishops were coherent in their stand but could have sold it better. Rome also has terrible problems with PR. We need to get our act together when it comes to getting our message across. The way we do things at times is a total disaster and we have to be humble and say, ‘we need to do better’.

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