Episcopal honeymoons and lost sheep

During my Seminary formation we were never told anything about episcopal honeymoons; a subject recently expounded on by Bishop Charles Scicluna. He not only said there is such a thing as an episcopal honeymoon but added that such honeymoons do not last forever. This is how things should be since a bishop’s honeymoon should not be longer, say I, than that of his parents.

We priests are a strange and difficult lot
- Fr Joe Borg

The editor of this newspaper, last Sunday, wrote authoritatively on this subject. I concur with his opinion that the honeymoon will not be spent lying on a beach in the Maldives. In fact, I am reliably informed that Scicluna, though he is a man of exquisite tastes, seems to prefer his office in the Curia to the Maldives. But I part ways with our editor about the duration of the honeymoon.

The editor wrote that this honeymoon is not likely to extend far beyond the Christmas festivities. My contacts with the Jesuits push me to react in Latin: Distinguo (I distinguish). I think that the laity will allow Scicluna a longer honeymoon period. The laity have great expectations, in fact, one lady said Scicluna is our own home-grown Pope John XXIII – but they are ready to wait.

However, since the clergy are totally ignorant of such nuptial etiquette, I fear we will not give him a honeymoon period longer than the beginning of Advent, which starts today.

We priests are a strange and difficult lot. Scicluna surely knows about this clerical attitude, although, as he himself admitted during an interview, he neither holds a crystal ball nor is he Harry Potter.

Besides telling who he is not, he also told us whom he wants to be like: the Good Shepherd who guides us in love. I therefore was both humbled and happy when I was asked to lead the reflection on the Good Shepherd during the prayer vigil for Scicluna held in the Cathedral prior to the ordination.

During my reflection I proposed a particular way of executing the role of good shepherding. We should abandon the very common attitude of dividing people into two categories.

On one side there are those sheltering behind the institutional bastions; the good people who cherish values. Those outside these bastions are considered to be big, bad wolves who hold no values dear. The latter, also called the ‘lost’ sheep or the sheep that form part of other flocks are viewed as problem cases to be doggedly instructed and hopefully converted.

This betrays the wrong kind of attitude as these lost sheep present us with opportunities for renewal rather than with threats. Their value systems, which are different from ours, can help us clarify our own values systems and help us convert ourselves.

Where can the good shepherd meet and dialogue with them? Surely such an encounter cannot be held in the sacred space occupied by our churches.

Years ago the majority of the Maltese congregated there every Sunday. Less than 50 per cent do so today.

There is, though, another space which the majority of the Maltese visit every day and where the number of visitors is constantly on the rise. This space is called Facebook.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the various media platforms that exist today provide the space where the encounter with the so-called lost sheep and the sheep from other folds or no fold at all can take place. This encounter should be a mutually enriching encounter based on dialogue and respect.

A bishop has to be adept at discerning popular culture as much as he has to be able to do biblical exegesis. There are too many within the Church who follow Tertullian’s negative outlook of both high and low culture. The second-century apologist from Carthage believed there was nothing Athens could teach Jerusalem.

There are too many within the Church who see the mark of Satan all over the vast array of the artefacts of popular culture. This negative attitude evidences a lack of faith in God as He is unconsciously seen as the loser instead of being seen as the victorious Lord of history.

Within this negative perspective Harry Potter is read as a reveille for the lovers of the occult instead of the celebratory hymn of the power of friendship and loving relationships.

Chocolat is analysed as an anti-Catholic tirade when, in fact, Vianne, the protagonist of the film, is a most interesting Christ figure. And because she is a Christ figure she lambasted an ecclesiastical institution which grotesquely perverted the liberating spirit of Christianity by subjugating it to suffocating traditions.

Given a choice between Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Vangelo Secondo Matteo to mark the 100 Years of Cinema in 1996, as the best film on the life of Christ, the Vatican opted for the latter, and did not even include the former in its list. It is significant that the film of the good Catholic was considered to be less able to help people know Christ than the film of the atheist and the very active Communist.

Moreover, Pasolini’s film is mar­kedly anti-clerical. The best films about the Ten Commandments have been directed by a Polish agnostic, Krzysztof Kieslowski, not by a Catholic.

I ended my reflection by reading the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s We are Alive, which reflects on the martyrs for social justice through the perspective of Calvary and thus preaches the resurrection. Springsteen, like the majority of US Catholics, campaigned for Obama, thus – in the words of some commentators – putting the salvation of his soul in peril.

All this is not the stuff one usually listens to in our Cathedral and some were certainly not amused. But I felt it important to give the examples of these ‘lost’ sheep who are members of the latent Church that sometimes show the way to us members of the manifest Church.

Their example shows that it is not true that those outside or even against the ecclesiastical institutions are people without values.

The bishop, when exercising his role of good shepherding, has to overcome the sterile dichotomy between those inside and those outside, more so when those outside have been driven there by scandal within the institution.

The bishop has to be able to locate the mark of the Spirit in the products of contemporary popular culture, for culture can aptly embody God’s ideas.

The time when it was believed that God was worshipped only in Jerusalem has passed its use-by date ages ago.

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