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Milestone and Flintstone - Fr David Muscat

On July 29, the Mosta parish church, the Rotunda, was elevated to the dignity of a minor basilica. It was indeed an event of great joy commensurate with the rejoicing of the Jews succeeding Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls after their return from exile.

It is sad that so few parish churches in Malta share this title. Perhaps in the near future holy places of pilgrimage like St Paul’s grotto in Rabat and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieħa would likewise be bestowed the title of minor basilica. Some argue that it would be wise to include the ancient historical parishes mentioned in the rollo of Bishop Senatore De Mello dating 1436 including Qormi, Żejtun, Żebbuġ, Siġġiewi, Żurrieq, Ħal Tartani (Dingli), Gudja etc.

The date chosen for the solemn proclamation of the Mosta basilica is worth noting. It coincided with the placing of the titular statue of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in its place of honour for festa days.

Locals call it ħruġ min-niċċa – which literally means being moved out of the niche.

Just a few decades ago this transferal of the statue from one place to another was practically a non-event. Without any fanfare or hullabaloo, bell-ringing or flag hoisting, the congregation used to find the statue in the middle of the Rotunda. It was parish priest Joe Carabott who painstakingly tried to stir up enthusiasm, and it was an uphill task.

I still remember an overzealous volunteer yelling at me because being a daft skinny teenager I supposedly had no stamina to bear the Virgin’s weight.

Eventually this occasion did evolve into a crowd-pulling event with its own ritual. Definitely now after last Sunday this day will become an annual appointment since it coincides with the basilica’s proclamation.

This feels so weird especially considering that barely nine years ago in 2009 the ħruġ min-niċċa events were supposed to be banned or heavily downsized.

I’m saying this because many of the braggarts who in the past frowned at the irreligious teenagers turning up with festa t-shirts eager to carry the heavy statue, are still very much around. Perhaps this time they might attempt a different tactic.

They can try to steal the show by parading ecclesiastical kitsch in the fledgling basilica, like the umbraculum (the papal umbrella) and the tintinnabulum (the papal golden bell) hoping these to be more attractive than a jolly crowd of irreligious youths. 

Ironically this harmless kitsch does not feature in the Domus Ecclesia (the norms for the granting of the title of a minor basilica) issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on November 9, 1989, during the pontificate of St John Paul II.

Humanae Vitae is the most vilified act of papal magisterium in modern history

We Maltese being artful dodgers have found a crafty loophole to defy the 1989 norms. Indeed these norms in the spirit of Vatican Council II deliberately avoided this paraphernalia and placed their emphasis on establishing a link with the Bishop of Rome, providing the constant celebration of the sacraments and generally performing acts of mercy and charity.

Artful deceit though does not stop here. Soon a relic of Blessed Paul VI will be placed in the new altar erected in lieu of the basilica requirements. One should remember that this year is the golden jubilee of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, which is the most vilified act of papal magisterium in modern history.

 To what should have been their shame entire national episcopates and faculties of theology distanced themselves from Paul VI’s teaching by a variety of stratagems some of which were downright cowardly.

Nevertheless, becoming a basilica is not hypocritical for binding oneself to Christ by listening to his Vicar in Rome is a sure guarantee of salvation for it flags an obedience to his teaching... including Humanae Vitae.

Through an authentic bond with the Supreme Pontiff this title of basilica will bear fruit and we desperately need it in Mosta and in Malta, for the signs of decay are everywhere.

One example would be enough. Next year for the first time in centuries, there is a good chance that there will be no young Mosta lad preparing himself for the priesthood in the major seminary. This drought in vocations is tragic because according to the research done by Mgr Vincent Borg the Mosta parish had always defied the trends.

How and why did such a flowering parish wither away so rapidly where vocations are concerned?

On the other hand how could you expect a young man with an unadulterated soul to believe Jesus’s dictum to “sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me’’ (Matthew 19, 21) when the main parochial concern seems to be how to poach tourists visiting the Rotunda in order to fund restoration projects and basilical ecclesiastical stuff?

If only we could be one with Pope Francis’s preaching how deeply he loves a poor church.

Would a shiny golden tintinabbulum revivify the pastoral thrust born from a basilica’s bond with the Pope?

In ancient pagan Rome it was a phallus with little bells hanging from it to ward off the evil god invidia (jealousy). So who cares for the real spirit of the norms of November 9, 1989?

Go for it your Grace! But beware that indeed this harmless kitsch may well attract snobs and deviants to the seminary and Pope Francis did warn about them only last May when he addressed the Italian bishops.

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