A message out of the waters
Today’s solemn remembrance of the mighty storm which brought St Paul to our shores, narrated with so much attention to detail in Acts 27 and 28, comes in the wake of the discussion of the census results on Church attendances in Malta, and the ongoing human dramas of sinking boats and refused migrants around our shores.
The first time round, when Paul came to Malta, he was actually going somewhere else, to face trail in Rome. When he washed up unannounced on our shores in one of our mighty winter storms this man and his fellow travellers, drenched, condemned and exhausted, asked questions of our ancestors. The small population of the island at the time rose to the occasion: simply, Paul brought the best out of us: “The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.” (Acts 28:2)
Out of this kindness, something new was born. A message was given and received, and Christianity took hold in Malta, shaping us, our landscape, our discourse and our collective memory for the rest of our history. For many centuries you could argue that Christianity and its message was the only light in the room. This man who came from the sea accompanied by his fellow prisoners and soldiers, brought newness, life and the message of Jesus, which in itself is a call for continual transformation.
In reaching out, as Christians we find our true identity
This time round, the feast of St Paul’s shipwreck finds us reflecting on our ability to receive newness. I and fellow priests have been inundated with requests for our take on the recently announced results of the census on Church attendance. For many priests deeply engrossed in ministry the results are absolutely not a shock. They see them in the pews daily, in the age distribution of the congregation and in the people who they meet regularly in the streets, schools and hospitals, yet rarely at church.
What is of concern at this point in time is our ability to interpret and receive these messages. I recall the wisdom of both Archbishop Emeritus Paul Cremona, OP, who used to regularly speak about a Church stuck in a nostalgia of a past that will never return again, and the words of our current Archbishop Charles Scicluna in his Christmas greetings with the public in December 2014 (see Kelma ta’ Ħabib 2014-2015, p32). He compared the Catholic Church in Malta to a beautiful chandelier in the middle of a room, giving out light. He said the Church in Malta must understand that even if in a pluralist society the light of the Church is no longer the central light in the room, but a light among many other lights, we still have a great responsibility to make sure that this light is seen.
Far from being tragic, this moment is an invitation. Our ancestors, in their limits and poverty, reached out to Paul, and good things happened. In reaching out, as Christians we find our true identity. We serve with joy, not despondency, to the needs of Malta at this current time.
A Church that is only restorationist will die, or live a life totally detached from the society we now live in, making it more of an anachronistic tourist showpiece rather than an experience of faith. However, when we lend a hand to the shipwrecked of our times, to the spiritually impoverished in our society, or the new poor of our times, Maltese Christians celebrate the challenge of the present moment to be lights of hope in our nation.
Fr Frankie Cini is regional superior of the Missionary Society of St Paul (MSSP) in Malta.