This article first appeared in Malta Today
In a world where you have an American President claiming that voters changed clothes in their cars in order to vote twice in the US mid-term elections, and a British Prime Minister negotiating a Brexit deal who comes out dancing robot-like to the tune of Dancing Queen (by a group which, ironically, won the EUROvision contest), it is easy to cast a glance at the news and wonder whether what you are reading is real or satire.
So when I saw the news item about children pulling a priest while he was standing up in a sports car, as a way of welcoming him in his role as the new parish priest of Zebbug, Gozo, I assumed it was a very silly, far-fetched meme by someone who enjoys poking fun at the Church.
Turns out it was not a meme. Nor was it far-fetched at all.
Now, there are those who claim that this is a time-worn tradition which takes place when a new parish priest comes along. Although I had never heard of this practice myself, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. However, let’s just dissect this imagery for a minute. Fr John Sultana was paraded around his new parish, not just in any car, but in a convertible Porsche Boxster. That’s some fancy car for a priest to be riding in, for all the world as if he were Tom Cruise flashing his big smile as he glides by and waves to adoring fans in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
What kind of message is that to give to parishioners: that the new priest in town was not happy with just any car, but wanted a Porsche? And even if the choice of car was not his decision, surely it should have occurred to him to tell whoever suggested it, that “thanks, but no thanks – it would look much too tacky and inappropriate for a man of the cloth to arrive in a flashy car.”
However, from what I have read so far, the fall-out from that bizarre photo has not seemed to faze Fr Sultana a single bit and he keeps defending his decision, so my guess is that none of these thoughts went through his mind because he keeps insisting that it is not an issue.
If the choice of vehicle is not an issue for him, then I would have thought that the way the public reacted to the image of 50 young schoolchildren physically pulling the car with ropes while onlookers cheered, for all the world as if they were Santa’s reindeers, should have made him re-assess the wisdom of this stunt. But nope. Again, no issue for him.
So while the image was startling enough, the fact that Fr Sultana is completely oblivious (or worse, indifferent) to how this whole thing looks has started to fascinate me even more. He does not seem to care one jot that the symbolism of the whole thing is wrong on so many, many levels: from the expensive car (when the priesthood is supposed to be a vocational calling in humility rather than a craving for riches) to using children like little obedient slaves from the days of Cleopatra (when being a parish priest, I would think, is about being of service to others, rather than an ego-stroking exercise). I also have to ask: what on earth were the parents of these children thinking?
But Fr Sultana was not for turning. On Friday, as if to defy his critics, he uploaded a photo of a slice of pizza in the shape of a Porsche. The pizza reference goes back to another recent mind-boggling story when another priest compared having sex for enjoyment rather than procreation, to someone who eats too much pizza and gets bored of it. The caption read, “another speciality from Zebbug…pizza Porsche”.
It is all very well to hit back at your critics with what you think is a really witty response, but when one is a parish priest, a role which requires a certain amount of tactfulness and diplomacy, you would think a bit of restraint would be in order. Instead, Fr Sultana has come across as being completely clueless as to how the negative perception of him has been made even worse because he is not in tune with the public mood. Instead of acknowledging that he had made a cringeworthy gaffe, as the saying goes, he was in a hole and has just kept on digging. What he is also failing to realize is that this is not just about him but, by extension about the institution of the Church he represents. Does he realise just how drastically the Church has fallen in estimation in the eyes of the general public over the years? Gone are the days when it was the untouchable entity which could do no wrong and priests were there to be revered and bowed to like royalty. It obviously has not occurred to him that through this public display of ostentation and by using children as if they were mules, it simply reinforces why so many have washed their hands of the Church and want nothing more to do with it.
There is another point to consider here. Doing something which goes against the grain is bad enough, but when your attention is drawn to it and you persist in the belief that there is nothing wrong with it, then it makes people question your judgement, especially when you have just been appointed to lead a parish. This whole children-pulling-a-priest-in-a-Porsche display could not have been in starker contrast to the advice given by the Auxiliary Bishop during the celebration Mass for graduates on Thursday, who reminded them that as they embark on their professional careers they need to stand firm in their values, maintain their integrity and continue to respect the dignity of others. That, to me, is how a member of the clergy should speak and that is the example they should be setting.
On the other hand, letting children pulling you around in a sports car and making quips about pizza and Porsches will not endear those who have already lost their complete faith in the Church.
And speaking of integrity and respect
What exactly does Konrad Mizzi think he is doing by deliberately not informing certain sections of the media about his public appearances and only inviting ‘friendly’ media to cover whatever events he has scheduled in his role as Tourism Minister? You, Mr Minister, are answerable to us. We pay your salary, you are there to serve the public, and the media is there to hold you to account. You are obliged to answer their questions, particularly on the recent revelations about 17 Black. Failing to do so by deliberately blocking media access is making your already untenable position, even worse.
Perception is everything and right now the perception is of someone who has something to hide, who does not want to shoulder responsibility and who thinks he can keep dodging legitimate questions through these childish manoeuvres. If you have nothing to hide, then resume issuing press calls to all the newsrooms, affording them the respect which the Fourth Estate deserves. And above all, have the decency to shoulder your political responsibility by being ready to face the music and answering their questions, especially the most uncomfortable ones.