It has been almost a year since divorce was introduced in Malta after a campaign which gave us the Bible-bashing Clyde and his unnerving grin, hypocritical anti-divorce campaigners who really should not have become involved, and of course, the fire and brimstone statements by the Bishop of Gozo, Mario Grech.
Not content with the way his fiery sermons during the referendum campaign upset so many people, Bishop Grech was at it again this week, saying in a pastoral letter that “A family is a relationship between man and woman, based on marriage”.
Of course, as a man of the cloth he is obliged to promote this line of thought, and frankly, someone like me who has moved away from the Church, is not really bothered about what priests like this have to say. If he does not consider unmarried couples “a family”, well that’s his problem not mine.
But I am fully aware that in this country there are those who, despite not living exactly as our religion has taught us, are still devout believers. I know gay men and women, unmarried mothers and separated people in new relationships who still consider themselves firmly Catholic. From the fragments of terrible marriages, there are those who have managed to salvage some kind of hope, and patched together a life for themselves with someone new. And yet, Mario Grech still comes along and climbing on top of his high and mighty pulpit, he sees fit to tell them that they are not a family.
This insistence on offending people baffles me when viewed in the context of today’s Malta where what the Church says still holds a lot of sway. If ‘families’ are only going to be defined by the conventional man, woman and 2.5 children, then where does that leave everybody else? In some kind of no man’s land where if you do not conform, you are considered a social outcast?
It is this persistence in not adapting to the reality of what is going on around it that has led the Church in Malta to its present state – the number of people going to Mass continues to drop, and the number who have resolutely turned their backs on their faith is growing.
I was recently in Los Angeles where I attended a Mother’s Day Mass at a local Church where there is a very strong Catholic community. The gentle, elderly priest, with his soft voice which still holds traces of his Irish origins, had everyone enthralled during his humorous sermon as he spoke about mothers. I found it touching that he also paid tribute to those who are stepmothers or those who “have been like a mother to someone”. It was refreshing to hear such an approach, where the reality of divorced and re-married Catholics who have set up new families has been embraced by the Church.
Gazing at the peaceful faces of the considerable congregation, it struck me that for all our claims to be so “religious”, here in Malta we still have priests who try to divide the population into ‘us’ and ‘them’, rather than encourage an all embracing, all forgiving attitude towards those whose lives have not been that smooth.
“It was true that there were those within political, economic and media institutions who wanted to call a family any experience of people who decided to live together because they loved one another’, Bishop Grech’s pastoral letter said.
“But while these people, who were not a family, had the right for the state to respect their individual rights, it was also the duty of the state to recognise real families and develop a policy in their favour.”
Here I take it to mean that he is referring to the possibility of gay marriage being introduced. In his view, this should not be considered a ‘real’ family either. But again, I do not understand this reasoning. What threat can a gay marriage possibly have on the marriage of a man and a woman? How does one impinge on the other?
From what I see around me, to be honest, it is the conventional male/female marriage which is diluting the meaning of those sacred vows, as people tie the knot in expensive, over-the-top wedding ceremonies, only to run out when the going gets slightly tough. The fact that married couples are so easily separating and calling it quits has nothing to do with the fact that gay or straight couples have set up home together. They are calling it quits because they have gone into marriage for the wrong reasons and cannot handle the reality as opposed to the imagined fantasy.
It is here that I agree with Bishop Grech, that “families should be built…on faithfulness, sacrifice, patience, forgiveness and charity”. But this holds true no matter your gender or living arrangements. It is not that piece of paper which ensures emotional commitment, but something in your heart which leads you to consider the other person’s feelings just as much as your own.
I like to think of it as “I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine”. No matter what happens, we will stick together through thick or thin, even if the whole world seems to conspire against us.
That, to me, is family.