Monday 23 May 2022

Malta’s cultural and spiritual need for religious pageantry

This column first appeared in Malta Today

A thought occurred to me during the Pope’s two visit which was reinforced throughout this Holy Week which culminates today, on Easter Sunday.

Despite all the fears that a more culturally diverse demographic will eat away at Malta’s traditions, which are so deeply rooted in Catholicism, I see little evidence that the passion for religious pageantry is in decline. On the contrary, perhaps because of this apprehension that, ‘foreigners are taking over’ (to use an oft-repeated phrase), it seems to me that the fervour this year was as strong as ever.

Of course, the two year enforced hiatus due to the pandemic also had something to do with the eagerness to hold all the traditional processions and rituals, but even the fact that they were so greatly missed is very telling. It is true that Malta has become more secular; many are only Catholic by name and have ceased to practice their religion and Church attendance has dwindled. Yet the past few weeks have shown clear signs that there is a segment of the country which is still staunchly devout.

Now there are those who may look cynically at this devotion as being superficial and lacking any real depth; belonging to a time when the Catholic Church’s grip on the island was so tight that no one dared question it. It is also true that there is an underlying contradiction sometimes demonstrated by those who profess to be so religious by taking part in the pageantry, even as they live their lives in a way which breaks every one of the Ten Commandments (and probably a few more we don’t even know about). What is even more galling for sceptics is the blatant hypocrisy: it was difficult not to scoff at seeing politicians who were granted prominent seating at the Papal Mass on the Granaries who have a tarnished reputation because of their alleged corruption.

But this, as always, is the paradox which is Malta, and which those who come to live here (and those Maltese who have shunned organised religion) find hard to wrap their heads around. Watching the hordes who flocked to catch a glimpse of the Pope along every route and watching the many who attended the rituals of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, can be disconcerting to those who have had direct experience with the ‘other side’ of Malta. The Malta that cheats, that swindles, that lies and is corrupt, that has no qualms in ripping innocent people off. The Malta which has no problem with being racist, hateful or spiteful and which will beat up (or even kill) their wife or girlfriend because they cannot control their rage.

The Pope brought up these issues himself when he addressed the nation, touching upon everything from corruption to the often inhumane way African refugees are treated, but as often happens, the message did not necessarily filter through to those at whom it was directed.

Is it always the same people who can happily co-exist with these two sides of their personalities? Certainly not. But in a Venn diagram which I often mentally draw there are too many cases where there is a bizarre juxtaposition of a person who can piously make the sign of the cross one minute, and can simply turn around and be just downright nasty and heartless to others, the next.

Not all of it is a pretence and an exercise in virtue signalling of course. Watching as the Pope made his way around the island, there was a certain sense of spirituality, especially among the queues which lined up along the route in Gozo. I am not sure if it was the light at that time of day, the still untouched countryside on our sister island or something more inexplicable, but the aura of the whole scenario as it unfolded on TV was mesmerising. I particularly admired the elderly Pope for his sheer stamina, limping in obvious pain from his sciatica, he ploughed through the gruelling non-stop schedule without complaint. I am sure that for many of the thousands who gathered and listened to him wherever he went, it was a moving experience. It is also significant that his visit came at a particularly sensitive time, just after the elections, and this is when it struck me that deep down, somewhere at its core, the island needed this pageantry.

The same yearning could be felt for the Good Friday processions; the news that some had to be cancelled because of strong winds was a devastating blow for the organisers, the participants and the public, who have been preparing and looking forward to this for two years. There is a yearning for these elaborate processions where statues from each station of the cross are carried, a tradition which dates back to the 17th century. It is true that they disrupt traffic, close off roads and divert public transport, but you cannot simply wipe out centuries of traditions because they have become a nuisance to modern day life. They are part of our historical past and they should be respected, even if we do not choose to partake in them ourselves.

The real challenge of course, is for the pageantry of our religion to translate from mere symbolism into concrete action, namely, in the way we treat each other on a daily basis.

Live and let live applies to everyone

When Herbert Ganado wrote his series of books spanning the period 1900 – 1969 under the title ‘Rajt Malta Tinbidel’ (I have seen Malta change) he could not have chosen a more apt name. In fact, I often wonder what he would make of how the country has changed over the last 50 years. I’m sure his mind would be blown.

I remember a time when one would not dare breathe a word against the Church or object to anything which was considered the social and cultural ‘norm’. Contraception, unwed mothers, cohabitation, homosexuality, divorce – you could barely speak those words. As for abortion, you would be met by a stunned, shocked to the core silence. Some might not realise that it was not that long ago that every aspect of our lives used to be dictated by religion. Those who fell out of step were ostracised from society and made to feel ashamed. Catholicism was force fed to many of us, in a never-ending list of stifling do’s and don’ts which probably explains why so many in their 40s, 50s and 60s ultimately rebelled and are lapsed Catholics. These generations, one must remember, were the ones in which going to a church/convent school was considered the default choice for many people. Even state schools were steeped in religious indoctrination. It was not even questioned. Fast forward to their children, many of whom have attended privately-run independent schools, and the gulf between their respective upbringings could not be wider.

This is not necessarily a negative thing. As Malta becomes more secular, people have become more confident in expressing their true sentiments. Compared to a mere 30 years ago, I would say the sense of freedom to question and not accept everything the Church says has been refreshing.

Where it goes overboard is when not agreeing with the Church translates into bashing or mocking anyone who is a practising Catholic. If you do not agree with the religious rituals no one will blink an eye any more if you opt out. No one is forcing you to participate. It is perfectly possible to tune it all out, get away and not even be aware of what is going on (most of the events are usually concentrated in the village core near the Church anyway). What I don’t understand is why people feel the need to go online and lash out and jeer at others who are believers.

After all, live and let live should not just be a phrase for those who are liberal, but is applicable for everyone.

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