Farewell Ġann: social justice activists, friends mourn loss of Fr Ġwann Xerri

Maltese Dominican priest Ġwann Xerri has died in Brazil where he spent decades campaigning against poverty and exploitation

Fr Gwann Xerri
Fr Gwann Xerri

There are a few instances in life where the chance occasion to meet someone leaves an indelible mark on you.

Meeting Fr Ġwann Xerri quite a few years ago, was one of those occasions. A Dominican priest who lived most of his life in Brazil, Fr Xerri is one of two people I know who always spoke the right words in every circumstance.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Fr Xerri was one to provoke thought, offer solace, lay bare his own uncertainties and make you feel at ease even in moments of great vulnerability.

He would listen carefully, stand there in a non-judgmental way, trying to understand what you have to say and then offer his own thoughts.

He was a man who cherished social justice, championed the poor, stood up for equality and against oppression. He embodied the Catholic church’s liberation theology to the hilt.

Many good words have been spoken about him over the past 24 hours by people from all walks of life – testament to Fr Xerri’s ability to connect with whoever was in front of him.

Beautiful words on Fr Xerri were written on Sunday by Mario Gerada, founder of the LGBTI+ Christian community Drachma.

“Dearest Fra Joao Gwann Xerri, you blessed us when we were lost, searching for hope and liberation. You showed us the way, mentored us and thought us about liberation long before it was popular to do so. When people like yourself were shunned for doing so. 

You showed us how a Church that lived faithfully to its own message looked like and lived… I am sure that you are delighting in the garden of the Creator, and that there is great festivity there. The place where, as you used to tell us, there is space and a place for everyone, for all of humanity’s diversity. I am also sure that it is even more beautiful than we could ever imagine it to be,” Gerada wrote alongside a photo of himself with Fr Xerri from a gay rights activity at Valletta’s main entrance in 2010.

In a 2009 interview with Times of Malta, Fr Xerri was reminiscing about immigration in the wake of a standoff between Malta and Italy.

It was an interview in which he spoke of his fears on the prevalent discourse at the time that demonised immigrants. He appealed for humanity to prevail but his closing remarks embody the spirit of a man acknowledged his frailties.

“I am hopeful that this problem is not beyond us. I cannot claim to have solutions because I am still grappling in the darkness of faith. All I know is that the problem cannot be solved by fear or hate. We need to use our imagination,” Fr Xerri told his interviewer.

Those words, ‘grappling in the darkness of faith’, may sound contradictory, more so coming from a priest. But they capture the essence of humanity’s continuous search for the truth – even for a priest.
This sentiment was captured by Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo, who described how Fr Xerri’s moral strength was borne out of humbleness and uncertainty.

“Patri Ġwann was a precursor. He led us to think and feel in a new way about life around us. But he did this in a humble way not by preaching in a high voice from the pulpit… Not as a perfect compass to others but as a person who feels lost and struggles to find the complicated direction. ‘Nothing is easy and simple’. Always in a soft voice and full of doubt and questions that allowed him to connect and reach deep,” Bartolo wrote about his friendship with Fr Xerri.

Fr Xerri died in Brazil after contracting COVID-19. He has left a void in the hearts of his dearest and those who knew him closely. But the outpouring of affection in the aftermath of his death shows that Fr Xerri’s voice left a lasting impact on whoever met him, even if it was a chance encounter.

Condolences go to his family in Malta and the people closest to him.

Farewell, Ġann, Heaven is today enriched by your presence.