What the sacking of Mario Mallia tells us about the Church

Mallia’s sacking does reveal how the whims of religious zealots inside these religious orders which control faith schools, can harm conscientious and loyal teachers who seem to fall on the ‘wrong side’ of faith

There is always something you do not know about friends and acquaintances and people in general. Something that lies hidden and concealed. Until one fine day, you come face to face with the real person, the new reality – a different person. But then, there are those individuals who you can safely say that, the person you see is the person you always knew. 

Mario Mallia is the headmaster at St Albert’s College who was sacked by the Dominican Order. He is certainly one of those people who is ‘what you see is what you get’ – a soft-spoken, yet assertive man, moderate, never aggressive, never confrontational but imbued with this great sense of service, obligation, respect and quest for high moral standards. And his great sensitivity for those on the periphery of society and combating the perceptions that feed our prejudices and ignorance, has also made him the man he is. 

I know Mario from the days of the NGO Tan-Numri, an organisation inspired by Peppi Azzopardi’s militancy way back in the 1980s. Later, I knew Mario as a leading member of Alternattiva Demokratika. And whenever Alternattiva had issues at finding a leader, everyone would come up with Mario Mallia’s name – but Mario would always refuse, citing that his first commitment was his job as an educator not politics. He would have been a perfect leader thanks to his eloquence and ability to convey a clear political message. 

But Mallia’s sacking this week was shocking, because it came at a juncture in our life when we really thought that tolerance and openness to change was the order of the day – even in today’s Church. Not so for the Dominican Order that owns St Albert, and for its rector Fr Aaron Zahra, who saw it fit to dump Mario Mallia after years of unconditional service to the school and its community. 

Mallia’s work was in no way contrary to the Church’s teaching, but he did promote inter-faith dialogue between Catholic and Muslim students. Whatever the Order’s lawyers will say, it is clear that this was a problem to the priests who own the college; and Mario was the target of their discomfort with his pioneering work. Ironically, only a few weeks ago at a London conference on freedom of belief and religion, the Maltese government’s intervention at this conference highlighted this very component of the Valletta school, as a testament – singular though it was – to the island’s belief in freedom of belief. 

Incredibly, when the news broke that Mario Mallia was axed, the solidarity for Mario was just so unprecedented, or perhaps, it was impressive by the national outpouring of support for him from educators, friends and well-wishers. The MUT was quick to take a stand too – others were conspicuous by their silence. Politicians of course, avoided taking a stand or being direct in their criticism of the Dominicans or the threat of discriminatory employment practices by Church-run 

schools. And one can also detect a half-hearted statement from the Archbishop, his single concession here being a feeble offer to mediate between the two sides – no words about whether he agreed or disagreed with the sacking. 

I am sure Charles Scicluna will say that he has no ‘power’ to dictate the actions of Church orders that do not fall under the direct control of the archdiocese. But for someone who has an opinion about practically everything, including the external light fixtures on the Auberge de Castille, I cannot understand what’s so hard for Scicluna to take a stand on what is a clearly negative PR for the Church. 

Because Mallia’s sacking does reveal how the whims of religious zealots inside these religious orders which control faith schools, can harm conscientious and loyal teachers who seem to fall on the ‘wrong side’ of faith. 

Take a look at the kind of mockery made by the Paola parish priest, who seemed to take umbrage at the Roman Pontiff’s apology to Indigenous peoples 

in Canada; just so as to lampoon this historic gesture of redemption, he posted on his Facebook a centuries-old painting of the massacre of the Huron people and Jesuit missionary priests, at the hands of the Iroquois – an event unrelated to the papal apology, but intended to deliberately muddy the waters on this gesture of redemption. He didn’t mind taking on the Archbishop’s delegate for evangelisation on the matter. 

Here in Malta, people of my age were all brought up to believe that the Church was not only righteous but rightfully at the centre of our lives. Obviously, all the negative aspects of the horror story of imposing Catholic doctrine on Indigenous communities or promulgating retrograde and misogynistic ideas, were always set aside. Nobody, it seems, plays the same history card with the Dominicans over their Gestapo-like role in the Holy Inquisition, where torture was so gleefully employed to extract the most violent of confessions. We are more likely to laud the Order’s outstanding philosophers. 

Perhaps it is time to come to terms that the Church is no longer as relevant as it would like to be – not, at least, in the sense of the kind of power it seeks to have in society. People have a right to practice their faith openly. But – take Church schools for example – these institutions can no longer operate as if they are in a world of their own, without the necessary guarantees and freedoms that are given to other teachers and workers in other schools. It is time to wheel out the Equality Bill once again and push through the protections that state-funded Church-school teachers are due. 

I decided to renege on the Church a very long time ago, but Mario Mallia was one of those people who continued believing in the force for good that the Christian faith can be. I am sure he is not angry, or belligerent or hateful when it comes to discuss the Church and his sacking. 

This is the kind of guy that Dominican rector Fr Aaron Zerafa chose to terminate. Perhaps, Mario was too good for the likes of Zerafa.