Why I think the Archbishop’s gesture matters...

Not all ‘public relations exercises’ are intrinsically evil; even if contrived or downright dishonest, words or actions can still have a positive outcome in the long run

…whether it was ‘a PR exercise’ or not.

But first things first. It might seem strange that someone like myself, who was born 10 years after the famous ‘excommunication edict’ of the 1960s, would feel in any way personally affected by this whole ugly business.

But I do. I myself find it hard to explain this; but from an early age I noticed that there was something very, very wrong with the environment in which I was brought up.

For instance: when I was around 13, like most other Church school pupils I protested against the attempted nationalisation of my school – the whole ‘Jew b’xejn, jew xejn’ episode, for those who remember it – back in 1984.

And I thought I was awfully clever, too, to come up with the slogan ‘SOS: Save Our Schools’… until I joined the crowd, and saw that at least 15 other placards all said the same thing…

I was not, however, anywhere near clever enough to fully understand the historical significance of what was happening all around me. I didn’t realise that this issue – which seemed to fill the entire horizon, from my own childish perspective back then – was in reality just an aftershock of great epochal battles fought long, long before my time.

Among the many things I didn’t know was that Dom Mintoff, together with the entire executive of the Labour Party, was excommunicated by Archbishop Gonzi in 1960; or that it was once a mortal sin to vote Labour... or even to read a newspaper owned by the Labour Party.

Having been brought up a generation later, the implications of ‘being denied absolution’ – in an age when Hell really was a question of fire and brimstone, and all that – were entirely beyond me.

The sheer gravity of the injustice suffered by those people was something that went clean over my head.

Still less did I have any idea that the ‘Interdett’ of 1961 was itself just a repeat performance of the excommunication of Lord Gerald Strickland in the 1930s… which in turn was probably an echo of something else further back in history, and so on, ad infinitum.

This was all stuff I learnt about later in life.

So, when a bunch of hoodlums ransacked the law courts, and later the Archbishop’s Curia, in 1984… I couldn’t understand what all the anger was about. Why would they smash a statue of Our Lady, for instance? What blame could that ‘woman’ possibly have had, for the current political situation in Malta?

It just didn’t make sense to me at all (bear in mind I was 13 years old. A lot of other things didn’t make sense to me, either).

Even now that I understand things a little better, I still find it hard to comprehend why so much hatred and bitterness still orbits around political discussion in Malta today, even long after the cause of the initial rift has (or seems to have) faded into history.

But my gut feeling tells me it has something to do with our collective failure to ever exorcise the ghosts of our nation’s troubled past. Just as those former Labour stalwarts had been buried in unconsecrated ground, in a state of ‘conjectural damnation’, the spectre of Malta’s unfinished business is still condemned to forever stalk the local political landscape.

Like Cathy’s restless spirit in Wuthering Heights, past grievances will continue to toss and turn in their “unquiet slumbers”, until they are finally l ain to rest “in that quiet earth”.

This is why I instinctively felt that what Archbishop Scicluna tried to do last week was something of an epochal, historical nature. And for the same reason, I feel it doesn’t even really matter whether Scicluna’s gesture was a token of sincere regret, or just a PR stunt to (as I saw it described somewhere) ‘score political brownie-points’, or to redeem the wounded reputation of the Catholic Church in general.

Not all ‘public relations exercises’ are intrinsically evil; even if contrived or downright dishonest, words or actions can still have a positive outcome in the long run.

To my eyes, then, this was a gesture that might go some distance towards healing this ancestral wound.

And the way I see it: it is more important for this wound to heal, than for the Archbishop to be genuine in trying to heal it.

From this perspective, I was relieved to see that so many of the older generation – the ones who, unlike myself, actually lived through those troubled times – seem to have welcomed the gesture, too.

Whether this sentiment is widely shared or not, is not for me or my coevals to say. Ultimately, is up to those who were directly affected to decide if the Archbishop is being genuine or not; or to interpret his actions any way they choose.

But the younger generation also has a stake in bringing this issue to a close. As do future generations. For they, too, will be affected by the automatic veneer of political prejudice that automatically comes with having been born into a blighted country.

Like their predecessors, they too will find themselves automatically judged on the basis of political prejudices predating their birth by decades, if not centuries.

So, rather than question the Archbishop’s motives, I think it would be wiser for us all to question our own prejudices today. There is, after all, a limit to how long this country’s children can continue to be held responsible for the sins of their forefathers. Quite frankly, it is a limit that expired years, if not decades ago.

Having said all this, it doesn’t follow that I would similarly dismiss the authenticity of the Archbishop’s actions in all other matters. I find it disconcerting that Scicluna would have waited so long, before finally ‘doing something’ about the public utterances of a clergyman who is only fanning the flames of racial hatred…. in a country where racism has already claimed a man’s life.

And I could fill entire newspapers with all the things I dislike or disagree with, in the way a hugely influential institution like the Catholic Church wields its power in other areas.

But let’s try and do what we all (myself included) seem to find so difficult to do, and stick to the issue at hand. I, for one, would like to see an end to this generational political grudge that has caused, and still causes, so much harm.

So, if by blessing those graves 50 years after this colossal injustice was perpetrated, Archbishop Scicluna paves the way to a national discussion about atonement for the sins of the past… then, speaking only for myself, I can only call that a good thing.

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