Sorry is the hardest word

Even though the interdett’s most violent expression – the denial of a consecrated burial to people who were otherwise at peace with their faith – happened back in the 1960s, the Archbishop’s bold decision today can also be seen as an invitation to open an important debate on the scar tissue of this historical event

Last Saturday, Archbishop Scicluna visited the Addolorata cemetery to bless the graves in the formerly unconsecrated part of the cemetery, where those who were buried under the condemnation for “mortal sin” for being a Labour executive committee member.

These included people like former Labour minister Guze Ellul Mercer.

The Maltese word we use to describe this part of the cemetery – mizbla – is indicative of how grievously this injustice was felt at the time. British author Thomas Hardy uses a more eloquent, but equally forceful term: “that shabby corner of God’s allotment where He lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptized infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid.”

Given that the graves contained the mortal remains of people who died in a state of ‘conjectural damnation’ – at a time when the faith of the Maltese people in such matters was almost universal - it is understandable that many people alive today, including those who were not yet born, still find it hard to forgive.

Reactions to Mgr Scicluna’s gesture confirm this. Doubts have been raised about whether the Archbishop was being sincere. Some have called it a PR exercise, by the leader of a church that is trying to restore its reputation.

But this is not simply a question of forgiveness. This is also about closure.

Even though the interdett’s most violent expression – the denial of a consecrated burial to people who were otherwise at peace with their faith – happened back in the 1960s, the Archbishop’s bold decision today can also be seen as an invitation to open an important debate on the scar tissue of this historical event.

For the Archbishop’s gesture is, apart from being important, also political: political in the sense that it delivers a necessary form of contrition designed to heal the lasting wounds of this clerical-political rift, which indirectly benefited the Nationalist Party at the time, and created a great social divide between Labour voters and PN voters.

The question we ask today is, to what extent has this divide become an intrinsic part of Maltese society?

The imposition of the excommunication edict and mortal sin left a traumatic effect on the life of all of those who experienced it, and for some people, relatives and bystanders alike, but also those with a refined sense of political history, a great pain that is still felt today.
Even the late Mabel Strickland, in her biography, herself could not find reassurance right unto her death as to whether her Catholic father,

Lord Gerald Strickland, had managed to save his soul after having been imposed the mortal sin in the 1930s (together with Boffa’s Labourites) and was excommunicated.

This lasting generational memory of the interdett, and the fact that in Malta politics infiltrates everything, even friendships and relations, shows how the Mgr Mikiel Gonzi’s actions in the 1960s had a complex role whose effects remain present.

It is worth remembering, too, that neither Scicluna nor Mgr Joseph Mercieca were responsible for what happened. The actors are dead, but the wound is still alive.

To discuss the interdett today is part of a story that amplifies the underdog of the Labour voter of the 1960s, attempting to overcome the forces of darkness against those of progress. But beyond the myth and its political reality, can we also speak of the genuine bitterness that exists in Malta due to the historical injustices of the interdett, and also of Labour’s excesses during the 1980s?

Both sides of this argument have good reasons to be bitter. The fact that, in 1984, the Archbishop’s Curia was ransacked and the chapel was desecrated, cannot be left out of this discussion. The image of the Madonna’s face, smashed into pieces on the floor, is also a sacrilege that will long be remembered.

There is much to be said about this bitterness, one that requires a great deal of debate and discussion: first, so that those stories of hurt and injustice can be communicated in the right type of forum and contribute towards a national consciousness of what happened in the 1960s; secondly, to be the springboard towards other such forms of truth-speaking, especially about the events of the 1980s; and thirdly, that by recognising the wounds of these injustices, we can prescribe the ethical, lay and civic values that can help us become a stronger Malta.

The discussion is also needed because forgiveness is not the same as closure. It is up to the generation that experienced the injustice first hand – however many of them may still be alive – to decide whether the Archbishop’s gesture was sincere or not, and it is up to them to choose whether to forgive. But later generations have also been affected. The episode left a deep scar on the fabric of this country, and the wound must be healed for the benefit of everybody: not just those who were buried in the mizbla.

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