Pope Francis showed leadership, where there is none | Fr Jimmy Bonnici

On his visit to Malta, Pope Francis did not hold back from some stinging criticism: especially concerning ‘corruption’, ‘environmental degradation’, and ‘hypocrisy’. According to Fr JIMMY BONNICI - Rector of the Archbishop’s Seminary in Rabat – that is precisely the sort of leadership the country needs

Father Jimmy Bonnici
Father Jimmy Bonnici

Last week, you were quoted as saying: “For the Catholic community, the Pope’s visit should serve as proof that maintaining traditional values does not – and should not – mean remaining trapped in the past.” Are you suggesting that the Church in Malta is, in fact, still ‘trapped in the past’? And if so: do you see Pope Francis himself – widely regarded as progressive, compared to his predecessors - as representing some form of ‘renewal’ for the Church?

First of all, thank you for this interview: not just because it helps me with my own reflections; but also because I’m recognizing that, if we do really need to change anything, as a Church: it is not necessarily the core message [of Christianity] itself; but rather, the kind of conversations that we have. 

For me, ‘getting stuck in the past’ also means remaining with the mindset that everyone out there ‘should be Christian’, for instance. And if we stick with that, as our premise: clearly, we would be starting from the wrong place.

So yes: in a sense, I feel that Pope Francis is encouraging us to start out from a different premise. First of all, to appreciate the reality we’re living in; and to approach that reality, for what it actually is… as opposed to ‘what we would like it to be’.

Respect for reality is, I believe, the best way to both be yourself, and also to respect the identity of others around you.  And I strongly believe that it is also necessary for us to be Christians – by ‘us’, I’m referring to myself, and the rest of the Christian community – because it is only through respect for reality, that we can share what we believe is good.

We cannot share the Gospel by imposing it on others; but neither can we share it by not recognizing the realities that other people live in. It can only be shared within the context of respect for people who come from different religious backgrounds; or who are questioning, or searching… 

And I feel that this new approach will also help us rediscover the core message of Christianity for ourselves. In fact, one of things Pope Francis emphasized was the need to ‘go back to the essentials’… rather than preserving all the external paraphernalia of Christianity, without giving any truly meaningful message to all those people who are searching, and struggling.

This is especially relevant today, because – as His Holiness also emphasised – the country itself is facing new historical situations, and challenges. So I think that Pope Francis can give us a vision that will help us shape these new realities…

He also gave Catholics quite a ‘scolding’ too, though, didn’t he? During his sermon on the Granaries, for instance, Pope Francis said: “Those who believe they are upholding the faith by pointing their finger at others may have a certain ‘religiosity’, but they have not embraced the spirit of the Gospel”. To whom do you think he was actually referring there? The Maltese Catholic Church… or Christians in general?

Actually, Pope Francis has been very consistent on that point: not just here in Malta, but in his overall message as a whole. When communicating with us priests, for example: he has consistently insisted that our call is not to be ‘Pharisees’ – which includes both hypocrisy, and finger-pointing.

But to answer your question more directly: I would say that the core of his message – at that specific moment, on the Granaries - was mainly directed at the Christian people of Malta.  It remains, of course, a universal message, which is applicable to Christians everywhere. But there were two main moments, during his sermon, where Pope Francis addressed the Christian people of Malta directly. 

It is important, however, to make this distinction between ‘the Christian people of Malta’; and the Maltese people as a whole. At other moments– during his address to the civil authorities, for instance; and especially in his encounter with migrants at the Peace Lab – his message was clearly directed on a much wider level.

But on the Granaries - and also at Ta’ Pinu - Pope Francis was talking specifically to the local Christian community. As to whether he ‘scolded’ us or not, however; I see it more as Pope Francis warning us about a risk that is already there… and that exists everywhere else, in the Christian world.

The risk is basically that, instead of sharing the Good News, we approach others with an air of superiority; or with a level of confidence that is ‘self-referential’… rather than pointing towards God’s mercy: which is, after all, the core message of Jesus Christ.

This is something Pope Francis emphasised a lot, especially at Ta’ Pinu. It was there, in fact, that he urged us to ‘go back to the essentials’: which includes not just Jesus Christ’s denunciation of the Pharisees… but also, the experience of his death and resurrection: everything, in fact, that defines us as Christians.

Pope Francis himself likened that experience with Ta’ Pinu itself: which, from a humble chapel, was rebuilt into a magnificent Basilica; just like Jesus Christ’s crucifixion – which seemed like a ‘crisis’, or even a ‘failure’, to his disciples at the time – resulted in the beginning of something new. 

And this message is particularly important, in today’s context, also because of all the changes that the Maltese Christian community has gone through. 

How are we to react to these changes, as Christians? If we react to them merely in terms of ‘loss of power’, for instance… on one level, it would simply lead to anger, and resentment. But on another, it would also imply that our mission should be to ‘seek power’.

Pope Francis’s message, on the other hand, is that our mission as Christians is not to ‘seek power’ at all. It is to share the merciful love of God: because that is the only thing that can convey hope: especially, to people who have experienced failure. That is what can bring healing, to a society that is undergoing change… and which is also broken, and fragmented.

So, in spite of all the societal changes: there is still a role [for the Church] to play. It’s not about ‘numbers’ – in fact, Pope Francis himself told us to ‘stop counting numbers’ in our churches - but about conveying hope, through God’s mercy; about bringing healing, where there is brokenness. 

But the congregation in Floriana also featured more or less Malta’s entire political establishment: including government ministers who – while very eager to attend the Pontifical Mass – are simultaneously enacting policies that Pope Francis himself has strongly criticised: especially insofar as immigration is concerned. On top of that, there was also a backlash of hostility (coming also from Catholics) against the Pope’s message of ‘hospitality’ towards migrants. Isn’t this also part of the hypocrisy he was warning against?  

Let me start by examining the way Pope Francis handled the issue of migration: which, as he himself put it, is one of the new realities which mark the times that we live in.

What I noticed is that: first of all, he offered leadership on this issue. Not just during this visit to Malta, by the way: Pope Francis also showed leadership, when he chose Lampedusa as the venue for his first Papal visit. 

But here, he specifically showed leadership by – among other things - insisting on going as close as possible, to the ‘place that nobody wanted him to see.’ And the people recognised this:  they saw how - though Pope Francis was too tired to continue the morning Mass; so much so, that Archbishop Scicluna had to take over, at a certain point – he nonetheless recovered his energies… not to mention, his smile… the moment he visited the Peace Lab. 

But if I emphasise ‘leadership’ so much, it’s also because that is what I feel has been most lacking, when dealing with an issue as complex and sensitive as immigration. 

This, I feel, is what causes so many of the social problems in the first place: because, in the absence of any true leadership… citizens out there are simply left to cope, as best they can, with the consequences of our failure to take decisions at government level.

Moreover, this lack of leadership also influences how we perceive those people to begin with; and also, the language we use when talking about them. The ‘hostile backlash’ you mention, for example: while I don’t want to generalise too much, the situation certainly isn’t helped by politicians who exploit the people’s fear of ‘otherness’, for their own political ends; and, even worse, foment the people to be aggressive, or hateful, towards migrants in general. 

Now: I feel I have to be careful in saying this, because I don’t to be misconstrued as ’condoning’, or in any way ‘justifying’, hate-speech. 

But I do believe we have to at least try and understand the root cause of so much hatred.  And if people are continually forced into a situation, where they have to bear the brunt of the lack of leadership at the political level – and, even worse, if language is continually manipulated, for the sake of political power, to foment hatred towards a small minority – then… it doesn’t ‘justify’ those comments, naturally. But it does help us understand the root causes.

At the same time, it also forces us to question another of our national traits that was singled out by Pope Francis: our reputation as a ‘hospitable’ people, who had treated St Paul with such ‘unusual kindness’ back in 60AD. Are you suggesting that Malta no longer deserves this reputation, in 2022? Is that what you think Pope Francis was actually trying to tell us there?

I wouldn’t go that far, myself. Certainly, I would be cautious before saying that the Maltese people don’t have at least the potential to be hospitable; or that it is something we have somehow ‘lost’, along the way.

And Pope Francis made sure to point this out: once again, by distinguishing between ‘the people of Malta’, and ‘Maltese Christians’.  He reminded us, for instance, that when the Maltese people treated St Paul ‘with unusual kindness’… it was before they had received the Gospel. So what I think Pope Francis was telling us, there, was that our reputation for ‘hospitality’ is itself part of our roots, as a nation... and not just as a ‘Christian’ people. 

In fact, during his Wednesday address – three days after his visit to Malta – he told his audience to “draw the sap of fraternal compassion and solidarity, from your own roots”. And he emphasised that last part: ‘from your own roots’…

As a people, we still have those roots: they are still part of our identity, and our tradition, regardless whether we are Christians or not. So, more than a case of having ‘lost’ our reputation for hospitality: what I feel Pope Francis was saying is that we need to reconnect with those roots, in order to keep those qualities alive. 

What struck me most, however, was how he delivered that message: not just with regard to immigration, but also when talking about other issues, such as corruption; or the way we treat our environment. In all such instances, Pope Francis did two things: one, he showed no hesitation whatsoever in naming what is problematic… and sometimes very specifically, too: such as when he emphasised the risk of authorities colluding with human-traffickers, for instance.

But he also did that, within a framework that seeks to support what is ‘unique’ about our identity: not a ‘fossilised’ identity, that belongs to the past… but the beating heart of a people. 

And in doing so: in my opinion, he also brought out the greatness... not of ‘what we are’; but rather, of ‘what we can be’.