For whom the Church bells toll | Fr Rene Camilleri

Caught between mystic visionaries and an increasingly secular society, the Church seems to be having difficulty getting its message across. But Rev. Prof. RENE CAMILLERI argues that inner struggles are necessary for a healthy Church

Fr Rene Camilleri
Fr Rene Camilleri

This week, the Commission appointed by former Archbishop Paul Cremona to inves-tigate the alleged ‘miracles’ associated with Angelik Caruana – who claimed, among many other things, to be in direct communion with the Virgin Mary – finally reached its verdict.

Echoing Malta’s top forensic investigator, Anthony Abela Medici, and forensic pathologist Albert Cilia Vincenti, the Commission headed by University lecturer Fr Rene Camilleri likewise concluded that there was nothing ‘divine’ about Caruana’s claims at all.

The forensic examiners had proved, through DNA testing, that the blood which Ca-ruana claimed had been ‘wept’ as tears by a miraculous statue, was his own. Similarly, tears of ‘oil’ turned out to be everyday kitchen oil.  

It had separately been observed that the ‘apparitions’ of Our Lady at Borg in-Nadur seemed always to serve a specific purpose: the Blessed Virgin was not merely ‘appear-ing’ to Angelik Caruana; she was using him as her mouthpiece, to issue ‘messages’ aimed at the Maltese faithful.

Fr Camilleri himself observed this week that “the Church could not afford to ignore this situation; Our Lady was giving out very specific instructions.”

The Church did not, in fact, ignore Angelik Caruana… but it certainly took a long time to reach a conclusion that had already been spelt out in 2009.

Why did it take so long for the Church to come to such an obvious decision?

“You may be right that the church shouldn’t have taken that long to decide on an issue when from the forensic side there was a foregone conclusion,” Camilleri replies. “As I see it, however, the issue was not simply reducible to DNA testing. I think the fact that the blood on the miraculous statue was Mr Caruana’s own and the oil was everyday kitchen oil were not sufficient to close the experience of Borg in-Nadur.

“Way back four or five years, the then Archbishop Cremona had set up a Commission to prepare a report and had also commissioned Psychiatrist Mark Xuereb to report back to the church on the phenomenon as a whole. Considering that half way through since these reports were commissioned Archbishop Cremona resigned, and Archbish-op Scicluna took over, and that these reports were only very recently officially pre-sented, one in November and the other in December, one understands that it took that long.”   

At the same time, the experience with Angelik Caruana also underscored an apparent communications problem affecting the Church as a whole. Following the publication of those reports, Archbishop Scicluna described cases such as Angelik’s as ‘a carica-ture of faith’. 

Yet Angelik himself, not to mention his several hundred followers, clearly sees things differently. At a glance, this seems to portray a gulf of perception between the Church as an institution, and the grassroots that make up the Church’s flock. Similar symp-toms of this divide can be seen elsewhere. The recent controversy surrounding the Mgarr festa auction seemed to pit the former parish priest against his parishioners, over a ‘tradition’ that at a glance appears equally medieval. 

It would seem that, while the Church as an institution is trying to move beyond the superstitious trappings of its belief system, a sizeable chunk of its members want to turn the clock back instead.

Would Fr Camilleri agree that this incident has also exposed tensions between the Church’s message, and the way it actually filters down to the faithful?

“Since its inception the church has always had serious conflicts between the intellectu-al side of doctrine and the popular faith of the people. Particularly starting from the first centuries, which were marked by heresy and defections from the Christian com-munity, the church as an institution always sought to formulate its doctrine as precise-ly as it can: adopting a high flown philosophical language, reducing theology as main-ly speculation and rendering faith as merely doctrine.” 

For the illiterate masses, he goes on, faith was simplistically lived and popular religi-osity flourished. 

“From a theological standpoint, there is so much we do in our churches and in our lit-urgies that strictly speaking is a ‘caricature of faith’. For many people, church-goers included, religion can easily remain on the level of superstition. Without sounding too simplistic, that explains why many just leave in the name of reason. Yet at grass root level that remains the truth with which we need to come to terms.

“In a certain sense, it is a communication problem. How many people read and grasp the encyclical letters of Popes or even a pastoral letter by the Archbishop that is read out in churches? People have been generally brought up not to think about their faith, but simply to assent. To think was a sin, at the time of the Inquisition. So this explains how people flock in hundreds wherever a ‘phenomenon’ crops up. Because people want to see. That was the main attraction in the Angelik story: there was something to see, and people were curious.”

And yet there may have been more to the attraction than mere curiosity. One of Ange-lik’s ‘miracles’ was to ‘cure’ two patients of their terminal cancer. The patients went on to die within a few weeks. Without going into the specifics of these two cases, this illustrates a well-known danger associated with self-styled visionary healers, such as Angelik claimed to be. It is possible that people might forgo potentially life-saving medical treatment in favour of bogus ‘cures’, with fatal results. 

From this perspective: is the Church doing enough to protect these vulnerable people from exploitation at the hands of people who cite the same Church’s religion as their inspiration?

“In all fairness, and to the best of my knowledge, Angelik never posed as a miraculous healer. But yes, I understand, people even in this day and age are so vulnerable in their solitude and can even be gullible where faith is concerned. Again, this is the religion we always projected in people’s lives. Particularly in times of turmoil and sickness, people become very vulnerable. Religion in such circumstances can be very promis-ing. This can surely have its positive side. But it can also be very alienating…” 

At the same time, this vulnerability to exploitation seems to have a long history within the Church. Angelik’s experience calls to mind the issue with Padre Pio, who enjoys nationwide veneration in Malta. 

Evidence had emerged in his own lifetime that Pio’s stigmata were self-inflicted, and the Church had initially dismissed the man as a fraud. Yet Pope John Paul II went on to beatify him anyway.

Does this indicate that the Church is a prisoner of such superstitions? That it is so con-cerned with the possibility of losing its influence, that it allows and even endorses clearly fraudulent claims? 


“I would not say the church is a prisoner of superstitions. These experiences, you men-tion Padre Pio and here we have the Angelik case, can easily be considered as deviant from the point of view of the institution. You have a simple man – or it can be whoev-er – attracting people and having a certain ascendancy on them.

“In an age when people are leaving the flock and when the institution, priests included, have to earn their credibility with people, it surprises me how people can be lured in such a manner, to commit themselves to go regularly on a hill which probably they had never heard of, to say the rosary and pray and hear messages allegedly coming from heaven. This may be ridiculed in this day and age. But it happens here and else-where and it has always happened. It should make us think.”

One of the things it makes me think about – or at least question – is the actual identity of the Catholic Church. This apparent clash of millennial cross-currents is not limited only to issues of faith-healers and fraudulent mystics. There is also an apparent divi-sion within Catholics over secular issues.

One example would be the Church’s teachings on contraception, which are disregard-ed by a large number of  Catholics… who do not necessarily consider themselves any less Catholic as a consequence. Another would be divorce: a majority defied the Church by voting ‘Yes’ in the 2011 referendum; but it doesn’t follow that the same majority is no longer Catholic. 

The Church, in brief, seems content to accept as members people who have conflicting and often incompatible views. Doesn’t this create an identity problem for the Church? How can two so completely different world visions – the secular, pro-divorce condom-using Catholic, and the followers of Angelik Caruana’s Marian mysticism – be equally represented under the banner of ‘Catholicism’?

“But within Catholicism there are so many different churches! There is always the of-ficial church, with its doctrine and with the way it still perceives reality from the doc-trinal standpoint. Then there is the other church, the church of the people, who see the institution from the standpoint of their needs, and just that.

“They may even be non-practising, but they find it hard to understand how the church can, for example, deny them the baptism of their child or a church marriage. From our ivory towers we may pontificate on the lives of people and demand consistency, ac-ceptance of doctrine and of the moral rules, and so on. But many people continue to see it differently…”

At this point, yet another division swims into view. Camilleri points out how a non-believer or non-practitioner has no reason to feel excluded from the Church… or why the Church should shut its doors to them. 

“I have my life and I live it,” Camilleri continues, as if quoting an imaginary lapsed Catholic. “But if it dawns on me to come to church for a funeral of my friend, and I feel like receiving the Eucharist… no one should hinder that. For me, this is the turn-ing-point that Pope Francis represents now for the church. He seems no longer to be there as Pope to safeguard doctrine, but to safeguard mainly the freedom and dignity of people to decide on their own. In all this the role of the church is not seen mainly as that of teaching and guarding right doctrine, but of being there to accompany people in their own journeys.”

This brings us to the other issue facing the 21st century Maltese Church. It is a period of transition, characterised by a new(ish) Archbishop who differs from his predeces-sors in a number of respects. 

Mgr Scicluna has been conspicuously more outspoken on a number of issues – the en-vironment, social exclusion, rights of the disabled, rights of employers, to name a few... and while this has been welcomed by some as a move to make the Church more relevant, it has also clearly irritated others. 

The latest example concerns Mgr Scicluna’s comments regarding the Prime Minister’s televised New Year message, which some interpreted as an unnecessary political comment. Does this outspokenness reflect a conscious strategy on the part of the Church to rebuild its identity/image? If so, would there be any justification to the ar-gument (already expressed all over the social media) that the Church intends to regain relevance by venturing into political issues?

“I think the church’s strategy today should not, in the first place, be to regain rele-vance or to win back those who left or are leaving. The church is not an institution that has a message which needs to be communicated. The church is in the first place the gathering in community of those who believe in Jesus Christ, and it is from the way of living of those who belong that the truth of the message should transpire.

“Claims of truth by an institution, even the church, are not automatically credible be-cause they come from those who hold office, and who claim to have been commis-sioned by Christ himself. What makes the message true, and the Gospel credible, is the way it concretises in people’s lives.

“I think it’s high time we speak not just of leadership ‘in’ the church – referring to those who hold office and who govern the community – but leadership ‘of’ the church. Our society and culture may simply ignore those who speak from pulpits and yet give credit to those who speak with moral authority. The church is silent not when its bish-ops do not speak out on the issues that mark the country’s agenda, but when people in general, particularly those who belong to the faith community and regularly participate in its liturgy, are mute to what is happening around them.

“Bishops can speak out and yet remain alone. Our political parties still play small poli-tics and the church cannot afford to play that game. Not remaining silent does not mean that the church always has something to say. Wisdom is first and foremost need-ed to discern when to speak, and when not to.”

On the subject of church leadership, Mgr Scicluna recently acknowledged that the Church in Malta must resign itself to its ‘relegation’ to the level of one institution among many. At the same time, however, the Church has so far been vocal in oppos-ing embryo freezing... a health-related legislative issue that will affect all the popula-tion, not just Catholics. Isn’t there a contradiction here? If the Church’s voice is no more authoritative than anyone else’s, why should it expect to influence national legis-lation more than others?  

“The fact that the church speaks out on issues she considers crucial for the moral fibre of our people and of society in general does not mean that the church is imposing its beliefs on the country or on our politicians. The church makes its position known, but she cannot go further than that. It is the politicians that legislate and govern the coun-try.

“Voicing the concerns of many who have no voice cannot be considered undue pres-sure. What has radically changed today, however, is the fact that there is no longer any identification between the country and the church, between being a Maltese and being a Catholic. It would be unwise in this day and age for the church to envy the time when it wielded power on society and the State. The church instead is wise if it strug-gles internally, first and foremost, to rediscover the joy of the gospel and to start evan-gelising itself long before it dares to speak of rebuilding its identity or regaining credi-bility in society.”