The people miming Beelzebub: Lino Spiteri remembers the Interdett - Part 2

Part 2 of a MaltaToday series on the January 1961 Church Interdett, first published in MaltaToday in 2005

Lino Spiteri
Lino Spiteri

Comparisons are odious. But one is hard pressed to find a more hateful comparison to the devil. “The people miming Beelzebub” – baffled Lino Spiteri, the former labour minister as he was on his way to the Tokk meeting in Gozo. Spiteri was present along with other Labourites when they spotted fervent Catholics sauntering around on the Rabat hills whilst grabbing their behinds.

“It was a bizarre moment which would be perfectly captured on film,” he says. Spiteri says that it took him a while to realise that the catholic crowd were trying to show the Labourites that they believed them to be the devil incarnate.

The Unholy War: a five-part series on Malta’s Interdett – Part 1

The people miming Beelzebub: Lino Spiteri remembers the Interdett – Part 2

A younger Lino Spiteri (second from left) with friends, in a photo taken some time in the late 1950s.
A younger Lino Spiteri (second from left) with friends, in a photo taken some time in the late 1950s.

Across the great divide: Guido de Marco during the interdiction – Part 3

Divide et Impera: Ragonesi recalls PN during the interdiction – Part 4

Scar tissue: The aftermath of the interdett – Part Five

Reminiscent of the fear of God inspired by the Inquisition; the Maltese Church attempted to manoeuvre the political scene in its favour. So the Labour executive and supporters became accustomed, but never immune to being accused of doing the devil’s work by members of their own community.

The curia was convinced that Mintoff’s socialism was a Trojan horse for communism. At the apex of the cold war the extreme sense of paranoia had found its breeding ground amongst Malta’s most conservative echelons. Clergymen, Azzjoni Kattolika and MUSEUM had mobilised women and children, some of whom were carrying banners and sticks. After every meeting women known as tal-Parfum took to the streets to disinfect the area where the labourites had convened.

Back at it-Tokk, the Church had issued an unofficial order to all the shopkeepers to shutdown their business for the day and all public facilities including the latrines were also locked up. Paul Caruana, the father of Gozitan Labour MP Justyne Caruana says that it was hard to accept that their fellow Gozitans were suddenly taunting them and hurling stones.

“I was hit by a lady with a wooden stick and we had stones thrown at us as well,” says Caruana who was 14 years old at the time. The church-bells tolled throughout the meeting and ‘Ghawdex ma’ l-Isqof’ was inscribed on a banner hung on the façade of the church of San Gakbu.

Realising that it was useless to continue the meeting, Anton Buttigieg halted his speech about the party’s intentions for the Civic Councils. He addressed the hollering mob around the square “saffru saffru issa l-guvintur jitilqu lejn l-Awstarlja u intom tibqghu ssaffru.”

The meeting was stopped halfway through because it was too chaotic and dangerous for the people attending the meeting. The police eventually closed off the square, preventing people from leaving or entering.

Anton F. Attard who was 18 at the time told MaltaToday that he couldn’t bear the noise and walked out, so he was not allowed back in. Caruana remembers being terrified by the banshee screeching and the verbal and physical abuse that he encountered with his father at Ghajnsielem. They had taken a detour to get back home and so they climbed their way through Mgarr ix-Xini to get back to Xewkija.

On the otherhand, Labour MP Evarist Bartolo candidly articulates the part he played in this saga as a ten-year-old boy on the otherside of the battlefield as a child coming from a Nationalist background. He says that the fear, self-righteousness and visceral hatred instigated by the local priest spurred children on to commit those heinous acts.

Whenever the camarilla of children spotted Labourites commuting to and fro from Gozo meetings they paraded around with flags displaying the Pope’s emblem. And singing “Ghalxejn l-ghedewwa iridu jkissru il-hitan tal-belt imqaddsa tieghek il-belt tal-Vatikan” at the which the labourites retorted: “Ghalxejn lghedewwa iridu jfarku il-partit tal Malta Labour Party, immexxi mill-perit.”

Anton F. Attard from Rabat, Gozo, remembers priests making insinuations and sometimes-blatant declarations against the MLP and Mintoff during mass. “It was a constant crusade against the MLP,” he says. “I clearly remember that priests would refuse to give absolution to Labourites during confession and the often mentioned the mortal sin.”

Attard was 18 years old in May 1961 when the infamous “Tokk meeting” took place in the Gozitan capital of Rabat. At the time the MLP was fighting for the Sitt Punti. Labourites who were present at the meeting and revealed their memories to this newspaper draw parallels to the persecution suffered by early Christians in the Roman Empire. But not all priests supported the interdiction at the time.

Fr Ang Seychell was against the “calumnious interdiction” but when “he had to choose loyalties” he ultimately chose the church. Dun Seychell attended rallies organised by the junta but never took part in any of the “disgusting episodes.”

The father of Labour MP Justyne Caruana says that his family suffered repercussions in their personal life due to political bigotry. Even nowadays Gozitan society is more insular. The church has a tighter grip on people than in Malta and is less secular. Back then it was extremely degrading for the parish priest to skip someone’s house during the ritual Easter blessings. “I was denied Holy Communion and confession. I was sent away from the altar myself being told that I could not receive Holy Communion because I was a Mintoffian,” Caruana says.

Lino Spiteri: the river flows, and times change

“We were lucky that no incidents took place at our wedding even though there was a huge crowd outside the church,” former Labour minister Lino Spiteri recalls of his wedding ceremony held during the interdiction. The bride and groom had been anxious that their ‘special day’ would be marred by angry extremists who had made a habit out of showering the participants at Labour weddings with insults.

The 25-year-old Spiteri and his spouse-to-be had been warned the marriage rites would be performed in the church sacristy but to their surprise it was carried out in English – reinforcing the message that Spiteri was not considered a member of the Catholic Church, and that this was a ‘mixed marriage’.

The parish priest had informed the couple all would not be plain sailing when they had approached him to get married. However they were still astonished the priest used rites appropriate for mixed religion marriages. Occupying a post in the MLP executive after having been politically active for around seven years, had singled Spiteri out for differential treatment.

The extent of the church’s power was so strong that it was not possible to have a civil wedding at the time. They had no choice but to accept the conditions imposed by the curia. “We were a Maltese couple in a church in Rabat yet the mixed marriage ceremony took place in English,” says Spiteri.

Today however, the soft-spoken writer and former politician does not hold any grudges as he speaks about Malta’s unsavoury past. Surprisingly dispassionate about the entire affair, Spiteri does not harbour hostility towards the church and the individuals involved, but he admits he was perplexed at the time.

“I didn’t feel anger or hostility in the past, so it would be futile to feel that way nowadays. I never say ‘look what they’ve done to me or my family’. As far as I was concerned I was not doing anything wrong or anything which would have angered God.”

A devout believer, his faith never faltered but he does make a distinction between the church and God and always felt he had God and not his mortal representatives to answer to. As he grows older, Spiteri feels that he can analyse the situation better: “I can understand what was going on in the archbishop’s mind more than I could at the time.”

In his eyes, it still does not absolve the Curia of her sins. As far as he was concerned, this saga was political and not religious, yet the repercussions were political and social, attempting to exclude people from a religious and social context. Spiteri uses an analogy to describe the implications of the interdiction.

“Most people were catholic, and Labourites were no less catholic – they participated in religious activities, feasts and organisations. Then all of a sudden a scythe tore our society apart.”

Disorientated intellectually and spiritually, he attempted to rationalise what was going on but socially, he did not suffer – his family soldiered on despite the moral pressure, and having been involved in politics from an early age, he nurtured friendships that didn’t balk under the strain of the times.

He happily reminisces that the wedding party was “normal” and all of the invitees attended, irrespective of their political beliefs. The interdiction did not cast its shadow on the festivities and important political heavyweights: Anton Buttigieg, Mabel Strickland and Nationalist party leader Gorg Borg Olivier were all present.

“I am sorry it happened,” he remarks in an afterthought. “It was obviously not a nice thing having to baptise your child and seeing the priest write down that the baby’s father was interdicted. I ask myself, did we have to go through all this? And the answer is no, I don’t think that we should have experienced what we experienced.”

But time cures all things – Spiteri says he understands why people, especially the younger generation, don’t feel strongly about the issue anymore: “The river flows, times change – so it is not relevant for people anymore.”

NEXT Across the great divide: Guido de Marco during the interdiction – Part 3