Guzeppi Mercieca: man of few words who showed strength in silence

A man of principle armed with an admirable determination to get his message across, Mercieca faced off political thugs, the church schools crisis, and saw the Church take its place into the brave new world of broadcasting

President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami and the late Archbishop Emeritus Guzeppi Mercieca
President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami and the late Archbishop Emeritus Guzeppi Mercieca

Archbishop Guzeppi Mercieca spent 27 years at the helm of the Maltese Church, leading it through difficult times and building bridges with society. But, out of everything, he will be remembered for his kind, passionate and calm demeanour who made it a point to always find time to visit the sick in hospital.

It was Mercieca who in 1983 faced threats by the government, led by then Labour prime minister Dom Mintoff, of seizing most of the Church’s property. It was a time when the Vatican Secretariat of State would hold regular meetings with Mintoff on property and education issues.

The relations were strained and Mintoff had ceased communication with Mercieca after earlier calling him a hypocrite. Then, in September 1984, dockyard workers attacked the Archbishop’s Curia tearing paintings and breaking glass, furniture and statues.

“Mintoff had called Mercieca as they sought to find a solution to their disagreements. Mercieca was then adamant that either all schools opened, or none. At the same time, Mintoff didn’t want all Church schools to remain closed,” recalled il-Hajja former editor, Charles Buttigieg. Il-Hajja was the daily newspaper subsidised by the Archdiocese of Malta.

At the time, the government was in the midst of the church schools crisis, and had withheld licences to eight church schools because it wanted the Church to agree to a number of conditions. The church and parents found these conditions unjust and insisted on the re-opening of the schools.

“The final decision fell on Mercieca. He had listened to all stakeholders but it was up to him to make the final call. He wanted to be alone when he made up his mind, and so he went to the chapel. When he returned, he had decided not to reopen the schools because he didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

“After the attack, Mintoff reached out but Mercieca had not changed his mind on reopening the schools.”

While children were home-schooled and people grew impatient over the impasse, Mercieca would be pondering on what solution could be found.

“He had strength in his silence. People thought it was a weakness, that he wasn’t acting on it. In reality, he would be thinking deep on a durable solution. He would listen a lot and reflect a lot. He was a man of principles who didn’t wish harm to anyone and always acted in the greater good. He sacrificed a lot,” Buttigieg told MaltaToday.

Then, on 12 November 1984, Mercieca would come up with a proposal that would mark the beginning of the end of the fight between the church and the state.

“Mintoff had liked Mercieca’s proposal and within seven days discussions and negotiations had started to reach a solution.”

In fact, in his memoirs, Mercieca reveals how Mintoff started inviting him to regular private meals at his residence in Delimara, l-Gharix, which helped heal the rift between church and state in the mid-1980s.

President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami remembers the day when the Curia had been attacked.

“One of my clearest memories is when we had information about an imminent attack on the Curia in Floriana,” Fenech Adami said, adding that he had called Mercieca to alert him of the imminent attack.

Fenech Adami described Mercieca as “a man of few words”, but someone whose strong determination and moral fibre he had always admired.

Fenech Adami told MaltaToday that he had known Mercieca personally for many years, and that he had always admired his “determination and strength of character”, which shone through the many experiences he had been through.

Fr Joe Borg, his former communications officer, described Mercieca’s reaction to the attack as “emblematic of his personality in general”.

Echoing Fenech Adami’s comments, Mercieca had not “made a fuss” or “risked escalating the situation” by having a strong, impassioned reaction.

“He had kept a cool head and never said anything that might have made the situation worse,” Borg said, adding that his first reaction upon visiting the vandalised site, was to pray for the forgiveness of the attackers.

Mercieca then went on to ask those at the Curia to provide refreshments to the police officers who had been on site in the aftermath of the attack.

“He was always concerned about the comfort of others and he always made sure not to say anything to escalate already fragile situations,” he said stressing that Mercieca had helmed the Church with great prudence at a particularly difficult and turbulent time.

Borg added that however cautious his actions had been, Mercieca had always had an admirable determination to get his message across, even opening two separate court cases against the government. “Mercieca also had a great interest in the public and in the needs and requests they made,” Borg said, highlighting his willingness to offer assistance in as short a period of time as possible throughout the 20 years he had worked with him.

Borg recalled that Mercieca had taken it upon himself to strengthen the Catholic Church’s contact with the general public by strengthening structures like Radio RTK to further emphasize concepts of pluralism and openness.  

Mercieca was born in Victoria, Gozo, in November 1928, and he entered the Gozo seminary to study for the priesthood but continued his studies in Rome at the Gregorian university and the Lateran university. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1952, and in 1958, he was chosen to be the rector of the Gozo Major Seminary. In 1969, Mercieca was appointed, by Pope Paul VI, to judge the Roman Rota, the highest appellate tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1974, Pope Paul VI appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of Malta to assist Archbishop Michael Gonzi. After Archbishop Gonzi retired in 1976, Bishop Mercieca succeeded him. He spent the next thirty years as the spiritual leader the Archdiocese of Malta. 
Mercieca retired aged 75, in 2006.