St Paul’s feast: Have the Maltese fallen out of love with Sunday Mass?

The fact that some 70% of Maltese Catholics say they still pray every day could point to society having less time for mass rather than a widespread loss of religiosity 

Mass attendance might be down, but Malta certainly hasn't lost its Catholic identity
Mass attendance might be down, but Malta certainly hasn't lost its Catholic identity

Today, 10th February, Malta marks the celebration of the feast of St Paul’s shipwreck, which is said to have marked the beginning of the country’s long-standing devotion to Christianity.

As stated in the Acts of the Apostles, around 60 AD, Paul the Apostle was on his way to Rome from Jerusalem, when a storm blew the vessel he was on towards Maltese shores.

The welcome given to the shipwreck’s survivors was recorded in the Bible as having been a kind one. And yet, one Muslim invasion later, and 2,000 years down the line from the historical advent of Malta’s national saint, why are the Maltese no longer the devoted Catholics they were just a few decades ago? And is the Christian faith in Malta at its weakest, with a Church census carried out in December 2017 revealing that only 36% of Catholics obliged to attend Sunday Mass were doing so?

The Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck parish priest, Vincent Borg, remains positive about Maltese people’s dedication to their religion. He has reason to be satisfied: his parish registered a 38.4% attendance rate according to the census, slightly higher than the country’s average of 36.1%. Yet his explanation for Mass attendances is rather prosaic: saying the church’s location impacts the attendance, since it is located on steep hills, with very narrow pavements leading up to the church. “So elderly people with mobility difficulties would rather attend Mass at the Basilica of St Dominic,” he remarked.

“On the other hand, on Saturdays and Sundays, we welcome a lot of people from other parishes.”

Godsend? After his shipwreck in Malta, St Paul casts a viper into the fire, confirming his protection from the snake's venom thanks to his faith
Godsend? After his shipwreck in Malta, St Paul casts a viper into the fire, confirming his protection from the snake's venom thanks to his faith

Fr Borg said the church is also proud of being quite popular with government workers, which abound in Valletta, and who tend to attend the 1.30pm Mass during the week. “We regularly have employees who work but don’t live in Valletta, attending Mass here.”

Asked if the decrease in attendance is a reflection of changing attitudes amongst the people, or some form of shortcoming in the Church, Borg said it was a mixture of both. “If parents don’t take the initiative to bring their children to Mass, they will not come over alone, and I stress this point during First Communions,” he said.

On the other hand, the priest celebrating Mass has to be concise and his sermons must relate to the people he is addressing. “The Pope, for example, has said that a seven-minute sermon is enough, and priests have to start abiding by such guidelines if we want attendance to increase.”

Borg also argued that attendance is affected by the people’s perception of certain priests, with some opting to avoid attending during an older priest’s Mass celebration.

Changing realities

Fr Gorg Dalli, who celebrates Mass at the Attard parish – and is a former parish priest in Swieqi – said the decline in attendance was a result of changing times. “I believe that it’s the reality we are living in, and it would be useless to start pointing fingers here and there,” Dalli said.

He said he hoped the census would serve as an eye-opener for the Church, in an effort for it to realise what is causing the decline.

Dalli believes that the Church should become more accepting of the various people who form our society. “The Church should be letting people in, not pushing people out. And the Church in Malta should follow Pope Francis’s message of loving people and spreading a positive message.”

Catholic Voices Malta co-ordinator Tonio Fenech, the former MP, also asserted that the social realities of today had to be factored in when taking stock of the declining Mass attendance figures. “Our way of life today puts pressure on families. Unfortunately, people are very busy these days, going from one thing to another, and they might not always find time for Mass,” Fenech said.

However, the former PN finance minister pointed out that not all the findings of the census – of which the Mass attendance census was only part – were negative, or necessarily indicated that people were becoming less religious.

Former Minister and Catholic Voices coordinator Tonio Fenech
Former Minister and Catholic Voices coordinator Tonio Fenech

“I think we need to look more holistically at the statistics which emerged in the survey, and not just the census on attendance,” Fenech said, “For instance, figures from the survey show that 92% of people residing in Malta declared that they were Catholic.”

Fenech also quoted figures related to the importance people felt religion had in their lives, pointing out that 66% said it was very important, 27% said it was important, and only 8% gave it little or no importance.

Moreover, the survey showed that around 70% of Maltese people prayed every day, he said. “So, rather than just focusing on declining Mass attendance, the Church needs to look at the way people are choosing to live their spirituality,” he said. “It now has to face the challenge of understanding people within the societal framework of our times, and seeing how it can reach them.”

Fenech added, however, that one of the aims of Christianity was to help us make a positive difference in society. “So, what is a bit worrying is what some of the census statistics might mean for us, heading into the future.”

From way of life to totem of identity

Church attendance may have dropped from 51% in 2005 to just 36% now, but a survey published concurrently with the census also shows that 92% of Maltese still identify themselves as Catholics. Only 5% say they are atheists or agnostics.

Additionally, 54% of Catholics said they had attended Mass the previous Sunday, a figure which contrasts with the 36% recorded by the census. A MaltaToday survey in 2016 had also put Mass attendance at 55%.

Researchers explain this discrepancy by citing social desirability bias: a tendency of survey respondents to answer questions in a manner that will be viewed favourably by others.

This suggests that a significant number of those not attending Mass still consider their absence as inappropriate. In short: they may not be attending Mass but still think they should.

The overall picture emerging from surveys, including those conducting by MaltaToday over the past decade, is that a large segment of the Maltese population is composed of non-practising Catholics who have not cut the umbilical cord with the Church. These surveys suggest a “pick and choose” attitude towards religious dogma and practice.

A survey carried out before the divorce referendum in 2010 showed over 90% of the Maltese believing in God and following the Roman Catholic religion. The survey also showed an absolute majority of Maltese (93%) agreed with the exhibition of religious symbols like the crucifix in public buildings.

Not everyone might lead a religious lifestyle, but the vast majority certainly still identify as Catholic
Not everyone might lead a religious lifestyle, but the vast majority certainly still identify as Catholic

In 2016 another survey showed that the vast majority (95%) of Maltese think that newspapers should not be allowed to publish cartoons ‘making fun’ of religious figures.

In 2017 an overwhelming 87% also expressed the view that Roman Catholicism should remain Malta’s official religion.

On this front, nothing has changed. In 2018 a whopping 93.9% of people still identified themselves as Catholic.

Moreover 88.8% of Maltese were against the removal from the Constitution of Catholicism as Malta’s official religion. An even stronger majority was against the removal of the crucifix from public buildings such as schools.

Bur even as early as 2010, before the watershed referendum on divorce, a majority was already departing from the Catholic Church’s teachings on contraception, divorce, papal infallibility and the afterlife.

For example, only 22% of the Maltese and 12% of under-35s agreed with the Church’s ban on artificial contraception. As regards sex before marriage, the survey showed a clear split between different age groups. While 50.4% of all respondents think that sex before or outside marriage is always wrong, 66% of under-35s disagree with this outright ban.

And while abortion has remained taboo in all surveys conducted by MaltaToday, a survey carried out in 2016 showed widespread agreement with euthanasia in those cases where the patient suffers from a terminal illness and unbearable pain. Among 18- to 34-year olds, 65% of them agree with the right to die in this specific circumstance.

This suggests that in a time of change, Catholicism is morphing into a totem of identity as opposed to a way of life. The risk of this is that religion becomes more detached from the actual teachings of the Church, not just when it comes to moral issues but also when it comes to values like solidarity and social justice. For example, a survey held in 2017 showed 46% of the Maltese would like the Maltese Church to speak less in favour of accepting migrants. That’s where the trouble starts.

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