Malta diary: Awaiting Pope Benedict
Last year Lady Gaga – a pop singer with a penchant for outrageous outfits and bizarre expressions – drew some 40,000 people to the Granaries in Floriana, a town outside Valetta. This year, Pope Benedict – on his first Papal visit since reports of clerical child abuse began to surface in January – is expected to draw only 30,000 people in Europe’s most Catholic country.
The tide of secularisation is washing up on the shores of the Pauline island. And 1,950 years after St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, the successor of Peter is no longer assured a wholly positive welcome when he lands later today.
Much has been made of the fact that some of the posters announcing Pope Benedict’s visit were defaced with Hitler moustaches and obscene graffiti. Like the rest of the world, Malta has been rocked by its own cases of clerical child abuse and the victims (10 men who say they were abused by priests) demand an audience with the Pope. Malta’s bishops have condemned the abuse of children by priests and a senior Maltese Vatican official has said he will meet with the victims in June.
A day ahead of the Papal visit, we tour around the island. Our guide, Clive, dismisses the graffiti on the papal posters and billboards. “It shows that we are liberal here on Malta,” he says with a shrug.
There are Papal flags hanging along Maltese flags in the streets of Rabat, home to the Grotto of St Paul and the seminary where Pope Benedict will be staying during his 24 hour visit,Posters of the Holy Father decorate the windows of the loggias facing the streets in Rabat, historic Mdina, Floriana and Valletta. In St Julian, the part of the island which hosts the casinos, five-star hotels, the nightlife and much of the tourism, it is less evident that we are on the eve of the Pope’s visit in an ultra-Catholic country.
But it is clear also, from conversations with Clive, that the times are changing. Catholicism is an ever more cultural phenomenon. Young people, he says, are still attached to their village church, which is still the centre of social life in the towns, where the young meet. He talks about the customs of Malta, where villagers belong to different clubs which compete to have the most elaborate processions on the feast days of their patron saints, which he says is still very much alive. He says the young however have different interests and that they were not attending Mass as much as they used to. While Malta still has one of the highest pro capita Mass attendance rates in Europe with something like 50 per cent of the population attending, this is a far cry from the levels of Mass attendance 30 years ago. The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen Jr unpacks the stats and the changing attitudes to Catholicism in an extensive article here.
It is nine years since 2001 when Pope John Paul II beatified Fr George Preca, Ignatius Falzon, and Sister Maria Adeodata Pisani in Floriana. At the time he said: “At the dawn of a new millennium, the Church looks to you, Malta, to be still more ardent in living your apostolic and missionary vocation! The whole Church looks to you!”
At the home of the Society for Christian Doctrine, founded by St George Preca, one of the lay members of the society explains that in Malta more and more young people are leaving the Church.
Ahead of the Pope’s visit he sounds a cautious note. Would there be lots of people turning up at the Mass on Sunday in Floriana, did he think?
He says: “Yes, but fewer than did for Pope John Paul II. But I think there will be many people. They weren’t that for the visit to begin with but enthusiasm has been growing slowly. You know, the Pope is a gentle and wise man, but public perception has been quite negative. But hopefully people are getting excited about the visit.
The whole Church looks to Malta this weekend to see what it will bring.