A Catholic Nation Hangs in the Balance

Pope Benedict calls Malta back to its roots.

Fourteen nations render special recognition to the Catholic faith in their constitutions, and an additional five declare Catholicism to be their official religion. Three of the five—Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, and Monaco—permit abortion in some circumstances, and divorce is readily available in all three; apart from Vatican City, Malta is the only Catholic nation that makes no provision for either. A United Nations report notes:

Under the Criminal Code of Malta, abortion is prohibited in all circumstances. The person performing the abortion is subject to 18 months’ to three years’ imprisonment, as is a woman who performs an abortion on herself or consents to its performance. A physician, surgeon, obstetrician, or apothecary who performs an abortion is subject to eighteen months’ to four years’ imprisonment and lifelong prohibition from exercising his or her profession.

Likewise, while Maltese law permits separation and annulments, divorce does not exist.

“The religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion,” declares the Maltese constitution, adopted in 1964 upon independence from Great Britain. “The authorities of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church have the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong. Religious teaching of the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith shall be provided in all state schools as part of compulsory education.” At the same time, all Maltese “have full freedom of conscience and enjoy the free exercise of their respective mode of religious worship.”

According to the latest Vatican statistics, Malta has 418,000 Catholics who worship in 85 parishes. There are 853 priests, 1,082 women religious, and 269 minor seminarians. There are also 91 major seminarians, and the ratio of major seminarians to Catholics is among the highest in Europe—five times higher than Germany’s, six times higher than Ireland’s, and eight times higher than France’s.

“Catholicism in Malta is deeply rooted in popular culture and owes a lot of its remarkable vitality to it,” says Dr. Joe Friggieri, head of the philosophy department at the University of Malta. “For centuries before Vatican II, people from all walks of life felt that the Church belonged to them as much as they belonged to it. Up to this very day, when you ask people where they come from, the first thing they mention after giving you the name of their locality will almost always be the name of its patron saint.”

“The Church has been and continues to be the center of social activity, an important part of identity and daily life,” adds Dr. Uwe Rudolf, a professor at Luther College in Iowa and coauthor of The Historical Dictionary of Malta. “Bus drivers adorn their buses with images of Jesus and Mary. The isolation and hardscrabble existence on an island without resources explain much of it.”

The Church has “contributed greatly toward the building up of a national identity that has withstood any danger of being assimilated by the long line of foreign occupiers and political rulers that succeeded each other throughout Maltese history,” says Father Paul Chetcuti, the nation’s Jesuit provincial and spiritual director of Catholic Action. “It was the Church that in practice provided most of the social, educational, and communal services throughout the centuries, right up to relatively recent times. The figure of the priest was not simply that of a spiritual leader, but also of a community leader and builder, hence his status and importance. This has determined for many years the great number of vocations.”

Family life and education also contribute greatly to the vitality of the Church. “Families are comparably stronger than in other countries and closely knit to their extended families, who usually are a very positive support,” says Msgr. Anthony Gouder, the Archdiocese of Malta’s pro vicar general. “All education in Malta from kindergarten to post-secondary is Catholic education, which in turn is complemented with catechesis in parishes.”

“A Catholic upbringing, families who give a Catholic witness to their children, the care of the parishes, the witness by example of so many saintly priests and religious people, the contribution of Catholic movements and organizations, and the incessant work of vocational promotion are God’s tools which help in nurturing God’s call in the hearts of generous people,” adds Brian Gialanze, president of the University of Malta’s Theology Students Association.


Malta’s Catholic character hangs in the balance, however, as many of the nation’s citizens, especially youth, abandon the practice of the faith. “There is a big difference between nominal Catholicism and Catholic observance,” notes Dr. Roger Balm, undergraduate director of Rutgers University’s geography department and author of the 1996 book Malta. “My view, having lived in and researched Malta, is that the Maltese are strong in the former, but much less strong in the latter.”

Sunday Mass attendance rates on the island of Malta slid from 82 percent in 1967 to 73 percent in 1982 before falling to 51 percent in 2005. On the smaller island of Gozo, which is also part of the nation, Mass attendance fell from 97 percent in 1982 to 82 percent in 2005.

“The traditional Catholic family is fast becoming a thing of the past,” adds Father Chetcuti. “Family break-ups, sadly, are more and more frequent. Divorce is very much on the agenda, even if it is still not officially and legally adopted. Cohabitation is increasing. Teenage pregnancies, as well as children born out of wedlock to single parents, are increasing dramatically.”

Father Joseph Ellul, professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology at the University of Malta, concurs. “In the next few years the Church in Malta will have to face the same challenges that European societies have faced for the past 50 years or more: the challenge of divorce (which is now becoming increasingly a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if,’ given the fact that both political parties have agreed to discuss the issue), the challenge of cohabitation, of same-sex marriages, of adoptions by parents of the same sex.”

“Public opinion on the introduction of divorce is nearly 50/50,” observes Dr. Roderick Pace, director of the University of Malta’s European Documentation and Research Center. Priestly vocations have declined recently, and will decline in the future because of a “shrinking cohort of young people, declining family unity characterized by increasing trends in the number of separations and marriage annulments, and declining vitality of lay religious organizations.”

Such lay organizations are an important source of priestly vocations, observes Father Paul Galea, deputy dean of the University of Malta’s theology faculty. While only 34 percent of Malta’s seminarians have served as altar boys, 67 percent were active in the Society of Christian Doctrine (MUSEUM), the Legion of Mary, or Catholic Action, and another 11 percent were active in the charismatic movement, according to his research.

“Secular trends are increasing and this is unmistakable,” Dr. Pace adds. “The number of people favoring samesex marriage is increasing, particularly among the younger generations. Sexual mores are changing. Agnosticism and indifference are increasing.”

Increasing affluence and the secularizing influence of other nations—Malta joined the European Union in 2004— also pose challenges. “The newly acquired economic affluence is creating a looser sense of community and social cohesion,” observes Father Chetcuti. “Individualism is fast increasing, and hence traditional Christian values of solidarity, accountability, and honesty are fast disappearing.” “The promise given by the European Union on the eve of Malta’s entry that legislation on the introduction of divorce and abortion is left to the single member states to decide has proved to be nothing less than an illusion,” notes Father Ellul. “Pressure is mounting from bodies of the European Union in subtle and in not-so-subtle ways.”

The Church in Malta, as in many other Western nations, is suffering from the self-inflicted wound of clerical abuse. “A significant number of alleged sexual abuse cases among the clergy constitutes a real danger of undermining the traditional trust of the population in the ministers of the Church,” says Father Chetcuti. “The greatest challenge is the Church’s own credibility and standing, damaged as they have been by the well-publicized pedophile cases in many countries and in Malta,” adds Dr. Pace.

Despite these challenges, a Catholic culture remains deeply ingrained among younger citizens. “I’m not a practicing Catholic, I must admit, but I’ve always felt a bit like a fish out of water simply because even in the younger generation there is what I describe as still a great recognition of the Church as central to the Maltese way of life,” says Dr. Maria Attard, director of the University of Malta’s Institute for Sustainable Development.


In this context, Pope Benedict made a pilgrimage to Malta on April 17 and 18 to commemorate the 1,950th anniversary of St. Paul’s shipwreck there. The Apostle to the Gentiles stayed there for three months, beginning the evangelization of a people whose Catholic identity would endure during rule by Muslims, Napoleon, and the British.

The Pontiff’s 14th apostolic journey outside Italy began with a warm welcome by President George Abela, who affirmed Malta’s commitment toCatholic morality while referring to clerical abuse scandals making headlines throughout Europe. St. Paul’sshipwreck “gave Malta a new identity: a Christian identity which gradually replaced the pagan, polytheistic culture [with] a Christian one,” the president noted, adding:

Today, we face the wave of secularism which has as its starting point the strict separation of Church and state: a laicist model advocating that the state should be strictly separate from religion, which is conceived as belonging exclusively to the private domain. This profane character which has developed in some European states is driving people to be laicist or even anti-Christian. However, as we all know or as we all should know, the moral foundations of a society as a whole, comprising believers, agnostics, or atheists, are better served not with the falling away from religion but with the reinvigoration of the moral consciousness of the state.…

It would be wrong in my view to try to use the reprehensible indiscretions of the few to cast a shadow on the Church as a whole. The Catholic Church remains committed to safeguarding children and all vulnerable people and to seeing that there is no hiding place for those who seek to do harm.…

We acknowledge that our Maltese family is undergoing rapid social changes and challenges, greatly influenced by current Westernworld lifestyles and the ever-increasing secularization of the Maltese society. But the majority of our people still believe in monogamous marriage, based on the relationship between a man and a woman, open to the procreation of children, and consequently to the formation of a family as the bedrock of our nation.…We are against human trafficking and cherish the sanctity of human life from its conception to its natural end.

Thanking the president for his speech, Pope Benedict noted that Malta has for millennia served as the crossroads of the Mediterranean and thus “has much to contribute to questions as diverse as tolerance, reciprocity, immigration, and other issues crucial to the future of this continent. Your nation should continue to stand up for the indissolubility of marriage as a natural institution as well as a sacramental one, and for the true nature of the family, just as it does for the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death and for the proper respect owed to religious freedom.” In a reference to medieval Islamic expansionism, the Pontiff also recalled that “Malta contributed so much to the defense of Christianity by land and by sea.”

The Pope then paid a courtesy visit to the president in Valletta, the nation’s capital. Five thousand children greeted him, singing “Happy birthday” in four languages the day after the Holy Father turned 83.

Later that evening, Pope Benedict traveled to the village of Rabat, where he prayed at St. Paul’s Grotto. “From this holy place where the apostolic preaching first spread throughout these islands, I call upon each of you to take up the exciting challenge of the new evangelization,” he said. “Live out your faith ever more fully with the members of your families, with your friends, in your neighborhoods, in the workplace, and in the whole fabric of Maltese society.… In this way, you will introduce the young to the beauty and richness of the Catholic faith, and offer them a sound catechesis, inviting them to ever more active participation in the sacramental life of the Church.”

The following morning, Pope Benedict offered Sunday Mass in the town of Floriana’s Granaries Square, so called because of the 76 underground silos designed to help the island weather Islamic sieges. The Mass, offered in Latin, included Gregorian chant, with the readings and some prayers in Maltese. Pope Benedict urged the crowd of 50,000 to remain faithful to the Church, catechize the young, and recognize their dependence upon God.

“Not everything that today’s world proposes is worthy of acceptance by the people of Malta,” he said. “Many voices try to persuade us to put aside our faith in God and his Church, and to choose for ourselves the values and beliefs by which to live. They tell us we have no need of God or the Church.”

Like St. Paul, the Pope continued, “we too must place our trust in [God] alone. It is tempting to think that today’s advanced technology can answer all our needs and save us from all the perils and dangers that beset us. But it is not so. At every moment of our lives we depend entirely on God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Only he can protect us from harm, only he can guide us through the storms of life, only he can bring us to a safe haven, as he did for Paul and his companions adrift off the coast of Malta.”

Following the Mass, the Pontiff presented a golden rose to the image of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu, a focal point of the nation’s Marian devotion since the late 19th century.


Returning to the nunciature in Rabat, Pope Benedict held an unscheduled meeting with eight victims of clerical abuse. “It has been indeed a most beautiful gift: after all this suffering, we have all wept, the Pope has also wept,” said 38-year-old victim Joseph Magro. Recounting the details of his abuse as a teenager at a Catholic orphanage—he was threatened with expulsion if he did not submit—Mr. Magro told Il Giornale that “I did not have any more faith in priests. Now, after this moving experience that has happened to me, I am beginning to hope again. You in Italy have a saint. Do you understand? You have a saint.”

“When I said to him my name is Joseph, the Pope’s eyes grew wide: ‘Joseph like me!’ I asked, ‘Why did the priest do this to me, why did he abuse me?’ He answered that he prays for me, and we prayed together.” The Pontiff, he added, “felt great sorrow. One could see that he was suffering with me. I did not want to make him suffer, I did not tell him about the abuses that I had experienced, but he wept with me, although he had no guilt in what happened.”

Later that afternoon, Pope Benedict traveled to the Port of Valletta to address a crowd of 10,000 young people. Emphasizing that the moral law is an expression of God’s love, he said:

Maybe some of you will say to me, St. Paul is often severe in his writings. How can I say that he was spreading a message of love? My answer is this. God loves every one of us with a depth and intensity that we can hardly begin to imagine. And he knows us intimately, he knows all our strengths and all our faults. Because he loves us so much, he wants to purify us of our faults and build up our virtues so that we can have life in abundance. When he challenges us because something in our lives is displeasing to him, he is not rejecting us, but he is asking us to change and become more perfect. That is what he asked of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. God rejects no one. And the Church rejects no one. Yet in his great love, God challenges all of us to change and to become more perfect.

“Here in Malta, you live in a society that is steeped in Christian faith and values,” the Pontiff continued. “You should be proud that your country both defends the unborn and promotes stable family life by saying no to abortion and divorce. I urge you to maintain this courageous witness to the sanctity of life and the centrality of marriage and family life for a healthy society. In Malta and Gozo, families know how to value and care for their elderly and infirm members, and they welcome children as gifts from God. Other nations can learn from your Christian example.”

Pope Benedict then traveled to the airport, where President Abela delivered a gracious farewell address. “Your blessings have fortified our faith, your gentle manners and kind words have warmed our hearts, your fatherly concern for our youth has endeared you to them, your inspired teaching has helped us all to understand better the beauty of Christian charity,” Abela said. “Your presence among us and your traveling through our parishes, as the Vicar of Christ and Successor of Peter, will continue to enrich our lives and hopefully make us better Christians and better citizens.”

Thanking the president for his gracious words, Pope Benedict urged one of the world’s last officially Catholic nations to “be an example, at home and abroad, of dynamic Christian living. Be proud of your Christian vocation. Cherish your religious and cultural heritage. Look to the future with hope, with profound respect for God’s creation, with reverence for human life, and with high esteem for marriage and the integrity of the family! Be worthy sons and daughters of St. Paul!”

Addressing the thorny issue of immigration, Pope Benedict added that

many immigrants arrive on Malta’s shores, some fleeing from situations of violence and persecution, others in search of better conditions of life. I am aware of the difficulties that welcoming a large number of people may cause, difficulties which cannot be solved by any country of first arrival on its own. At the same time, I am also confident that, on the strength of its Christian roots and its long and proud history of welcoming strangers, Malta will endeavor, with the support of other states and international organizations, to come to the aid of those who arrive here and to ensure that their rights be respected.

“Never allow your true identity to be compromised by indifferentism or relativism,” he concluded. “May you always remain faithful to the teaching of St. Paul, who exhorts you to ‘be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.’”

What surprised the Maltese most about the Pontiff’s visit, says Father Ellul, was “not so much what he said as the way he related to those whom he encountered, especially the young people. Before his arrival there were many who thought of him as being distant and unable to communicate on a personal level. Those who were present wherever he spoke, even people who saw him fleetingly, have admitted that they underwent a profound spiritual experience. He looked in their eyes and spoke to their hearts. The people saw him for who he really is: an intensely spiritual man of God who radiates empathy and compassion.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.