Before the recent election, for the first time, the bishops of Malta and Gozo decided not to publish a pastoral letter or statement guiding the electorate.
In such statements, bishops from around the world reflect on the state of the country and, basing themselves on the Word of God and the social teachings of the Church, give a word of advice to the voters. The statements of the French bishops before the April election, the Australians before the May election and the Colombian bishops before the June run-off are three recent examples.
The Australians, for example, called for a new social contract and asked voters to insist on a “just, human and timely system for assessing claims for asylum” and give importance to the “care of the earth” and “the cry of the poor”.
In their 60-page statement published in January, the French bishops discussed seven themes, including the full inclusion of people with disabilities and migrants, while urging the French to set out on a path of ecological conversion and emphasising the importance of voting.
The Colombian bishops advised people to vote with their minds, not hearts and to base their vote on the common good.
I do not know why our bishops gave the election pastoral letter a miss, so I will not speculate. However, it would be enlightening if they inform us of the rationale of their decision.
Neither caring nor compassionate?
The point of this piece is not about their decision but people’s reaction. Practically no one I spoke to noticed that there was no election pastoral letter and hardly anyone cared. This development is in itself a very significant one. It could be a sign, among many, of the loss of social significance of the Church. It could be a sign that most people do not care for the Church’s guidance on political issues, even those having an onerous moral dimension.
The role of the Church in the public square changed radically.
Take the abortion and other debates. Words expressing core Christian attitudes – for example ‘compassion’ and ‘caring’ – have been usurped from the Church and are now copiously present in the media to criticise the Church as uncaring, not compassionate and hard-hearted! Being pro-life will soon be projected by the secularising media as being pro-abortion! (I will discuss the secularising role of the media some other time.)
It is unwise that the Church does not have a coordinated communications strategy to manage the challenges and possibilities presented by the current media environment.
The Archdiocese of Malta should say a mea culpa for repeatedly reneging on its several commitments since the Diocesan Synod of the early 2000s to set up a collegial structure responsible for the designing and execution of a communications strategy. The archdiocese’s allergy to group-decision making is strange, particularly in the era of synodality.
Revisionism should be an anathema
More serious than the loss of social significance is the loss of religious significance. Many feel that they can pick and choose what to believe or not from the Church’s doctrine, moral teachings and religious practice. Living together before marriage, for example, is becoming the norm. Mass attendance not only took a nose-dive during COVID-19 but the televising of Mass fostered the idea of worship without a community, thus pushing forward a privatised form of religious worship.
I do not know why our bishops gave the election pastoral letter a miss so I will not speculate– Fr Joe Borg
We priests are also to blame for this situation as, for many years, we projected Christianity as a do-this-don’t-do that religion, denuding it of the immense relevance for day-to-day living of the basic Christian dogmas of God as Trinity, God as incarnate and God as our nourishment in the Eucharist.
Pope Francis rightly told the Milan seminary instructors that: “Sometimes the sermons or catechesis we hear are mostly composed of moralism and are not ‘theological’ enough.”
Many preach and practise what the pope described in his Ta’ Pinu homily as a faith made up of received traditions, solemn celebrations and popular festivals.
Some believe that the solution for the current crisis is striving to return to a mythical golden age of Catholicism, which, in fact, never existed.
Pope Francis strongly criticises restorationist groups for calling themselves guardians of traditions which are dead traditions. In a June 1 address to Catholic educators, he said that failing to move forward is dangerous for the Church today.
“This ‘back-stepping’ makes us a sect; it makes us ‘closed’ and cuts off our horizons”, he added.
On June 9, in his inimitable way, Francis chided Sicilian clergy for their conservatism and resistance to the Vatican II reforms by a paternal jibe at their ‘Baroque liturgical fashion’. He said that, sometimes, it is appropriate to use grandma’s lace to pay her homage.
“It’s good to honour grandma but it’s better to celebrate the mother, Holy Mother Church, and how Mother Church wants to be celebrated.”
He drummed in his criticism of their conservative attitudes, upping the ante by faulting their homiletic styles.
The local conservative lobby, including priests, congregated on Facebook to ridicule the pope, thus showing how much the restorationist mentality is alive and kicking in Malta.
The option of glorifying the past by, metaphorically, parading in grandma’s lace, leads to a dead end. The Church can, on the other hand, find strength in the certitude that today the Spirit is still hovering over what we sometimes judge to be formless and dark waters (Gen 1, 2).
Only if the Church takes this second option it will become the Church presented by Francis in his homily at Ta’ Pinu. There he presented his vision of the Church as a community which is “never merely ‘a past to remember’ but one that has a ‘great future to build’”.
Catholics should strive to be part of that future.
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