Father Prospero, possibly the most intelligent man alive, is to become Malta’s second ever cardinal

The list of new cardinals, published last week, has garnered a fair amount of comment about who is in, and who should have been in, but wasn’t. My eye was caught by two names, both of men over 80, and who therefore will never vote in a conclave, but who have been raised to the purple honoris causa.

The first is Fr Karl Becker, SJ, who taught for many years at the Gregorian University in Rome. I have never exchanged a word with him, but I sat through his course on Grace. One thing Fr Becker said made a great impression on me, namely that the glory of God consists in his moral splendour. (In fact I find that I have quoted Fr Becker before now.)

There is an appreciation of Fr Becker’s theology by some of his Jesuit colleagues here.

The second name that caught my eye is that of Fr Prosper Grech, of the Augustinian Order, also for many years a distinguished professor in Rome, who taught Biblical hermeneutics at the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

When I was a small child, living in Malta, we had a great family friend in Nigel Dennis.

Nigey, as he was always known, has been dead for almost a quarter of a century, but the memory of his kindness and goodness remain vivid. He was one of two family friends who had written books, and was therefore surrounded by an aura – for in those days authors, as they were called, were held in high regard. At that time he was the chief book reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph; when I wrote my very first attempt at fiction, he was kind enough to look at it and give an encouraging judgment.

Nigel was the author of several acclaimed novels, one of which, Cards of Identity, was a huge success on publication and has been re-released in the last decade.

But to get back to the new cardinals. Some 20 years ago, when I was going to Rome to study for the priesthood, Nigel’s widow said to me: “You must go and see a great friend of ours. He was the first Maltese we ever met. He is, Nigey used to say, the most intelligent man alive.” So I did. The person in question was of course Father Prospero (as he is usually called).

Nigel Dennis, a scholar and a gentleman, had great judgement, it seems to me. I know other people who know Father Prospero, and they too speak warmly about his human qualities. And now the Holy Father has added his accolade.

Father Prospero will be only the second Maltese cardinal in history. The first, for those who are interested, was a Cardinal Testaferrata, a member of the prominent noble family of that name, who had a career in the papal diplomatic service in the early 19th century. When you consider how much Malta has given to the Church, it is amazing that until now it has only produced one cardinal. Now, with the elevation of Father Prospero, a historical wrong is on the way to being righted.