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The Church in Malta has a brave and tough new leader

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta (CNS)

The recent appointment by the Pope of Mgr Charles Scicluna to be the new Archbishop of Malta is very good news for the Church in Malta, and for Catholics everywhere.

The Maltese Islands are, as everyone knows, small, just under a hundred square miles in area, but they punch far above their weight in Catholic terms. The Maltese Church has long been a missionary Church, and Maltese religious and priests are active all over the globe. There have been several distinguished leaders of the Maltese Church to date.

The first holder of the see was St Publius, formerly chief man of the island, whose domus became the site of the Cathedral in Mdina, and who was converted to the faith by St Paul. What we know for sure about Publius is told in the final chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, in ten glorious and beautiful verses…

Once we had reached safety we learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us extraordinary hospitality; they lit a fire and welcomed all of us because it had begun to rain and was cold. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire when a viper, escaping from the heat, fastened on his hand. When the natives saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘This man must certainly be a murderer; though he escaped the sea, Justice has not let him remain alive.’ But he shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or suddenly to fall down dead but, after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god. In the vicinity of that place were lands belonging to a man named Publius, the chief of the island. He welcomed us and received us cordially as his guests for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius was sick with a fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and, after praying, laid his hands on him and healed him. After this had taken place, the rest of the sick on the island came to Paul and were cured. They paid us great honour and when we eventually set sail they brought us the provisions we needed.

The image of a snake escaping from a bundle of burning twigs remains the symbol of the diocese of Malta, and can be seen in the apse of the Cathedral; the painting in the apse represents the shipwreck of St Paul, that single most important event in Maltese history. Given that St Publius was a most hospitable man, it is ironic that he was martyred by the Romans by being thrown to the lions. He is always depicted in cope and mitre, carrying his crozier, while a lion sinks its teeth into him through his episcopal vestments.

In considering previous bishops of Malta, one can hardly overlook the great Mgr Michael Gonzi, who ruled the archdiocese when I was a child, and who was the first to be ranked as Archbishop (before then the Bishops of Malta were also titular Archbishops of Rhodes, and known, at least to pedants, as ‘Bishop-Archbishop’.) Mgr Gonzi was a tiny little man, about the same stature as myself when I was ten years old, but he had enormous dignity, and he was treated with huge reverence and respect. He was well into his nineties when he relinquished office. The colonial powers reckoned Mgr Gonzi to be a power in the land to rival themselves, and they knighted him; he was a considerable thorn in the side of various governments after independence. He would have made a wonderful Cardinal, but sadly that was never to be.

Mgr Scicluna will be more of a St Publius than a Mgr Gonzi, in that he will not be treated with the same awed reverence in which Gonzi was held. In Roman times being made a bishop was a virtual death sentence; nowadays, even in Malta, it is an honour, but one fraught with difficulties. But Mgr Scicluna is well placed for the task ahead. He is a scholar and a gentleman, but perhaps more than either of those, he is a born leader.

At a time of crisis in leadership in both Church and the world, Charles Scicluna has shown himself to be both brave and tough. As the Vatican’s chief prosecutor in matter of child protection, when working for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he more of less single-handedly (it must have felt like that some of the time) took on the consensus that child abuse was not a problem, and shattered that consensus. Above all, Mgr Scicluna argued for accountability from bishops, a concept that to some seemed revolutionary. Well, in that the revolution has taken place, and that bishops are now accountable, we should all be grateful to Charles Scicluna. That there has been progress is undeniable; and that progress owes much to the new Archbishop of Malta.

The Church in Malta now has a world class bishop to lead it. Some said, when he was sent home to Malta from Rome to be auxiliary bishop, that Mgr Scicluna was being demoted, and that hose who had protected abusers in the Vatican were getting their revenge. They will not say that now, one hopes. Moreover, he is still young, in ecclesiastical terms, and perhaps in a decade or so he may be back in Rome leading a major Roman dicastery.