MaltaToday interview: Fr George Dalli
INTERVIEW | Sunday, 23 December 2007

The one who became a priest

Fr George Dalli is a familiar face on TV, and he is also known for being the brother of Nationalist MP John Dalli. But it was his ‘innovative’ approach to religion which won him strong support from the l-Ibrag community, and it doesn’t seem to have left him yet

Fr George Dalli is a familiar face for the l-Ibrag parish. His altercation with the former Bishop over what some decried was a more inclusive and liberal doctrine, but which critics said clashed with common dogma, marks a similarity with his brother John: the Nationalist MP whose resignation from the Cabinet haunted his career and the Nationalist administration right up to just a few weeks ago.
Spending nine years in a sort of ecclesiastical “wilderness”, George Dalli bore the brunt of his innovative approach to the parish but emerges from it seemingly unscathed. A regular face on television, he is not one to shy away from what are ‘controversial’ themes in terms of Catholic teaching. He is also someone who fully understands the reality of the secular state – very much like being one half of the Dalli sibling duo who have been parcelled neatly, one under the command of Caesar, and the other under that of God.
And because of this relation, listening to George Dalli’s childhood reminiscences and the hardship of family life in 1960s Qormi also sheds light on the humble background of John Dalli, who as finance minister would conceptually contribute to the widening of the middle class base that marked the Nationalist administration of the 1990s.
George Dalli left school at an early age, 11, deciding to push his father, whom he describes as “somewhat limited” in capabilities, to go into business with a coffee house down at the Marsa port. Circumstances almost convinced him that his life would be consigned to waiting tables despite his early vocation and desire to become a member of the priesthood.
“When my dad fell ill, I had to leave school completely, taking up the business, opening up the shop – I was still a kid and Guzeppi, a man who used to work nearby, would have to open the shop for me because the muftieh (key) was too big.
“Although the business thrived, I knew my vocation to become a priest was still alive in me, and I often told John this. I would tell him it’s an impossible dream because I had stopped school and I had no education. But John told me that I could still study by correspondence. So in 1967, I started a correspondence course with the British Tutorial Institute. I still worked in the shop, and John and the family would come in and help. But all in all, we were a poor family.”
It’s a kind of reality that seems unimaginable for generations who might consider the 1960s to have been relatively prosperous, given the boom in the newly independent Malta of those days. But Dalli is clear that it was a real kind of poverty, as he calls it, one in which destiny had you born in one of either two classes, poor or rich.
“Poverty back then simply meant asking your mother for another piece of bread which she didn’t have. Being six or seven years of age and having to go to sweep the barber’s floor for a shilling, or even wash somebody’s house,” Dalli says from his own recollection of his childhood. “At the end of every week, we would gather all our earnings, and maybe pay some 60c for a piece of meat that would serve us for the next week. I would pay three pence to get a piece of animal fat, which we would eat with salt and bread. There was no middle class, to put it simply – you were either poor or well-off. It was a life of drudgery, but then again, one of happiness as well.”
His vocation lived on with him despite the fact that up until 1967, Dalli was waiting at tables and serving to food to workers at the Marsa port: an unlikely setting perhaps for somebody with a desire to serve God as a priest.
“How do I explain the desire to become a priest? It was just there. That’s why I believe God called me to become a priest, and it’s because I believe in this very call, that it’s the reason I became a priest, which made me stay a priest. Living a vocation is never easy. Any vocation, even that of marriage.
“When I finally managed to get my three O-levels, which was the springboard to getting further academic requirements for entry into university, I went to the seminary to enter the priesthood. But instead the rector told me: ‘As if anybody from down at the port enters the seminary…’ – it was usually sixth formers, kids from the seminary itself and others who had completed their education who became priests.
“It was a culture shock going to university – I had to ask a friend to show me how to take books out of the library. I was sitting for exams for the first time; it was a bit daunting. But if you really want to achieve something and you dedicate your energy to it, you can achieve it. Today, my life and the priesthood are one, and whatever I do is because I am a priest. It’s what makes me happiest.”
It may be for this reason that he says the apparent lack of generosity amongst people may be leading to a decreasing number of vocations for the priesthood.
“It’s something I’ve often thought about. It worries me; it cannot be that God is not calling people to the vocation. So there must be too few people with a heart generous enough to say yes and enter the priesthood. Having to base your life entirely on faith – having no children, wife, or little material empire – means you have nothing but your generosity. It does not bestow any title upon you, but the priesthood does require generosity. However, the diminishing number of vocations does open up space for a bigger role for the laity, whereas before it seems priests allowed laymen to be too dependent upon them for their religious vocation. The call to the laity expressed in Vatican Council II served to counter this lack of priests. Thank God, the people still do have faith in priests because they have had the experience of ‘the good priest’.”
With the dwindling number of vocations in mind, I ask Dalli whether the prohibition of marriage for priests has been a contributory factor for those who do not take up the call for the priesthood. His answer turns out to be quite radical, although not unheard of in certain quarters of the priesthood.
“In my opinion, celibacy for a priest is not important in the least. Today I can’t imagine myself getting married. But a married priest can, even through his family, carry out his vocation. Of course there will be problems within the family as well… much like any other profession. If that were so, would we tell lawyers or doctors not to get married because family problems might interfere with their professional life? I don’t think so.
“So although I believe my celibacy has helped me dedicate my love to the people, as a priest I don’t believe that celibacy should be imposed upon a priest. I thank God for my celibacy, it’s my personal act of love towards everyone and it has helped me serve more people. But obliging priests to be celibate is a wrong discipline within the Church – if I were to be elected Pope I would certainly change it. And certainly, it’s not an opinion shared by a few priests.”
And the same radical vein of thought is applied on the similarly controversial issue of allowing women into the priesthood. “Well, I’d have said ‘tardare sì, scappare no’ – (postpone yes, but not abscond) some time ago, and it had concerned the Curia; I had said I was looking forward to the day when at Vatican III the bishops would be accompanied by their wives; and in Vatican IV, the bishops would be accompanied by their husbands. But it’s God who is making history, it’s in His hands.”
Certainly, he marks his ground over the perils of allowing governments to become too closely intertwined with religious forces, beyond the necessary evangelical principles that might otherwise inspire politicians. When I mention the issue over the entrenchment of abortion into the Constitution, something championed by the rather confessional bent of the new Gonzi administration, Dalli almost sounds relieved this has not yet taken place.
“I don’t think it should. Giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s… that means that a government should not exploit God. Certainly I don’t wish us to become the equivalent of those countries which employ Shar’iah law. I certainly don’t agree with abortion – it’s murder. But why not include the crime of murder, or even theft, in the Constitution while we’re at it?
“It doesn’t mean that God’s light should not shine upon our laws. Take divorce. It’s something I wish will never enter our vocabulary, because I believe it brings a lot of suffering upon people. But I agree with Bishop Cremona – the Church has the right to state its position, and we are against divorce. But even the State has a mission which is particular – government mustn’t be a mouthpiece for the Church. Of course, an atheist government which places the human being at the centre of everything, which has no values, is something I fear. Governments must have values which influence their political ideology.”
Dalli tries to rationalise the words of warning of Gozo Bishop Mario Grech, who recently punctuated his adverse stand on condoms with the charge of a “deceptive” “thesis in favour of the condom”.
“In my interpretation, what the Bishop wanted to say was a warning against using the condom as an excuse for promiscuity. When this subject crops up with young people preparing themselves to get married, I tell them the only foolproof method for family planning is my own – celibacy,” he laughs.
“But what I mean is that I wouldn’t want to tell couples that just because they use a condom, they can use sex as pleasure. It should be sex as communication – a communication of love. God created sex for the human being, but not in the same way it exists for animals – the Pope said this clearly in his first encyclical in which he distinguished between the love that is eros, philia, and agape. Of course pleasure is important in sex, but if our eros doesn’t have that agape, where is the love in sex?
“I know that couples today are no longer getting married at 16 and 18, so it is obvious that they have had sexual relations between them. But I specifically tell them, does the institution of marriage mean anything to you? Is there your full commitment in it? So are you ready to put in your full sexual commitment after you get married?”
His brother John, he says, is certainly somebody who believes in his Catholic conviction although the MP is not considered to be an ardent supporter of the so-called confessionalism of the government he is part of. When we touch upon the subject of his brother’s resignation and his own time spent in the political wilderness, Dalli instantly wants to describe the pain that was visited upon the entire Dalli clan.
“It wasn’t just something John passed to. All the family did – you can’t but not suffer when you see your brother suffering. He was certainly the protagonist, but where there’s injustice there’s no peace. Like John, I too was abandoned when I was removed as parish priest of Ibrag, and it was nine years before the bishop actually came to apologise, which I say here for the first time. When you are abandoned from above, everyone else is scared to be associated with you. I will always pray to God that whoever did what they did was not with harmful intentions; and if it was, then I pray to God that He forgives them, for they did not know what they were doing.
“It was a situation that brought a lot of suffering on John, his wife and daughters, and our family. I certainly don’t believe in human justice – whatever justice John got is that it’s been made clear that John is the man he’s always believed himself to be, that the dirt thrown at him was untrue.
“John was the victim of an invisible hand and time has yet to reveal its name. John was not just a victim of a political organisation. There were people who couldn’t accept the position John had to take up. Politics is a function that the country needs – but personally I have never had any faith in politicians, although I believe in John’s genuineness. And I believe that it’s possible there are many people who are envious and fear John for his success.”
His Biblical analogies to describe his brother’s vicissitudes seem gratuitous enough, but his description of the present political scene – colourless, a humdrum centrist formation of indistinguishable technocrats – is spot-on.
“Why did Cain kill Abel? And why did Jesus die – who was a nuisance exhorting people to open their eyes to the truth?” Dalli says on his brother’s victimisation at the so called invisible hand that machinated his downfall. And then he turns to the death of ideology in today’s political scene, saying politicians the likes of Italian Christian democrats like Moro and De Gasperi are a thing of the past.
“Politicians of my time were people who led people; today they are led by people and surveys, and by their desire for more votes. There is no form of ideology whatsoever. You know – they tell us, John and I, that we were sent the wrong envelopes… I should have been the politician.”

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