Miracles, apparitions, bleeding statues and magic shoelaces: Raphael Vassallo looks back at the year when Malta took one, giant step back to the Middle Ages
For some people, 2007 will best be epitomised by the sight of one Angelik Caruana, professional prophet, rolling around in the Borg in-Nadur dirt. It was an image straight out of Borat of the Apocalypse: rays of light, great balls of fire, with Angelik speaking in tongues, stuffing his mouth with grass, reeling from stigmata and clutching at his throat, where one of Christ’s thorns is now believed to be lodged.
“Believed” being the operative word here. For despite a string of allegations of having defrauded residents of his home town Birzebbuga, and an official dismissal by the Archbishop’s Curia, Angelik Caruana maintained a following in this year of Our Lord, 2007. People flock by the mini-busload to participate in his many close encounters with the Blessed Virgin, which as a rule take place in easily accessible localities with plenty of free parking. In fact, there is hardly a corner of this blessed island of ours where the Mother of God hasn’t appeared to Angelik at least once: the most recent being the Gozo heliport, where Our Lady was expected to make an unscheduled landing just last night.
And needless to add, every holy effigy to come into Caruana’s possession has invariably turned out to possess miraculous qualities. One Madonna statuette, bought from an animal welfare charity shop, would suddenly and inexplicably burst into tears of blood on his kitchen table… until closer inspection revealed that the “blood” in question was, in fact, burnt cooking oil. In an analogous case, it took a long and expensive investigation by the Archbishop’s Curia to discover what most of us could have immediately told the Archbishop for absolutely free: that the blood discovered on yet another statue’s face – and which this time was indeed human – belonged to none other than – surprise! – Angelik himself.
OK, OK, it is altogether too easy to dismiss the man as a harmless crackpot of the kind that has regularly embarrassed the Catholic Church throughout its millennial history. But the truth of the matter is that, far from being dismissed out of hand, Angelik is actually taken very seriously indeed. His public displays of epileptic devotion, so obviously modelled on the mystical experiences of Bernadette, have now become spectator events for as many as 200+ devotees. And while the Curia has emphatically distanced itself from such mediaeval claims of miracle-working, Angelik Caruana has been championed by individual priests and an army of belligerent supporters, not to mention government officials such as Tonio Farrugia: personal aide to Parliamentary Secretary Toni Abela, who defended Angelik’s claims on State TV.
In a word, 2007 was a year when religious fanaticism returned with a spectacular divine vengeance. It began with the appointment of a new Archbishop, and ended with the presentation of a petition, complete with 36,000 signatures, to amend the Constitution so that it just so happens to perfectly mirror the official Catholic view on abortion. Roughly half-way through, we also had the canonisation of Malta’s first ever saint: a religious occasion usurped by all the country’s temporal authorities – including both Prime Minister and Opposition Leader – in what quickly became a festivity of purely national proportions.
Elsewhere, there have been public exhortations to boycott a film, merely because it is based on a novel written by a self-proclaimed atheist – the ultimate crime, in a country whose Constitution implies that failure to be Roman Catholic somehow makes one less “officially” Maltese.
Now, with 44 members of parliament having rushed to do Paul Vincenti’s bidding, and add their name to the League of Extraordinary More Pro-Life Than Thou Gentlemen, it seems that nothing can really stop our parliament from repeating the 1962 mistake, and reducing the Constitution of Malta to a footnote of a papal bull.
And just when we thought it was safe to remove the boards from our windows, along came the detested Dr Rebecca Gomperts – pro-choice activist and (more worryingly still) a woman – to commit the grave sin of delivering a public lecture. Lord, the panic that descended upon the multitudes, at the mere thought that someone grafted from the rib-bone of a man would presume to lecture us on the issue of female reproductive rights. Out they came, with their candles and placards, chanting “Hands Off Our Wombs” for all the world as though we might have been remotely tempted to claw at the sanctity of a post-menopausal uterus… all the while intimidating would-be audience members with a barrage of Hail Holy Queens.
But lo and behold: for all the allusions to a grand national conspiracy to de-Christianise the entire country, all corresponding expressions of secularism could literally be counted on the fingers of one hand.
In June, when Dun Gorg Preca was declared a saint, there was a grand total of three people – myself included – who professed a degree of scepticism about the nature of the miracle that had sealed his canonisation. The objection is worth recalling, because it remains unchallenged to this day. No evidence has ever been forthcoming to suggest that the child’s recovery from acute liver failure had anything to do with the shoelace placed under his pillow, still less with the man to whom the same shoelace once belonged. And yet, the only three voices to point out this somewhat glaring discrepancy were drowned out by some 400,000 simultaneous squeaks of indignation, coupled with peals of delight at the announcement that the government had miraculously suspended its 10 per cent airport tax in commemoration of the event.
It seems that, for all Jesus Christ’s patient explanations to Pontius Pilate 2000 years ago, the last remaining distinctions between the Kingdom of Heaven and that of this world have now been blurred beyond recognition. All that was needed was the emergence of yet another political party to spout Christian values as though its founder was himself the Son of God: and hey presto! Enter Dr Josie Muscat, perfectly on cue, and hell-bent on a mission from God to rescue the Maltese family from the pit of heathen despair.
In the end, perhaps the most poignant reminder that secularism is now officially extinct in this country came on Christmas Eve, when The Times ran an editorial under the headline “The true meaning of Christmas”.
Departing from the premise that all light and goodness only came into the world “two millenniums” (sic) ago – an odd premise to depart from, when you consider that Buddhism, Hinduism, the entire canon of Hellenic philosophy, even the Old Testament itself, all provide ample proof to the contrary – the leader writer went on to warn against the serpent of “dechristianisation” (sic) that lurks in our midst.
Ominously, the thrust of the leader’s message is that, for all our claims to be a modern European democracy, no one is actually free to simply make up his or her own mind on the subject of religion. “In today’s world, no one may stay aloof or remain neutral; everyone has to take sides, for or against light, for or against life.”
The stark warning, so reminiscent of the rhetoric employed by totalitarian governments to justify discrimination, persecution and the occasional act of genocide, reverberates throughout the island like a death-knell for personal liberty. We might have joined Europe in 2003, but the time has come to face facts: in 2008, Malta is simply no place for a non-Catholic to call home.
From this perspective, it is easy to predict that the coming year will also bring with it an intensification of hostility towards all Maltese non-believers. So if there are still any secularists, atheists or agnostics out there who haven’t yet fled the country for pastures more tolerant: I wish you all a Happy New Fear.