Raphael Vassallo | Sunday, 03 January 2010

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Happy (exclusive) New Year

Out of curiosity: does Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi – or whoever writes his official speeches for him – ever look up the meaning of words before he utters them? Does he possess a dictionary? If not, he is more than welcome to borrow one of mine. This way, he can at least find out what the word ‘inclusive’ actually means, before wishing us all a “Happy Inclusive New Year”.
(Hint: it does NOT come complete with the following proviso: ‘Everybody welcome, so long as they are nice, Roman Catholics like myself and my wife Kate here...”)

OK, OK, I know what you’re all thinking. Why did I take the trouble to watch the Prime Minister’s annual Christmas message this year... when it would have been so much safer to just go and get sozzled at the annual HSBC (or whatever) Christmas drinks instead? Of course you are all perfectly right. I even told myself I wouldn’t do it again. But mind you, I also said I’d cut my coffee intake down to only one cup a day (from 160); that I’d stop watching reruns of 1970s Doctor Who episodes on YouTube; and that I wouldn’t be disappointed when Fr Christmas somehow failed to show up at Casa Vassallo for the 34th year in a row. And I suppose you can guess how enormously successful those resolutions turned out in the end...

In any case: for the benefit of those who had infinitely better things to do than tune in to the PM’s annual ritual Yuletide blessing last week, what he did was sit in a comfy chair in front of a roaring fire (hey, I guess not even Castille can afford electricity, gas or pitrolju these days), and what he said amounted to roughly this:
The coming year is going to be a “very special” one for “us Maltese”, because the spiritual leader of “our religion” will be paying “us” a visit in April. Ah, well. It seems Dr Gonzi is so utterly beside himself with excitement at the prospect of yet another papal visit, that he couldn’t even wait until January before milking it for all the political mileage it’s worth.
Other than that, there was the usual collection of meaningless sound-bites like “difficult year ahead”; “facing up to the challenges”, “yes, together everything is Pope-mobile”, and so on and so forth... as well as countless allusions to Malta’s traditional “Christian values” (which makes me wonder: is there another country called ‘Malta’ I don’t know about? Or have “Christian values’ changed meaning slightly, in the 2,000 years since Christ told us all to “turn the other cheek”?).

However, what really got my goat was none of the above – which I’m sure you’ll agree is pretty standard fare for a Christmas message directed exclusively at Catholics – but rather the sheer temerity of ending such a divisive and exclusionist message with an appeal for “unity” and “consensus”.
I mean, it’s all well and good for an adherent of the Roman Catholic faith to get into a flap over a forthcoming visit by the Vatican’s Dominant Alpha Male – I’d do the same, if it were Tom Baker promising to visit us all in his TARDIS – but when Gonzi starts saying things like (loose paraphrase): “Surely, if there’s one event which should unite us all, it is the coming of Pope Benedict”... well, you can’t help but wonder whether our Prime Minister is inhabiting the same Space-Time continuum as the rest of us.

“Surely”, I would think, Dr Gonzi needs to borrow a World Almanac to go with that dictionary I mentioned earlier. Either that, or subscribe to a serious international newspaper and find out what’s really going on in the world.
We are, after all, talking about Pope Benedict XVI here – the Pontiff formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger – and even I myself (whose expectations in such matters are not exactly vertiginous) find it hard to believe that Dr Gonzi would be so completely unaware of how utterly divisive his Papacy has so far turned out to be.
And I don’t just mean among non-Catholics, mind you (for if there is one thing that Gonzi “surely” does not know, it is the existence of some 5.8 billion human beings around the world who fit neatly into the ‘non-Catholic’ category).
Well, for Gonzi’s edification, be it known that Pope Benedict – the man invited to our country by that other great political ‘unifier’, President George ‘Only-for-Catholics’ Abela – has managed to sow division even among his own Church’s most ardent followers. Globally, there has been a fall-out among gay Catholics because of a perceived hardening of the Church’s stance on homosexuality under his stewardship. Elsewhere, Pope Benedict has weakened relations with the Muslim world with thoughtless remarks about their Prophet; outraged health-workers in Africa with his comments on the inefficacy of condoms; and some of his more bizarre initiatives have elicited vocal doubts about his own personal and political judgement.
Among the more publicised of these was his decision to rehabilitate the surviving followers of Bishop Marcel Lefebvre: an issue which unfortunately got overshadowed by subsequent revelations that one of these bishops, Richard Williamson, was also a Holocaust denier... and that no effort was made to examine his history before deciding to welcome him back to the fold.
The real significance, however, had less to do with neo-Nazi nutcases posing as Catholic bishops, and more with the fact that Lefebvre and his followers were originally excommunicated for ‘rebelling’ against the reforms of Vatican Council II. By inference, then, the lifting of these excommunications strongly suggests that Benedict XVI himself shares Lefebvre’s view, at least in private. I’ll leave it to Malta’s multifarious theologians to argue about the political direction the present Pope intends to guide his flock, having started out with such a glaring statement of intent.
Leaving aside all of this – and there are countless other reasons why Pope Benedict is unpopular, even among Catholics worldwide – I think someone ought to sit Dr Gonzi down and inform him that not everyone in this country shares his own evident obsession with Catholicism in the first place. Think about it for a second. Why should the forthcoming visit of a Catholic Pope “surely” instil a sense of unity, in a country which is also home to Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, adherents of various non-Catholic denominations of Christianity, as well as – spoiler alert! – non-believers? Would a visit by Ayatollah Khamenei, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Dalai Lama, or even a prominent atheist like Richard Dawkins also be expected to “instil unity”? Or does the word ‘inclusion’ now mean that it’s OK for minorities to be left out in the cold, so long as our President and our Prime Minister have their religious egos massaged by a Papal visit every few years?

People like Lawrence Gonzi and George Abela may have absolutely no clue what on earth I’m on about, but last I looked, I was also a citizen of this country, and I can assure these two gentlemen there is nothing “certain” or “definite” about their private conviction that “all Malta” will unite under the banner of Pope Benedict.
‘All Malta’ includes people like myself, who are utterly unenthused by the news that he will pop over here next April. In fact, I plan to take full advantage of the country’s inevitable three-day shut-down to pop somewhere else myself... anywhere, so long as it is far, far away from the madding congregation.
But there are others who are actually incensed by the fact that the President of the Republic chose to invite the Pope to Malta on behalf of us all... in fact (and “surely”, neither Gonzi nor Abela is aware of this), there is even a Facebook group, numbering over 500 members, specifically set up to oppose the forthcoming visit, on the grounds that Pope Benedict is “not welcome”.

Personally, I can’t say I agree with the concept... if nothing else, on the basis of the European Union’s “freedom of movement of persons” principle. After all, Malta welcomes over one million tourists a year, and let’s face it: they’re not all what you would call ‘model citizens’. And yet, I don’t hear anyone complaining about them.
No, as far as I am concerned Pope Benedict is more than welcome to visit our country as often as he likes. Just don’t expect all of us to get quite as excited as Lawrence and George at the prospect, that’s all. And above all, the Prime Minister can’t expect to spend six whole years sowing political division, only to suddenly turn around and demand “national unity and consensus”... on his own terms, and on the basis of nothing more “unifying” than his own personal religious beliefs.
I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way.


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