Most of the countries I have visited so far are seeing church attendance figures decline. So is Malta, but religion keeps playing an important role in Maltese society. Malta has got one church for every square kilometer of its surface. It also has more religious holidays than state holidays. Abortion is illegal, divorce is impossible and it`s not advisable to make fun of religious leaders. How do the Maltese feel about the way their freedom of choice is limited by religious dogmas?
According to popular history, Malta has been a Roman Catholic country ever since Saint Paul shipwrecked on his journey to Rome back in the year 60 AD. He is said to have converted the local population to Roman Catholicism. Up until today, Saint Paul`s Shipwreck is an important religious celebration. Close to 100% of the Maltese population is registered as Roman Catholic, even though not all of them are practicing their faith. Many may not even be religious, but it is very uncommon for people not to have reached Catholic adulthood by being baptised, passing their First Communion and Confirmation. Religious excursions to Rome, Fatima or Lourdes are popular for old people, or even for school children.
`Maltese can be quite xenophobic when it comes to religion`
Edward (27) explains that a good share of education in Malta is directly provided by the church: `When I was at secondary school, our teachers were mostly priests and nuns. Classes always started with prayers and religion played a central role in our education.` Edward estimates that about one third of Malta`s pupils attend church school, while roughly 60% of the population goes to Sunday Mass. Young people don`t always make it to the morning service if they have been out partying the night before. They have a second chance in the evening though: a rerun of the morning Mass is done at 18h30 in the evening.
Although alternative constructions exist, many people in Malta marry for church. Civil marriages are seen as something out of the ordinary, and no family would like to see their offspring bypassing the church. Funerals are also organised by the church. The church further organises debates where people can anonymously report their problem, which will then be presented by the priest and discussed by the audience.
Edward is happy about the role religion plays in Malta: `There are discussions going on about whether or not to loosen some regulations that have their roots in religion. Abortion is one of them, and divorce another one. Personally, I think the situation should stay as it is. It`s the role of the church to protect people from taking decisions that go against their own interest. If you allow people to have an abortion, they will do it. If you allow people to get divorced, they are much more likely to split up than if they weren`t allowed to in the first place. Just looking at other European countries, you see so many people getting married and divorced all the time ? that just doesn`t make sense. But they easily get away with it, so why not do it? To me, it seems like selling out moral values.`
Rights for homosexuals are not specifically laid down in legislation. Homosexuality is not necessarily seen as a sin, but it does not comply with accepted moral standards either. Edward finds it acceptable for people to be gay, but in his view, they should not be allowed to get married or adopt kids. `Whatever else they do is up to them. I may not approve of what other people do, but I do think that their decisions should be respected.`
Alan (27, photo) does not consider himself to be religious. `I think the Church really has too much decision power here. And it`s poored into people from early age onwards. Whichever primary or secondary school you go to, you will be taught everything about the Roman Catholic faith. No other religions are ever discussed, which is probably one of the reasons why Maltese people tend to be xenophobic when it comes to religion. They will allow immigrants to practice an alternative religion, but preferably not out in the open. Newcomers can expect a much warmer welcome if they convert to Catholicism, even though it`s strange to see an older person being baptised. Everybody in Malta gets baptised at young age. I don`t know anybody who is not. So seeing an adult get baptised was a very strange experience to me.`
Alan further explains that frequently attending Mass is left to people`s personal choice, `but the Church procedures apply to pretty much everybody. Even if you`re not religious, you will still get married in church and have your child baptised.`
Beside Christmas, Malta has an extensive celebration of Easter and the events surrounding it. Carnaval is a major event and many people at least partially comply with the fasting procedures that follow. Major processions are organised on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, reminding people of Jesus`s tragic death and glorious resurrection. Good Friday processions show people carrying hand-mate statues of crucified Jesus. Some participants may carry chains around their ankles to commemorate the suffering Jesus went through. Easter celebrations also have people carrying statues through the streets, but this time the artifacts will represent Jesus standing up from the grave. Music accompanying the event will obviously be much more up-spirit than on Good Friday. The end of the fastening period will incite people to organise abundant meals.
Like Italy, Malta is very fanatic when it comes to observing Catholic celebrations. Each city, village and even church community celebrate their patron saint`s day. People used to celebrate their names days as well, but religious first names are becoming less popular and so are the corresponding celebrations. Also, Modern first names like Kylie or Britney do not even qualify for name`s day celebrations.
Maria (26) can be lucky about her first name, as her name does allow for celebration. It`s even a public holiday. `The 15th of August is Mary-goes-to-Heaven, but I usually only celebrate it by enjoying a day off to go to the beach.`
With religion as Malta`s central point of gravitation, it can be expected that the church is a good place for socialising. Since most people on Malta somehow know each other, there`s plenty of room for stories and gossips. Maria thinks that the church community can be very hypocritical, and many people just go to church because they do not want to be known for not going to church. `No religion will promote talking behind people`s back, but it does happen a lot. It makes me wonder how holy the intentions of these people are at all. Another example: when it comes to teenage pregnancies, the Church does nothing to prevent them but when they occur, they are the first to tell the girls that they should have known better.`
With recent Church scandals in the USA and Ireland in mind, I ask Matthew (26) whether Malta has had any cases of priests abusing their power over the audience. He replies: `There are cases, but they are not discussed openly. In a recent case, a group of people now in their 50s claim they have been abused by a priest when they were much younger. The case initially made it into the newspapers, until a court`s decision prevented the further proceedings of the case to be published. And so in the end, we do not know what really happened.`
Religion is one of the few exceptions to the rule that Malta forever has to opposing groups that each make up 50% of the population. The country may have a hard time deciding whether it is more British or Italian, how Arab it is not, whether it will vote Nationalists or Labour - the Church is commonly accepted to serve as the foundations of Maltese society. Proposals to reduce church influence in political and legal settings do pop up every now and then, but they are hardly ever seriously addressed. Beside gossips about who did and did not attend service last Sunday, religion does not make a good topic of conversation in Malta. Most Maltese, even those who are not religious, continue to see the Church as a protector of moral values. Whoever thinks about religion in another way is neither expected nor accepted to speak up.
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