Message by Archbishop Charles Jude Scicluna
Let’s start not from the very beginning, from the last two entries, in this very beautiful church – St Sebastian and St Jean-Baptiste de La Salle. It is most appropriate to have the image of Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, a French educational reformer, and the founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian who contributed so much to the formation of men for our Dockyard, included among the saints depicted in this church, founded by the French knights, and therefore an integral part of the French heritage of these islands.
The inclusion of St Sebastian, in this case linked to the present rector of this church, is also significant in a port church, ports being a historical source for plagues. So if you go, for example to Sarria Church in Floriana, you have the beautiful paintings by Mattia Preti of the Immaculate Conception but also of St Roque and St Sebastian, and even in Ħal Qormi the devotion to St Sebastian is because of the plague, he being an intercessor to get rid of this dreaded scourge.
I am very privileged to be able to not only present but also promote this beautiful book and it makes me proud; and I think we need, at this juncture in our history, to be proud of who we are and what makes us truly Maltese. As you know malat in the Semitic language means ‘haven’ and that is the real oldest root for the name of our country: it’s a haven.
But from our Punic past, which will never go away, we also were enriched by this influx of European culture that became so important when the Knights took over the islands after the decision of Charles V and the insistence of the Holy See. We need also to thank the Holy See for the Knights remaining here after the Great Siege. Their intention was to leave and abandon the island but Pope Pius V wrote to French Grand Master Jean de Parisot de Valette and asked him to: ‘Please remain on the island. If you cannot keep Tripolitania, at least keep Malta’. And they did, they obeyed the Pope and I think that we are who are because of that decision, that the Pope encouraged for them to stay here. And then Valletta was built and this is part of that history.
I was noticing in the book, an interesting graphic of Valletta, particularly the churches tied to the auberges. There are only four. I think I get it right. There were eight langues and eight auberges but only four of the auberges had their own church. This was a bit far from the Auberge de France but this was the church, which the French knights dedicated for their own purposes, and of course it is part of French heritage on the island, as we said.
We have people who walk away from their homes in Africa… They strive to come here to find freedom and at times they find more slavery.
Of particular interest, is Canon Nicholas Joseph Doublet’s masterly contribution on the story, history and cult behind this devotion. There are some elements that remain with me, especially having had the privilege to leaf through this beautiful book. These are three French knights that are captured in Egypt. They do not want to renounce their faith but they are tempted to renounce it, because not renouncing their faith means slavery and a dreadful life. And they are asked to prepare an image of Our Lady and through this image, Ismeria, the daughter of the Muslim caliph, is converted to Christianity. The group is miraculously transported to Picardie, France, where they realize that they are free. So there is this movement from freedom to slavery and from slavery to freedom again.
And this is something that is still very important to us. It is a narrative that is still with us because we are at the centre of the Mediterranean and we have people who walk away from their homes in Africa, start moving towards us and from free people they become slaves on the shores of North Africa. It is almost in reverse. They strive to come here to find freedom and at times they find more slavery. This is something that needs to make us think. People walk away from their villages in Africa. There are young men who start their trip towards Europe, funded by the whole village. The whole village invests in one guy and he walks away from home free but in his journey towards a better life, he becomes a slave, he is traumatised in so many different ways and if he is ‘lucky’ he arrives on the shores of the Mediterranean and there is more detention, more humiliation. Some of them are sold as slaves.
If these churches don’t speak to our consciences, if their heritage doesn’t speak to our present and our future, then we are wasting our time
I do not know if you have ever seen the scary footage by CNN, of an auction of human beings at night in Libya – selling young men to the highest bidder. This goes a couple of years back. Then they manage to redeem themselves and they start their trip on the Blue Desert, some of them do not even know how to swim. If they arrive, either here or in Lampedusa, they are sent to horrible conditions in detention centers. And how do we treat them?
I visited a group of them hosted by Fr Dijonisju Mintoff at the Peace Lab the day before yesterday and I was listening to their narratives. One of them who is called Livingston and comes from Kenya, who is now a helper because Fr Dijonisju is quite old, started his experience in Malta by helping in a bar. He worked for two months without pay. At the end he said: “When are you going to pay me?’ And the Maltese owner said: ‘Don’t be a bore, get away, I don’t want to pay you’. So Fr Dijonisju went with this guy and he said: ‘I don’t know this one’. He said: ‘He worked for you for two months’. And he refused to pay and told Fr Dijonisju: ‘Sorry’, and that was the end. That is Malta in the 21st century.
If these churches don’t speak to our consciences, if their heritage doesn’t speak to our present and our future, then we are wasting our time.
My prayer here in the Church dedicated by the French Knights to Our Lady of Liesse, which is a story of freedom from slavery, is that this heritage knocks on the doors of our consciences and help us in our determination, not only to treat each other with dignity, but to treat modern day slaves with the dignity they deserve and make them free people.
If we cannot allow heritage to talk to our consciences today, every dime we are going to spend on it is simply creating a bubble, a comfort zone, which will come to haunt us. Let us make of all the efforts to render this place the beautiful gem it has always been, something knocking on the door of our consciences, of our spirit, because that is also human heritage which makes us truly who we are and which makes us truly proud.
✠ Charles Jude Scicluna
Archbishop of Malta