7. Our pastoral priorities: the wounds where Christ desires to encounter his People to offer his redemption and joy

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:25‑26)

God’s love for all men and women knows no boundaries. The Father sends his only Son that all may receive salvation, that all may become the “Holy People of God.” As the Father through his Son sends the Comforter (see Jn 14:16‑17), all are invited to taste the joy of being reborn from above (see Jn 3:3) and of being filled with the power to actively participate in stewarding a new political order and New Creation. As we read in the First Epistle to Timothy:  

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time.” (1 Tim 2:1‑6)

In her missionary zeal, the whole Church as community of disciples begins by being attentive to the signs of the times and, more specifically, to “signs” of woundedness where Christ desires to offer his healing.

“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.” (Evangelii gaudium, 270)

Indeed we acknowledge that our fragility as a “people”—personal, communal and ecological—is like that of shattered “earthen vessels.” We are broken and barely holding together as “one.” But the holy balm entrusted to the Church—that melted gold of God’s mercy that can mend the deepest fractures—demands that we go forth, “allowing Christ to burst out of our doors,” to become agents of healing. What could be thrown into fire as mere pieces of broken clay, in the hands of the Spirit and through the Church’s gestures of listening, welcoming and accompaniment, becomes a rebirth to new life; the “Holy People of God” that grows in reconciliation, formation and prayer… to be sent forth.

Left unattended our suffering deepens and alienates us even more from God’s desire to pour upon us his love. Thus, the Church has the duty to act decisively to care for the most wounded. The more abrasive and disjointed the broken pieces of our fractured hearts and relationships, the more the Church is called to serve selflessly and patiently, that God’s love is experienced as gold that heals and gives new, and ever more beautiful, life.

Seven kinds of wounds must be carefully tended in the Church’s mission of Evangelisation and Diakonia:

None of us are immune from memories of violence suffered and inflicted; of hurts too deep to come to terms with or accept; of distress that cannot be quite acknowledged or expressed in words. These deep wounds, often first experienced in childhood, leave us vulnerable but also bitter; they bruise our hearts but also make us resentful. Unless one comes to a peaceful resolution with one’s suffering, the effects of unresolved trauma can become contagious, passed on in families and tightly‑knit communities whose memories become distorted through unresolved grief.

Christ desires to liberate us, first and foremost, from these deep‑seated scars that hold us captive to harrowing memories. The Church’s primary mission of hope is this exorcising of the past to heal the deep woundedness of the heart that harms individuals and communities alike.

As Saint John Paul II taught the Church and the world:

The truth is that one cannot remain a prisoner of the past, for individuals and peoples need a sort of “healing of memories”, so that past evils will not come back again. This does not mean forgetting past events; it means re‑examining them with a new attitude and learning precisely from the experience of suffering that only love can build up, whereas hatred produces devastation and ruin. The deadly cycle of revenge must be replaced by the new‑found liberty of forgiveness” (Message for the XXX World Day of Peace, January 1, 1997).

No man or woman is an island and our very humanity implies the desire to be persons‑in‑relationship. As we seek to encounter one another, we do so through our deepest self: the stories that we knit to make sense of our lives, and the stories we share to make sense of where we are coming from and who we desire to become. Intimate relationships, especially with spouses and friends, with our children and siblings, shape us as persons, families and small communities. Through sharing a life together, we care for one another making the relationship an opportunity for mutual flourishing.

But if intimacy implies vulnerability, it not only opens us to the hope of being loved for who we truly are; it also poses the risk of being trampled upon and abused. Just as there is no truly intimate relationship that does not demand trust, so there is no intimate relationship that does not risk betrayal.

Many of us suffer—sometimes in shame and hiddenness; other times publicly—from the wounds of broken marriages, betrayal in friendship, conflict in families, disappointment in partnerships, abuse in relationships where there is a power differential. Such suffering challenges us to receive the grace of forgiveness and to grow by investing courageously in new healthier relationships by still daring to be vulnerable.

But deep woundedness can also become a stumbling block to deeper personal integration. This is particularly true in families. Accompaniment in marital and family relationships is an urgent call to the Church, especially since she herself cannot grow or be authentic without schooling in sharing a life together, a home together, in becoming one community and family. For better or for worse, what we learn in our most intimate relationships is who we become in our ecclesial relationships, whether in parishes, religious communities or lay movements. 

The Church as “People of God” is called to be a “community of friends” who journey together. The Church’s modus operandi and structures must reflect this seeking to be a “pilgrim people” who journeys together. The local Church is wounded precisely where our structures, institutions and formal ways of proceeding do not facilitate, but rather contradict an ethos of friendship and mutuality.

In his Letter to the People of God, (August 20, 2018), His Holiness Pope Francis identified three deep wounds in the Church that are also our own: “sexual abuse, abuse of power and of conscience.” He also identified the root of these wounds as the clericalism that characterises a way of functioning as “institutional Church.”

Moreover, in Malta, the wounds of clericalism have taken on distinct forms that are particularly harmful because of our proximity to one another, of our turbulent political history these past hundred years, and the distinctiveness of our cultural dynamics often marked by a sense of existential need, the tendency to distrust the “stranger,” pika and even the urge to tribalise in us‑against‑them attitudes.

It is paramount that we acknowledge our frailties, that we name how we have inflicted wounds on each other in the past and, as Christians, to seek to engage in a long process of mutual listening, for seeking reparation, and, ultimately, of praying for the power of the Spirit to be able to forgive one another.

At the same time, we must also not create further divisions in our ecclesia because we fail to come together, to serve together or even to pray together as brothers and sisters. We must still learn to appreciate not only each other’s gifts, but the beauty of our particular callings—the distinct vocations of the clergy, religious and laity, but that share in Christ the same priestly, kingly and prophetic roots, and a common evangelical orientation to preaching and service, just as our Master taught and served.

As Jesus chided his disciples who disputed among themselves over who was the greatest:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:25‑27).

The Maltese Church is not just suffering from institutional and historical wounds. We are also a People wounded by lethargy, a sense of loss and confusion, because we seem to give too much importance to our own meagre efforts, and not enough to how the Holy Spirit is already working among us.

We are also wounded through excluding specific groups in the very life of the Church when we fail to accompany them in their struggles, but rather simply marginalise them or appear to cast them out through words that kill through condemnation rather than give life through Christ’s mercy and healing.

Malta might no longer be Kattolika, but we should be grateful that this forced emptying of the “Church as institution” implies the possibility of rebirth of the “Church as true communion”; as true leaven for a new culture of encounter, where we are not afraid of religious or political differences, but rather embrace all diversity as signs of God’s infinite creativity and beauty.

Our evangelical zeal must be rekindled through a sense of common purpose that is the Gospel itself: not our nostalgia about a “Church” long gone, or our enthusiasm for a Church in our own image, but through the humility of recognising how the Holy Spirit is seeking to rebuild the body of Christ in Malta.

The words of Pope Francis in the aforementioned Letter, show us the way of healing in our parish communities, religious communities, lay movements and as one “Holy People of God.” They also invite us to ponder how salvific suffering is the deepest mystery of our faith—including our local Church’s spiritual angst in times of “confusion”:

“‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it’, said Saint Paul. By an attitude of prayer and penance, we will become attuned as individuals and as a community to this exhortation, so that we may grow in the gift of compassion, in justice, prevention and reparation. Mary chose to stand at the foot of her Son’s cross. She did so unhesitatingly, standing firmly by Jesus’ side. In this way, she reveals the way she lived her entire life. When we experience the desolation caused by these ecclesial wounds, we will do well, with Mary, ‘to insist more upon prayer’, seeking to grow all the more in love and fidelity to the Church (St Ignatius of LoyolaSpiritual Exercises, par. 319). She, the first of the disciples, teaches all of us as disciples how we are to halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice. To look to Mary is to discover the model of a true follower of Christ.”

Every society is deeply wounded and ours is no exception. Indeed, it would be delusional on our part to pretend that our society is flourishing because we measure certain economic or social indicators but ignore other gauges of wellbeing. Indeed, even more dangerous are the dissonances and inconsistencies that we inculcate “as‑a‑matter‑of‑course”, when we claim to have an ethic of life or of social inclusion, or of free speech and democracy, but then, the facts speak louder than words as our actions betray glaringly our ideals.

The shocking assassination of a journalist and the murder in cold blood of a migrant of colour; the way how many people take for granted “collective” practices like tax evasion, graft and omertà, or how often they instinctively knit their social fabric through “friends of friends,” amoral familism, pjaċiri and the assumption that taking care of one’s own is more important than social responsibility, shows the gap between where we are and the Catholic ethos grounded in the common good, solidarity, the preferential option for the poor or even a basic civic sense where the “whole” (the wellbeing of the polis that serves all) is indeed greater than the sum of parts (or our individual interests).

This is not because “the [hierarchical] Church” does not “speak” on matters of the common good; but perhaps because we as the People of God, we ourselves in our social relationships, are failing in our witness of the Gospel of life, both through the way we communicate, but also through the very way we live.

Even if “the Church”—in particular through her institutions—seeks to be light in our political and economic processes, “the Church” in her reality on the ground—our life in the city, on social media, our places of work, and our homes and personal lives— is urgently called to give sufficient witness to how the “Kingdom of God” becomes incarnate through our concrete choices that welcome the stranger, accompany the vulnerable in all their needs, and listen to how our biases inflict wounds in the very fabric of our shared lives together.

A social and political conversion must begin with our being imbued by the Church’s social teachings that challenge each one of us, personally and communally, to be a Church for and from the peripheries, seeking their justice above our wealth, their wellbeing above our comfort.

Wounds in our social fabric are also manifested glaringly in our very land butchered for economic gain; in our air that becomes hard to breathe because of pollution; in the chaos on our roads and in our surroundings that makes it so difficult to savour again the serenity that, in the past, we associated with the hidden elegance of our traditional villages or the rugged beauty of our natural landscape. We are living in an environment where ugliness burdens the soul and makes the ordinariness of daily life that much more distressing.

These wounds to our senses and collective physical wellbeing are also augmented in the lifestyles we impose upon ourselves where there is always so “little time” for what is truly meaningful. It is as if the very landscape marked by technocracy imposes its tight fist around our very psyche, making us conform to its dehumanizing logic. Instead of the human safeguarding land through an ethos of mutual respect, the human savagely forces his way upon land, until the landscape itself rebels and forces its horrors upon the human.

This is the lament of the ecological encyclical Laudato sì, 106‑110, that presents the “dominant technocratic paradigm” as having ravaged not only our environment, but our political and social structures and, ultimately, our very imaginary of a good life. Through the delusion that we are on a “path to progress,” we embark instead on a cycle of decline leading to suicide.

Nor are we spared of this same angst in the “alternate environment” that we created where the temptation is “to escape.” The digital context—the augmented reality, in which we spend more and more of our time, including the time to “socialise”—is also marked by the same aesthetic of crass excess; an ethic of display where “image” replaces reality, and “self‑projection” replaces authenticity. In this context, aggressive posturing and agonism—rather than dialogue and conversation—at times mark our presence even as “Church.” It is indeed scandalous when what we as Church are being called to witness to—a Church that listens, welcomes, accompanies and goes forth—becomes representative of opposition, of the erection of walls, of an attitude of belittling the other, and where we barricade ourselves in our certainties and with the few “like us.”

The call to stewarding creation must start from small daily decisions that we take as persons and in our communities. As Church in our small land, we trust that we can be sufficiently present in all society; that we can take concrete steps to reverse a cycle of ecological and cultural decline—offline and online—through a “mimesis of blessing.” To what extent are we willing to preach the Gospel of life—put our very selves on the line—where it is most urgent?

The source of our woundedness is ultimately sin—the pride that disconnects us from God in Godself, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. When we act as if God does not exist; when, as Church, we separate our “spiritual” life from “earthly” concerns, we wound our spirit that naturally desires to seek Transcendence and worship the Father. As our sinfulness penetrates every aspect of our being, it also corrupts our desire for God and our own worship loses its freshness and authenticity.

This is the tragedy of the woundedness in our experiences of communal and personal prayer. Prayer in the home, as the family gathers, passes on experiences of devotion, and teaches the discipline of personal contemplation. But when the home ceases to be a space of prayer—that is, with personal and family time dedicated to nothing but praise of God—then we fail to learn “how to pray” and even our public, communal prayer suffers.

Every religion, in her cultus, has the obligation to manifest her worship of God. Prayer is a public act, where God is acknowledged as infusing our reality, and thus as justly demanding our worship. Thus, the way that we, as People of God in Malta, are seen to be praying says a great deal about our understanding of God and our witness of the Gospel.

The way we celebrate our yearly liturgical calendar of praise is striking. The true peak of our faith—the Easter season leading to Pentecost—tends to be subdued in our collective experience of worship. More evocative are the symbols of suffering—Our Lady of Sorrows and Good Friday—that seem to have a felt spiritual resonance in our land. Much more exuberant are the public religious festivals associated with our famous (or infamous) festi (village feasts).

Shopping street, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Europe — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Undeniably, festi bring people together binding them in a communal memory of celebration that goes back decades or centuries. That dimension of festi brings us back in touch with the deep wells of prayer that we have a duty to remember, honour and re‑enact.

But when our religious festi become displays of might disconnected from the communal memory of religious devotion; even when our daily and weekly liturgies become too focused on rubrics and externals to the extent of becoming more akin to performance; or when our temples, memories in stone of our people’s devotion, become the symbol of “the Church” that needs “care and maintenance” replacing the needs of the “ecclesial community” itself; the risk is of self‑referentiality and of forgetting the Holy Spirit who defines the Church and is the source of her true worship and prayer.

Temple, ritual and external celebration should not replace the spiritual nourishment of the community that ultimately finds its roots in the Word of God, in the apostolic memory of the faith, and in the authentic celebration of the mysteria always made incarnate in a particular culture. Tradition cannot be reduced to traditionalisms; nor can prayer fail to be truly spiritually transformative leading us to experience slow purgation, and ultimately communion with the divine. 

We tend to blame wounds to our communal and personal prayer on the ongoing rapid process of secularisation in our land. But secularity has many advantages, including an openness to the rights of all and the desire to live peacably notwithstanding differences. In our culture, we are still struggling to live a healthy separation of Church and state where the secular and religious imaginaries can co‑exist and even allow space for each other to flourish for the common good. But there are positive signs of this growth.

Thus, the heart of spiritual angst might be deeper still.

It is true that secularism, in and of itself, tends to bracket out of consciousness the desire for transcendence in a radical pursuit of immanence that makes the human the centre of reality itself. But more serious than the threat of the secular, is when “the profane” takes on religious undertones or the “sacred” is commodified. In our hearts, the truly religious becomes constrained by an idolatry that stultifies the human spirit. Then, the risk is of “mere belief” being pushed as “reason”; of “personal preferences” being elevated to “ultimate desires”; and oppositely, of “the transcendent” being reduced to mere “ethics” or just a “choice among many.”

This is the foundation of our deepening “culture wars” where sharp differences in our horizon of meaning, run the risk of becoming a profound wound among our people. We fail to have a common “open” narrative and remain a divided People.