We Spoke To Malta's Most Controversial Priest. He Didn't Disappoint.
"There is a lot of exaggeration going on, especially about corruption..."
If you're wondering why you haven't heard much of Fr Mark Montebello lately, it's because he's made a conscious effort to stop talking. He spends his time "being" instead. The controversial priest, who was once banned by the Church for criticising Pope Benedict, last made headlines in April 2015, when he blessed the rings at a gay couple's engagement. Since then, he's stayed under the radar.
After writing about his hero Manwel Dimech last week, we thought we'd pull him out of the woodwork and see what he has to say about the state of the country. We conducted the interview by email, but that doesn't mean he didn't give us some amazing soundbites. Here's how it went...
What are you up to these days? It feels like you haven't been around much.
I deliberately haven't been around much. After years of being involved in much talk, trying to put in a sensible word or two, I realised that most debaters, of all shades and hues, are too political to engage in any sincere dialogue at all. I'm tired of the talk, really. I think that we'll all be saying much more if we fall silent. And that's what I'm doing. Your question should not be what am I 'doing' but what am I 'being'.
As a major follower of Manwel Dimech, what did you make of our story regarding his birthplace? Do you know anything about the eviction case? Are you involved in any way?
I have been informed about the eviction but I'm not involved in any way. I have ideas of how the place could be turned into a beautiful museum celebrating the ideals of Manwel Dimech. However, the structure of the building, particularly since part of the ground-floor is third-party private property, makes it unsuitable for any development. The place is tall and narrow. Any plan for public accessibility would definitely need a lift, and there's nowhere to install it if not in the part which is currently not part of the structure. Personally, I do not have the means to buy off the needed missing part, or any capital to refurbish the place and make a decent hands-on, multimedia museum out of it, unfortunately. Alas, I can only stand by and see it going to ruin.
"The government is like a chariot with many horses, of which some are lame, some running too fast, some are pathetic, and some are keeping pace."
How do you view the state of the country today? How would you critique the current government in the context of everything that's happening?
The government is like a chariot with many horses, of which some are lame, some running too fast, some are pathetic, and some are keeping pace. It is a difficult job keeping them running together, though I think that, all in all, it's being done quite perspicaciously. Of course, one can find fault in this and that, in some areas more than in others, and one might be reasonably right. However, the charge is till the end, and there's still a bit more to go. So, we'll see. The act may pull off, after all.
Do you believe the government is on the whole acting in good faith? What would you tell those people who have lost faith in the whole system and think we are being led by corrupt people?
One must take what politicians say, whether nice or ugly, with a pinch of salt. I think there is a lot of exaggeration going about, especially about corruption, and many storms in teacups. Yes, I definitely think that, on the whole, government is acting in good faith. Some people want to lose faith in this government because that serves their own purposes or because they cannot stomach a Labour government which is performing relatively well.
Your comments on corruption surprise me. Do you think the Panama debacle is a storm in a teacup?
No, I do not think the Panama stories are storms in teacups. I think that much is being concluded as factual without, as yet, the concrete evidence of definitive fact. The most I would go with at the moment is unethical behaviour, not illegality, which, to wit is not nothing in my estimate. I will be willing to concede more only when things are substantiated more positively. I do not trust politicians when it comes to trying to gain easy mileage on catchword hysterics.
"I am now convinced more than ever that the Church in Malta and Gozo is, almost incurably, short-sighted. And it is slowly but surely digging its own grave."
How do you view the state of the church? Do you feel aligned with the approach of the current Archbishop, who seems to be rather engaged politically? What is your take?
I am now convinced more than ever that the Church in Malta and Gozo is, almost incurably, short-sighted. And despite all the good intentions I am willing to accredit it with, it is slowly but surely digging its own grave. Talented as much as the current Archbishop is, I still do not see in him any aptitude for a much-needed renewed ecclesiological or anthropological vision. He may surprise us yet, of course, but I seriously doubt it.
What is it about this Archbishop that makes you feel he is digging the church's grave?
It's not only the Archbishop or the Bishop of Gozo. It would probably be unfair to say so. It's about the whole climate of the Catholic community in the Maltese Islands, what one might call the 'sensus fidelium' (the feel of the believers). It is stagnant, unimaginative and uneducated. Ultimately, I would put it down to a paucity of faith, for we seem to believe more in our own archaic structures than in God. From a time of pugnaciousness (Gonzi), through a period of laissez faire (Mercieca), across a moment of defensiveness (Cremona), now we’re in an age of drift in which, save for the occasional hiccup, we apparently don’t know exactly where we should be heading. Lest it continues to lose its relevance and identity, the Catholic Church in Malta and Gozo urgently needs to redefine itself in relation to the current contexture of Maltese society.
On abortion and euthanasia: "In my view the discussion could be more focused and apt had we, instead of wrangling, to deal with the basic issue of one’s legal right over one’s own body."
Do you think it was a step in the right direction for the Church to open communion to divorced/remarried couples who are at peace with God? Or would you consider this part of the problem? And why?
The local Church opened communion to divorced/remarried couples because it was ordered to do so by Rome. This has not been a local initiative. Had Rome, thanks to Pope Francis, not ordered such a thing, it would not have been done, as any other matter which Rome does not command. What is the problem is that Rome cannot charge the local Church to understand the local anthropological situation of the modern Maltese and Gozitan man and woman. A local initiative must be taken for this to transpire, and this is simply not done or, worse, not felt to be a need. The problem, seriously enough, is structural, not merely functional or behavioural (which, of course, depends on the former).
If you had the power to restructure/rebrand/reposition the Church, using Malta as a case study, what would you do/change?
Strategically, I would attempt to turn around the Church’s pastoral commitment: from parochially-centred to outreach (from supply to demand; from catering to care), which would possibly also mean redesigning its sacrament-centred operations into an endeavour of evangelisation. To achieve this I would tactically seek to (not necessarily in this order or successively), appreciate the new anthropological being of the Maltese/Gozitan citizen; re-imagine an inclusive, as opposed to an exclusivist, Christian community; purge the past (especially that is still in the perception of living memory) from injurious blunders (such as the collusion with the British, Dimech’s persecution, Mintoff’s maltreatment, opposition to Independence, the divorce referendum slip-up, and the like); liquidate much of the Church’s (and churches’) surplus wealth for pastoral requirements; initiate intense educational and re-educational programmes for the clergy, and catechetical schemes for lay and religious people; and build a healthy and transparent relationship with journalists and artists.
What do you make of the debates regarding abortion and euthanasia?
Abortion and euthanasia are two areas where, at least in the Maltese Islands, politics and religion intermingle, and whenever any one of these (politics and religion) enters discussion most Maltese minds become irrational, imagine both of them together. As I understand it, the spectrum of opinions varies from fascist (complete proscription) to anarchist (complete sanction). The solution, I should imagine, would be somewhere in between. Nevertheless, in my view the discussion could be more focused and apt had we, instead of wrangling, to deal with the basic issue of one’s legal right over one’s own body.