a Catholic culture? Last week's article on Catholic Malta by the editor, Debbie Jones, vividly transported me back in imagination to the house in the centre of the island where my parents lived for the last twenty years of their lives, and to Holy weeks and Easters spent there through the years.
In particular the alarming photograph of hooded pentitertts (looking exactly like the Ku Klux Klan) brought back the Good Friday processions throught the narrow streets. The processional route for all the religious processions (usually, of course, considerbly more exuberant) went past the house.
On Good Friday, both the rival bands of the village would be playing funereal music behind the clergy and the various tableaux depicting stations of the cross. Then, finally, the chilling sound of chains being dragged by the hooded penitenti (the longer the chain the heavier the burden of sin) who gave the impression like Marley's ghost of being irrevocably condemned to remain in that condition.
This was a real penitential act, and a physically gruelling one. After this chilling reminder of the reality of the bonds of sin, the triumph of Easter day is unforgettable: the statue of the risen Christ, banner held aloft, is paraded through the streets at an exhilerating pace, the bands running behind it, blaring joyfully.
Religious festivals are always done at full blast, the patronal festivals so noisy and all engulfing that some British residents (who retired there for peace and quiet in the sun) go away for the week.
It is all very unlike like the home life of our own dear English Catholic Church. But does it all mean that the Maltese are deeply Catholic in more important ways in the lives they lead and in their personal relationship with God? Only God knows, of course, but there are signs that say more perhaps, than the great festivals.
One of them is the level of daily Mass attendance. At six in the morning, on the way to the airport to catch an early flight home, one would see the faithful pouring out of the churches, some to return home, others going straight to the bus stops on their way to work.
Getting up really early is easier and more normal in the Mediterranean; all the same, an extra half hour in bed is always welcome and the willingness to forgo it is in my opinion a sign of real faithfulness: as GK Chesterton once groaned, struggling into a taxi early one cold winter's morning on a holy day of obligation, "only religion could bring a man to such a pass".
Another sign is the kindness and courtesty of the people to the stranger in their midst. The only other Catholic country I have known well is Ireland, where I was an undergraduate in the Sixties. There, too, daily Mass attendance was very high. And there, too, the stranger was kindly treated.
I heard much that was shameful about the injustices of English rule over seven centuries, still as vivid now in the Irish psyche as they ever were. But in four years, my very evident Englishness never once attracted discourtesy (nor did my youthful atheism, which evoked only wonder).
Despite the supposedly wonderful changes in Irish life over the last two decades with a sinking heart. The power of the Church is broken. The country is prospering. But are the people as kind as they were? Is Irish life as sane and as humorous and as civilised? I only ask.