In Malta, when explosions regularly rip through the night sky, they are fireworks to celebrate the feast of a local saint. Antonia Willis samples the sacred revelry.
MALTA, A SMALL ISLAND
south of Sicily and north of Libya is, with its sister island of Gozo, a thriving heartland of the Catholic faith. There are more churches per square mile on Malta than anywhere else in the world, as anyone who has attempted to sleep through Sunday morning bell-ringing will testify.
Nowhere in Europe will you find a place where the Church is more closely woven into the fabric of everyday life than in Malta. At night, from June to September, the sky is rent with the deafening sounds of explosions from a dozen villages, celebrating a festa in honour of their local saints. Every second house you pass bears a plaque with a name such as "Redeemer", "Immaculate Conception", "Sacred Heart". There is a style of vehicle decoration unique to the islands, derived from the painting of fishingboats; the roads swarm with turquoise lorries called "Sr Joseph" and duck-egg blue cars called "St Rita". They also swarm with Ford Transit vans driven by tiny, speeding nuns who don't believe in indicators, and who cheerfully cut up the laity at major roundabouts. The island's splendidly antiquated fleet of green buses carry virtual onboard shrines, with icons, palm-fronds and alarming inscriptions such as "Mother of God preserve us".
The Maltese people have more faith in the Almighty's propensity to intervene in earthly affairs than many of us might think prudent. Malta, for instance, is an island where in happy disregard of international health and safety procedures, fireworks are still made by hand; the Mount Carmel fireworks factory, built on a rocky promontory at a cautious distance from the nearest village, has three times lost its roof to explosions, and after the third incident it was decided to abandon the idea of a roof altogether, Instead, the workers had a chapel built: "Ave 1990 Maria" proclaims the small stone building, and they haven't had any accidents since. The firework-lighter of Ghaxaq (it is a great honour to touch off the fireworks display at a festa) is missing one eye, one fingerjoint and an expanse of scalp.
His village is notorious for the ardour shown by the rival Clubs of St Joseph and St Mary. In a somewhat excessive display of devotion, much censured by the bishop, the two clubs regularly riot against each other, hurling insults, schoolroom chairs and occasionally soft-drink bottles. St Mary's devotees are mostly female, St Joseph's male; neither has yet gained the upper hand.
The Maltese know how lucky they are to have the freedom to indulge in the odd harmless religious riot amongst themselves; things could so easily have turned out very differently for them. Even a glimpse at their language shows what a narrow escape they had from the forces of Islam. In a country where a hill is a "gebel", where "the sultan" is still a character in folklore, it nevertheless comes as a shock to hear the churches resound to praise of "Alla", who is separated from the Islamic concept by a great deal more than just a missing 'h'. Two great struggles against Islam took place on the islands, both dominated by men of the Church; in the late 11th
century, Count Roger the Norman expelled the Arabs, aided by the redoubtable Bishop Otho, who went into battle carrying a club rather than a sword; "I *ill not spill blood", he is reputed to have said, "but this club will crack a heathen skull as well as any sword". Much later, in 1565, the famous Knights of St John of Jerusalem repelled the Turks after a devastating siege, during which the Maltese showed the same courage and tenacity that was to earn them the George Cross in the Second World War, resisting another attempted barbarian invasion. The 1565 siege marked a turning point in the battle for Europe between Islam and Christianity, and is still remembered with pride by the Maltese.
It was under a blazing sky, in which the white-and-yellow Papal colours fluttered alongside the white-and-blue of Our Lady, that I met two Maltese Catholic women to ask them about the role that the Church played in their lives. Janet Camilleri, a strik ing blonde in her late thirties, was born into an English forces family and has married a Maltese citizen, converting to Catholicism in the process. Her two daughters are being brought up in the faith. Her friend Janie Rapinett, with the fine bones and huge, dark eyes characteristic of so many Maltese women, has lived on the island all her life, is married with a son, and attends Mass every morning before starting her working day. Both women were unequivocal about their allegiance to the Church. "You don't know anything if you don't go to the Mass", says Janie. "And afterwards, you hear all the news; who is sick, who is well, who is in trouble." "The church is the. grapevine of the village", Janet adds; "and the solution in Malta to why families stay together and why crime and drug abuse isn't so rife as in the UK is because everybody has access to the church. In the UK you have to go through so many channels Okay, you can ring the Samaritans, but they're on the end of the phone; social workers won't even know whether your problems are real or imaginary; here, you can talk to the Kapillan (parish priest), he is there straight away".
The Kapillan is pivotal to Maltese village life. Janet would feel no qualms about consulting him on the tricky issue of whether her teenage daughter should wear makeup.
Unlike English critics of a celibate clergy, these Maltese women feel no inhibitions in confiding their thoughts to an unmarried, childless male; "If you have a problem", says Janie, "you must discuss it with the Capillan. He is there seeing things without the complications of life, he can advise you because he can be a philosopher too. Because he stands outside the problems of having a family, he can see things straight in a way you cannot see them".
Lest this should sound all too much like a back-tobasics celebration of religious orthodoxy, I have to add that, this being Malta, a crowd of other women soon joined our troika to put forward their views, and within seconds the thorny issue of contraception arose. "God sees what is in my heart, not the Pope", insisted one contraceptiveusing mother of four. "This matter of children is only
between husband and wife", said a second mother; "And how can I expect my Ninu to provide for another one?" Abortion, they all agreed, was terrible, nothing less than infanticide; contraception would limit its practice. Even in this heartland of the Faith, the question of personal conscience versus Church diktat was debated by the women of the village with a fervour and intensity you might expect to have found in a 16th Century Cambridge
As they talked, Janie's husband strolled by. "When is his birthday?" asked a friend. He overheard, and replied, "In August, on the feast of St Mary". In Malta, only a complete ignoramus could fail to know the date.
Two feet away, Janet had changed tack; the drugs problem was being discussed. "Monsignor Grech says it could happen as early as ten years old", she was saying. The Monsignor's words
counted; the women's attention turned towards her. Doubtless they returned home determined to keep an eagle eye on their ten-year-olds.
I am sure that there are a few snakes in the Eden of Malta, as there are anywhere; but there is much to learn from the Maltese people whose membership of the Church has been so hardwon.
Trips to the shrine of Our Lady at Ta'Pinu, Gozo, are advertised in many publications; if you have a Catholic destination in mind this summer, why not go there and see?