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People came in ones and twos until the place was packed. Somebody closed the door to stifle the breeze. Then Father Angelo Seychell — a short, rotund priest in a spotless white robe — glided in, positioned himself beneath the crucifix, began Mass.
The congregation followed the proceedings automatically. But when it came to the sermon, there was an unexpected change. “This is the last Mass before the referendum on divorce,” said Father Angelo. “In order to prevent misunderstandings” — here there was a slight murmur in the pews — “the Archbishop has recorded a message.” He pressed play on an iPod, and a serene, disembodied voice filled the church.
“The question,” said the voice, “is whether we want divorce to be legal in Malta. The Church believes that a vote against for the family is an act of hope. A vote for divorce will lead to the destruction of family life.” A woman fanned herself with a leaflet. The man next to me checked his watch. “We will all carry the consequences of our decision,” the voice continued. “We should join the mission of Lord Jesus to protect the family.”
Malta, that deeply Catholic island between Sicily and Libya, is one of only two countries in the world where divorce is illegal (the other is the Philippines). As the day of the referendum — May 28th — approaches, Father Angelo and his small congregation have received more attention than they bargained for. First, a national newspaper reported that he was refusing to give communion to supporters of divorce. A week later, an apology was printed; it hadn’t been Father Angelo after all. Not long afterwards, it was reported that he had delivered a scandalous sermon in which he accused the pro-divorce camp of being “purcinelli”, or “clowns.” The paper apologised again; Father Angelo had simply mentioned the full name of a pro-divorce MP, Jeffery Pullicino Orlando. Pullicino, not Purcinelli. Such is the fog of war.
I had visited Jeffry (not the clown) Orlando the previous day, and had found him in a state of great anxiety. “I never expected the church to wage such a dirty campaign,” he said. “They have been intimidating our supporters. They hold the power here in Malta, and they are obviously feeling threatened.”
An example of this was sitting right next to him: Deborah Schembri, a family lawyer and Chairperson of the pro-divorce campaign. Recently, the Church had banned her from practising in the Ecclesiastical Court. “I’ve lost 40% of my income,” she said. “But they won’t stop me campaigning.”
I stepped into the garden and called Anna Vella, the leader of the anti-divorce campaign, to put these accusations to her. “Deborah Schembri is contractually bound to respect the beliefs of the church,” she said. “So she was in breach of contract.”
“The important thing is the argument,” continued Anna Vella. “Studies have found that the Maltese are the happiest people in Europe. This must be due to our family values. If divorce is introduced, people will take marriage less seriously and everything will collapse. Why should we voluntarily create the same problems as the rest of the world?”
I went back in to join Jeffery and Deborah, and told them what Anna Vella had said. “We are already like the rest of the world,” said Deborah, jumping up and down slightly with frustration. “Our rate of failing marriages is similar to the rest of Europe. The only difference is, we can’t remarry.”
Jeffery agreed. “In Malta, there is no separation between Church and State,” he said. But before he could elaborate, his phone rang, and he stepped into the garden to take the call. When he tried to get back in, the door had locked. As I struggled to open it, he mouthed at me through the glass: “act of God.”
After Father Angelo concluded Mass, he showed me into his chaotic office, and pulled out a copy of the Maltese Constitution. He pointed out Chapter 1, article 2.2, which gives the Church “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.”
“You see?” he said. “They want us to tear up our Constitution and write a new one.” But, I pointed out, doesn’t that extract from the Constitution demonstrate the blurring of Church and State? He chuckled. “Church and State are distinct,” he said, “but connected.”
“Yes . . .” I said. But before I could question him further, he pulled out a feature he had written for a Maltese newspaper, entitled “either love, or sex, love and rock and roll.” It was illustrated by a photograph of the Royal newlyweds William and Kate. “You see?” he said, “what God has brought together, let no man tear asunder. We must not forget that in Malta.”