Depending on the temperature, the humidity, and how long I’ve been away from my own bed, I either like or loathe Malta. This time of year I’m very much in like. I am strangely fascinated by the place and the more Maltese I get to know, the more I see how unique this archipelago really is. Perhaps it’s because it’s so small that people appear so different. Maybe it’s because there are so few of them, that the pack mentality isn’t quite as obvious and individuality seems to shine. And no, that’s not a polite way of saying that the Maltese I’ve met are mad – well, not in the mainstream sense of the word, anyway! But they are definitely cut from a different and more interesting cloth.
Mr. A spends his spare time tracking down the graves of relatives long since departed. There are still communal graves in Malta with a bye-law that they can’t be disturbed for two years after a burial so really you need two, on rotation, for your family – just in case. The B-B family is a cross between the Brady Bunch and the Waltons, with subtitles…and one of their four dogs actually talks. And Mr M is a self-confessed chapel chaser. He probably knows every church/chapel on the islands. While the tourist brochures tell us that Malta has 365 churches, one for every day of the year, Mr M reckons this is closer to 420 and I believe him. One of them, he said, is right bang smack in the middle of Paceville and is open all day every day. This I had to see.
Paceville is club central in Malta. It has the highest concentration of pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants anywhere on the Island and is the, if not the only, place to go ‘out on the town’. I’ve never braved it myself as there’s an unwritten roster in place and I’ve never managed to time it right. By 11pm the 14-year-olds have gone home; by midnight, the 16-year-olds have followed suit; by 1am, the 18-year-olds have left; and from then on it’s open season…by which time I’m usually nodding off to the sound of waves on shore.
I was a little sceptical when Mr M first mentioned dr0pping by the Millennium chapel as it was fast approaching midnight. I wondered how many tourists went to Paceville looking for a church! In all my travels, I have never yet come across a church that’s open 24/7. I’m lucky to find one that is open other than an hour before and after mass. I’ve been to Bratislava many times and have yet to find the Cathedral open. I found the same on various roadtrips through Hungary. And more and more in Ireland, too. So much for the church providing a refuge from the madness of world. It’s quite a sad reflection on society. But right in the heart of Paceville, is a small chapel open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Further up the road is another small chapel that apparently holds late night pre-party prayer groups for young people heading out to paint the town their own peculiar shade of red. I’d like to meet the priest who is so in touch with society and clone him.
Surveys say that despite the Catholic billing, just 50% of Maltese are practising. Yet any church I’ve been to has been nigh on full – no matter what time I go, or which church I go to. And most of them have at least two if not three or even five masses on Sunday. At Mosta one Sunday in January, I counted 672 people in the congregation and 17 altar boys on the altar ranging in age from 6 to 16. I did wonder at the absence of altar girls. (In my defense, the mass was in Maltese and I’d already been there 45 mins before it started!) The local seminary has 30 students, 5 of whom will be ordained this year. In a country with a population of just over 400,000, that’s a fairly high percentage of priests in anyone’s maths.
The times they are a changin’ though. Later this year, on 28 May, Malta will hold a non-binding referendum on the subject of divorce. A quick poll taken in the office was probably an accurate relection of the Island as a whole – it was split in two, for and against. As Malta is the only country in Europe still to outlaw divorce (and only one of two in the world to do so, the other being the Philippines), this will be a real test for this last bastion of Catholicism.