To even the most uninformed observer, Malta’s place on the socio-religious spectrum is readily evident. A catholic tradition stretching back hundreds of years has established itself with such prominence that as a tiny archipelago-nation, we find ourselves in possession of more churches and chapels than square kilometres of territory. A ‘typical’ Maltese upbringing is also closely intertwined with Catholicism. Long before the age when personal and individual exploration of faith begins we are familiar with the rhythms of Christian life; mass, particularly at Christmas and Easter, carnival and Lent, doctrine lessons, bedtime prayers, various Holy days throughout the year, and of course, the plethora of village feasts throughout the summer all contribute to our cultural identity as a primarily Catholic nation.
Such is our national relationship to the Roman Catholic Church that its religion is enshrined in the constitution as our national religion, and its authorities are mentioned, both by right and by duty, as moral agents of this nation. To those searching further however, await a plethora of religious and secular communities of varying size, tradition and history present on our islands.
Due to our proximity with northern Africa, one might rightly assume that Islam holds prominence amongst them, but communities of Baptists, Anglicans and Russian and Greek Orthodox are all readily discoverable. A Jewish community with a lengthy history is also to be found, as well as younger but equally vibrant communities of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat and the Baha’i faith. Of the existence and practicing of other faiths on the island I am certain, and one should not consider them overlooked if their mention is not made here.
Many secular communities also exist on the island and although young, they are rapidly gaining traction through avenues of digital communication like Facebook and internet message boards. The Malta Humanist Association is chief amongst these, but loosely organised collectives of atheists are also to be found.
Where then, does this leave us as a nation, and more importantly, as a collective people? Advances in various fields have done much in the recent past to dismiss claims of racial or ethnic superiority by any nation or creed. This has quickly birthed a new paradigm that peoples around the world have been scrambling to observe in many ways and forms: that in our diversity, all humanity has been created equal and that no man may hold sway over another by virtue of entitlement alone. The peaceful coexistence of a diversity of religions and world views should be sought then, as a benchmark of an evolved and tolerant society.
The next question then is this: is mere coexistence of beliefs enough? Just as any philosophical pundit will tell you, peace derives from true harmony, and not from a begrudging mutual tolerance of ideals. Harmony in ignorance would be nothing short of a miracle, so the next logical step would be education, and this is where I make my point.
Particularly through direct experiences with those who profess to a particular religion different to our own, we enlighten ourselves to the various intricacies of the world’s varied faiths and beliefs. If conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, such encounters can create a profound understanding between all persons involved, while leading to the potential discovery of common ground and shared beliefs, promoting a spirit of unity between people who might have previously believed that they had very little in common!
Doesn’t such interactions at a grass roots level hold promise for the future of our society? The initiative of individuals or small groups of people to seek out, learn from and share with communities of a different cultural and spiritual heritage, with the intent of broadening horizons, increasing knowledge and dispelling that ancient enemy of progress, the fear of the unknown is surely an initiative to be praised and pursued. Through such pursuits we are all both tested in matters of patience, tolerance and understanding, and encouraged to deepen our knowledge of our personal faith and beliefs, so as to present clear, coherent communication to any willing listeners. Much progress is made when institutions and organisations take up this mantle, but how much more so when individuals take it up on their own initiative. After all, we have all been the faculties necessary to communicate with, get to know, and eventually even love our neighbour!