There is a peaceful little church in Rabat that’s commonly known as Tas-Saħħa, though it has two dedications, one as a Church of St Francis, and the other as a Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Health. I had the good fortune of being shown around the church by Fr Eugene Teuma, a friar there, who mentioned that the current church is built on top of the original, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693. Attached to the original church, in the building that is now the National Archive, was the Franciscan hospital of St Francis, later known as Santo Spirito.
Fr Teuma explained that a number of discoveries have uncovered the fact that many Franciscan friaries around the world were attached to hospitals. Although healing has been a part of the Franciscan ministry since St Francis served the lepers, the existence of a number of Franciscan hospitals was gradually forgotten, for a number of reasons; in Europe, this was mostly due to the destruction of religious buildings during the Protestant uprisings and the two World Wars.
“They were lost to time,” said Fr Teuma, “but not in Malta, not until the 20th Century.” The Franciscan hospital in Rabat closed its doors in the 1960’s, making way for the National Archive.
Time can seem to move a little slower in Malta.
Like a number of other societies around the world, Malta’s seems to have retained much of its culture, national values, and identity, even in a time when many are trading theirs for a more continental, or global, melting pot. What is unique about Malta is the extent to which this has remained in the nation as a whole, though this can likely be explained by the size of the population; even the greatest of “cultural differences” within the Maltese are not so disparate. That being said, there is great diversity already inherent to Malta, as the product of centuries of colonialism, with each empire and ethnicity leaving their mark.
Changes to national norms are often cited as necessary for the expression of compassion, which must be understood in order to be implemented well (with moderation). So, what is compassion? Put simply, it is an expression of love; “com-passion” invites us to “suffer-with” another, their pain moving us to action. The Ven. Fulton Sheen (in Three to Get Married) offers one of the best illustrations of Love I have ever read, and although he speaks in the context of marriage, I believe that we face similar questions in any context where we are attempting to be loving, or compassionate, towards another. At one point in this illustration, Sheen encourages spouses to resist the temptation to idolise each other in an attempt to love one another, and only submit oneself fully to Love itself. The distinction may appear subtle, but it profoundly affects the dynamic of the whole relationship. Taking this as a principle for love and compassion as a whole, I believe that in submitting ourselves wholly to love (for another), rather than directly to another, we enable the building of a genuine relationship, which leaves room for similarities and diversity, and grows.
One example of this on a national level might be Malta’s keenness to support humanitarian efforts, coupled with its invitation to all permanent residents to assimilate the local culture. The Maltese donate generously, both abroad and at home: we are consistently among the most generous (per capita) in disaster relief efforts, and we are now a place of refuge for our brethren fleeing conflict. We give freely, expecting no return and irrespective of the culture on the receiving end. At the same time, those who stay in Malta for the long-term are encouraged to learn and respect our culture and language, and participate in the life of their community. As a nation, we are moved by the needs and suffering of others, while nonetheless being committed to remaining ourselves. I believe this allows us to keep being the same compassionate and charitable people in the first place – giving all to the pursuit of genuine love, without idolising the beloved.
Whether it was due to this, or to being (relatively) unaffected by trials that hit the rest of Europe, Malta seems to have taken its time in following in the way of the so-called “major powers” of the world on a number of changes. Change, of course, can be for better, or for worse, so as a nation we benefit from being selective: watching and learning from the attempts of others, and only picking from the best. This can be used to inform prudence in decision-making, as I believe it has been.