The Power of Popular Religion

Nearly 20 years presiding over classrooms of college freshmen provided me ample opportunity to confirm or question the conclusions of developmental psychology. One popular parlor trick used to engage students in the learning experience was to ask them to recall, in as much detail as possible, their earliest memory, and to attempt to date it as best they could. The students were a relatively homogeneous group, so the similarity of their responses was not entirely surprising.

Many, if not most, placed their first memory around the age of three or four. Some things were recalled quite vividly; colors were often mentioned, as were persons. They were anxious to share whatever they remembered, and were often frustrated that they recalled so little. The first memory was usually associated with an event, one that was of importance to the adults around them. Frequently it was their own birthday, with the memory of opening a particular present, or what their grandmother was wearing, or whether the sun was shining. Sometimes the memory was of a more public event, a regatta or a parade. Recalling, at the age of 18, these long passed moments, they demonstrated an early awareness of others. My sister was tired. My brother spilled water all over the table. Sometimes the memories were not as benign. I fell and cut my knee. There was a lightning storm and I was frightened. But whatever the earliest memory, the exercise, done early in college, clearly showed the students at how young an age they had begun to observe, process and judge.


That brief exercise was an attempt to examine the concept of the collective memory of a people - Where were you when...? - and its implications for our common identity. The tragedy of the explosion of the space shuttle, for example, was very real to most of my students. They recalled and shared their memories of that in a way that bound them together, even though they had been children when it happened, living in different cities and towns.

Seeds of Faith

The power of memory and recall is so profound that its implications go well beyond being a mere teaching tool, at whatever level. The implications for the task of evangelization are particularly important. In the spring of 1999, I saw one way by which the seeds of faith are planted and nourished.

Christianity came to the islands of Malta on Feb.10, 60 A.D., when Paul of Tarsus and his companions were shipwrecked on the north coast of the largest island, Malta itself. The story is told in Chapters 27 and 28 of the Acts of the Apostles. The Maltese held onto their memories, and even today they can point to the third church built on the site where the survivors lit a bonfire, to spots where Paul is reputed to have preached, to the town where he was first received by the people. And the day on which Paul’s arrival is commemorated, Feb. 10, is a legal holiday.

The Maltese, who are a mix of Carthaginian, Phoenician and Italian peoples, seem not to have accepted Christianity at once. Several centuries passed before it was firmly planted. By the third century it was universal, and its record of faithfulness is unbroken despite unimaginable challenges over the centuries. Situated as it is in the middle of the Mediterranean, between modern Italy and Tunisia, it has known foreign occupation for thousands of years. While it has taken much from its different conquerors, it has managed to maintain its own unique culture and language, as well as its faith. Setting aside the jokes that Europeans make about what constitutes heaven or hell, suffice it to say that the modern Republic of Malta enjoys an ambience that includes the English language, the British legal system, Italian cuisine, vibrant Catholicism and the southern sun. The Maltese language has been described as a mirror of Yiddish, which is Germanic written in Hebrew letters. Maltese is Arabic written in Roman letters. It really is spoken in everyday use, not as a code to exclude foreigners; but English, which is also an official language, is universally and elegantly spoken, thanks to the British heritage of the 19th and 20th centuries.

At no time during the year is modern Malta more itself than when it turns inward spiritually and looks to its Christian heritage. The season of Lent, which often begins just after the feast of the Shipwreck of St. Paul, is a time of preparation for the elaborate Holy Week manifestations and processions that take place in virtually every town in Malta and on its sister island of Gozo. Dating back to the 17th century, these Holy Week celebrations involve the whole community. Originally sponsored by various charitable confraternities and guilds, today they are usually organized by the parishes.

During the day on Holy Thursday, exhibits are mounted in parish halls, converted garagesany available open indoor space. These might be models of biblical Jerusalem, with light shows and commentary. There might be a passion play performed by the children of the parish. Elaborate creations with colored rice are displayed, like tiles, depicting scenes from the passion of Our Lord. In the evening, after the celebration of the liturgy, people go from town to town to visit the repositories in different churches. Extravagant would be too weak a word to describe the effort that goes into these displays or the effect they achieve. The Blessed Sacrament might well be guarded by perfectly costumed Roman soldiers, with the poise and precision of United States Marines .

Communal Identity

Some parishes have special observances for Easter Sunday, but most do not, possibly because the faithful are exhausted from the truly spectacular manifestations that take place on Good Friday evening. After the Good Friday liturgy, but not at once (to allow for a clear separation of the events and for preparation), in the major towns there is a procession. In the parish of Zejtun, more than half the men of the parish are actively engaged in preparing or participating in the parade. In Birgu, near Valetta, the procession takes more than three hours to pass. What is fascinating about these processions is that they have no particular cohesion, except for the tradition of the parish. There are groups dressed as biblical personages, of both Old Testament and New, sometimes gathered together. There are statues of Our Lord, the figures of the passion and of more modern saints, grouped according to a particular order, to be sure, but not a chronological one. There are bands, units of scouts, members of the confraternities dressed in their traditional robes. There are banners, with scriptural quotations, with prayers, sometimes clearly linked to the groups that carry them, sometimes not. The atmosphere of the procession is solemn, but not somber. The mood of the spectators is reverent, but far from morose. There is a professional precision about the organization and the speed of the groups as they pass, aided by the most modern of communication devices. You haven’t seen an anachronism until you’ve seen Pontius Pilate talking on a cellular telephone. But it all works. It is authentic and popular in the best sense. The entire community is involved, and it sets the mood for the solemn celebrations.

The strength of the family is still obvious in Malta. Family groups participate in the celebrations; roles are handed down from generation to generation. The youngest children are the ones most excited and enthralled by what they see and hear. I was with a young engineer, his teacher wife and their five-year-old son, who had held up manfully all during the procession. Snacks and distractions had been amply provided, but when it was clearly time to leave, he was the one to protest. I want to see the soldiers. There was a cohort of Roman legionnaires dressed and ready in the church square, but their cell phone hadn’t yet sounded. But grandma is waiting. And she has the pies ready. What a terrible choice for a little boy: soldiers or grandma. He had to think for a minute, but he must have been able to taste the spinach and anchovy treat that was waiting, and he smiled. Let’s go. Grandma won.

While these external manifestations have the whiff of the theme park about them, they must not be separated from the very real, everyday vibrant Catholicism that supports themand that they support. The Holy Week liturgies made that very clear. At St. Anthony’s in Mgarr on the island of Gozo on Holy Thursday evening, the jewel of a Franciscan church was completely filled a half hour before the service was to begin. Two choirs and a magnificent, loud organ helped fill in the time. Precise to the moment, the procession entered the church, men and women who were to be the ministers and servers for the Mass. The Franciscan Guardian was the main celebrant, assisted most closely by an older friar and a scholastic. The baroque setting looked Jesuit, and the care that went into the liturgy looked Benedictine. But the straightforward simplicity of the presider and his immediate connection to the people was pure Franciscan. His sermon was a clear and consise commentary on the Scriptures and the liturgy, focusing on the Eucharist, the priesthood, sacrifice and service. It didn’t come as much of a surprise to learn, much later, that he has a Roman doctorate in theology. What was especially notable was the modernity of the traditional liturgy. Women played a full part; several languages were used. The choice of hymnody and the excellence of the choirs supported the participation of the people. One interesting touch was the placement of those who were to have their feet washed. They were seated along the aisle, on both sides, with their families. The celebration met my three criteria for a major feast: the service was long (70 minutes), the music was loud (and very good), and the sermon was sensible.

Beyond Ourselves

On Easter Sunday morning, the Conventual Franciscans in St. Paul’s Bay provided an equally excellent, if somewhat more subdued, celebration. As missionary orders can do, they fielded a celebrant who was perfect for the congregation at the English Mass. He was a longtime pastor in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and he spoke especially of the universality of the church and of our need to go beyond ourselves in the task of evangelization.

I was moved to think of the Maltese missionary tradition, going beyond themselves to spread the Gospel message. During the 20th century no country, with the possible exceptions of Ireland and The Netherlands, provided so many missionaries for the whole church, in proportion to their own population. Pope Paul VI asked Maltese Jesuit missionaries to go to Uganda, where they remained through the horrors of Idi Amin Dada and Milton Obote, and where they remain today, to help heal the wounds of decades. I thought of the Jesuit who spent over a year as a captive of the Polisario Front in the Sudan, suffering forced marches and other horrors, and who remains in Africa, working with refugees in Ethiopia. I thought of his sister, a lay missionary, also engaged in refugee work. And I thought of the Franciscans who have followed Maltese emigrants, especially to England, Australia and Canada. I thought of the Dutch Jesuit who once said matter-of-factly, Vocations don’t fall like apples from the trees.

And I thought of the Good Friday procession. We in the United States cannot invent a tradition any more than we can build an old building. But we might have something to learn from the Holy Week tradition of Malta. It is sensual, appealing to all the senses, and it is memorable, planting the seeds of memory in the young and allowing the old to recall where they’ve been. It is communal, requiring considerable effort, and engaging the largest possible number of people. It takes advantage of the past and of tradition, and also makes use of the modern where possible, to tell the story of the community and of the church from its beginnings. And it is profoundly religious. I thought of the little boy eating the spinach and anchovy pie and wondered if, when he is 18, he will have a special memory of that night when he preferred grandma to the soldiers.

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