The Malta Independent 19 January 2020, Sunday

No saint, just a sinner

Noel Grima Tuesday, 14 January 2020, 13:48 Last update: about 4 days ago

I have now read this book three times - first in manuscript form so as to write a synopsis for the back page, a second time in book form during which I was more concerned in comparing the book's story with my personal story, underlining the similarities and concluding things could not have happened like that, and now a third time.

This time I distanced my personal story from the book's storyline and have concluded that the author has come up with a strong, gripping, story of human failings and divine love.

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Father Daniel, as the book continues till the very end to call the protagonist, is a priest from Birkirkara, living sometime in the 1970s. Young, idealist and not as mature as he might have thought, he runs an experimental youth centre where boys mix with girls.

But among the members of the youth centre there is Margaret, a young lady with cultured tastes, and an idealist friend David who writes poems no one can understand.

Fr Daniel clicks with Margaret and soon the two become fast friends, creating scandal in the parish. The book, which was written in 1982, describes the Propostu as a very serious and conservative head of the parish, basing itself more on Mgr Emmanuel Vella than on his successor, Mgr Ignazio Sciberras Psaila.

There is deep affection between the priest and the girl but nothing serious happens. Nevertheless, the youth club members misunderstand a scene they happened to see and come to the wrong conclusions.

Fr Daniel ends up under accusation at the Curia, the second time he was charged for he had already run into trouble on account of a spirited sermon touching on real realities which was interpreted as having a partisan shading.

The two agree they must not see each other again but inevitably they keep bumping into each other, and the attraction between them increases apace.

The second time I read the book, I kept saying to myself that things do no happen like that - a priest who gets involved with a girl ends up resigning from the priesthood.

But in this case, the priest does not want to resign, for he is afraid of the responsibility that marriage entails.

From here onwards the book rushes to its tragic conclusion - the priest allows his normal, human, passion to run away with him and he ends up committing what he earlier had thundered against his own sister who had become pregnant. From being a judge of somebody else's sins, he became a worse sinner himself.

When he finally sees himself as he really is, he is ready to be saved. Leaving Birkirkara far away he ends up running the small chapel of Mtahleb and living like a simple farmer.

One very good characteristic of the book are the introductory paragraphs of each chapter which describe nature in all its moods.

To conclude, the book does not idealise the priest: on the contrary it presents him as a sinner, as a person to be pitied and ultimately pardoned. It is when he accepts himself as a sinner that he is saved. The simple faith of a farmer in Mtahleb is more heartening than all the sermons in gilded churches.


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