The Malta Independent 21 May 2024, Tuesday
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Launch of the Peter Serracino Inglott Foundation

Sunday, 7 April 2024, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago
Fr Peter Serracino Inglott with Myriam and Richard England in 1998
Fr Peter Serracino Inglott with Myriam and Richard England in 1998

Fondazzjoni Peter Serracino Inglott was launched on 16 March, 12 years after his death, at the Robert Samut Hall, after a mass at Sarria Church led by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna. Architect Richard England, a lifelong friend of Serracino Inglott, delivered the inaugural lecture.

"Allow me first to extend my thanks to the founders of the Peter Serracino Inglott Foundation, Dr Louis Galea, Professor Petra Caruana Dingli, Ranier Fsadni and Mother Abbess Maria Adeodata Testaferrata de Noto. It is heartening to know that Peter's cognitive archival legacy of thoughts, writings and memorabilia, a priceless endowment, is now safely preserved within the sheltered confines of the Benedictine Monastery in the ancient citadel of Mdina. Peter's legacy must indeed be regarded as a national treasure. The foundation therefore deserves thanks and plaudits for collating and safely guarding what must be regarded a paradigm treasure of a unique luminous wizard, blessed with all the rainbow colours of knowledge and wisdom.


Let me, however, before proceeding further state that while I was honoured and privileged to have been invited to deliver tonight's tribute, I must confess that my acceptance was mantled over by many a layer of trepidation and apprehension, for to pay tribute to a savant genius of Peter's stature is an onerous, taxing and arduous task. As such, hagiography is difficult to avoid!

On a personal level I consider myself particularly fortunate and privileged to have shared an intimate friendship with Peter for over six decades. Our first meeting is perhaps best recounted in his own words, penned years later for an introduction to one of my publications. 'First encounters are often indelible. I remember vividly the first time I met Richard England, my junior by one year, over half a century ago. The elegance of his presence (elegance at the age of 13?) made me feel like an unmade bed. He was to provide me with photographs that he had been taking to illustrate an article that I was writing about local farmhouses'. On receipt of Peter's text, I had sent a note to thank him for his customary, brilliant writing (worth remembering that when a student at Oxford his writing skills had earned him the Chancellor's Prize for English prose). I had, however, also commented that I did harbour one regret... that the bed was still unmade! Among his many qualities and assets, elegance and punctuality certainly did not feature.

Soon after our first meeting, already fascinated and intrigued as I was with the monadic stone iceberg islet of Filfla, that floating sacred altar focal point shrine for the mainland's Neolithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, I was thrilled to discover, at the National Library, a Giorgio Grognet 1864 dossier claiming the thalassic outcrop to be a remnant of the lost city of Atlantis. Unable to decipher the text, and believing that I had made a novel discovery, I proudly related my find to Peter. His reply was 'kumbinazzjoni xi gimghatejn ilu ghamilt translation taghha'. One step ahead! His anticipatory pre-emption on all subjects ever mentioned to him remained a constant manifestation of his widespread and extensive knowledge.

Before delving into Peter's legacy at both local and international levels allow me to refer to some of our many mutual collaborations, from which I always emerged intellectually and spiritually enriched. During the period of my mapping of the matrix of the Manikata church, Peter was my theological and liturgical advisor, fundamental to my fashioning a contemporary church which adhered to the requirements of the then novel Vatican II liturgical reforms.

I particularly cherish his cognitive introductions to many of my publications and specifically fondly recall our discussions during my mapping of the stage-set and costume designs for the production of his two Charles Camilleri set to music operas, Compostella (about which more later) and The Maltese Cross, based on Schiller's Die Malteser fragments. During our exchanges on the latter production, I remember him relishing his creation of de Valette's imaginary jester, manifesting his long-standing penchant for clowns. In fact, he often confessed that if he had not opted for the priesthood, he would have become a clown. Another penchant was his fondness for donkeys. During Peter's tenure as rector, when I was designing the university extension and working on a masterplan for the campus I had whimsically suggested in my report, (specifically for his benefit), that the ring road traffic problem could perhaps be solved by droves of donkeys. Three of Peter's contributions, which I particularly hold close to my heart, are his theological and philosophical overlays to my wife Myriam's floral arrangements in her Ikebana, The Liturgy of Love publication, his texts for my daughter Sandrina's book on Icons and his speech at the opening of my son Marc's painting exhibition. Peter was, for me for many a year, not only a valued and sagacious inspiration, but also a much esteemed and loved family friend and confidant.

Enough personal recollections, although all fondly cherished and forever retained in the mnemonic chambers of my mind. Arduous as the task is, I shall now attempt to address Peter's immeasurable and prodigious contributions, all of which reflect his visionary acumen and sagacious insight as priest, teacher, author, poet, speaker and socio-political advisor. His over 20 books (some still to be published), librettos for five operas, Compostella, The Maltese Cross, Elisabeth or to be a Mann, Zebra and Calypso, and his more than four score articles, fifty Arte Cristiana contributions, learned texts on the thematics of liturgy, religion, art, architecture, intellectual equity, the Church, Christianity and a myriad other subjects. The sheer volume of his work is absolutely astonishing, but then like Jorge Luis Borges, who Peter vainly attempted to meet, he believed that 'creative labour never feels like work'. His homilies delivered at the Tarxien Tal-Erwieh church must also be mentioned as they are jewel reflections on liturgy and scriptural doctrine. His over 100 contributions to books and journals are again a demonstration of his fathomless expertise on seemingly endless subjects.

Described as an 'intellectual luxury for the island' his international influence and esteem beyond our shores was equally great. Due to his extraordinary intellectual prowess and greyhound-like pursuit of knowledge through his avid reading, at an extraordinary fast pace, together with his prodigious mastery of language he was internationally highly esteemed and respected. A number of his savant contributions deserve particular mention. His recommendation for a complete united Europe focusing on the amalgamation of the East and West regions of the continent proposed a new type of political entity. The paper recommended a policy of unity as opposed to one of fragmentation, which he believed could lead to even wider global integration.

Another of Peter's cardinal international contributions was his advanced ideas about the sea and ocean bed. He argued that Poseidon's Realm should not be owned but shared as the common heritage of mankind. He believed that the seabed, one of the last untapped resources of the planet, should not be appropriated but shared as a communal asset. The concept further developed with Arvid Pardo and Elisabeth Mann Borghese was without doubt history in the making.

Of all of his literary works, he considered the philosophical libretto of the Opera Compostella as 'my most important writing' and the Arte Cristiana article Labirinti Antichi e Problemi Liturgici attuali as containing 'my best theological ideas'. Both texts tackle the thematic of life as a journey and pilgrimage. The Compostella libretto in Italian, a compelling and demanding text, is in a way a Christian reply to Luis Bunuel's non-theist film La Vita Attea. The narrative focuses on man's space-time labyrinthine meandering journey to the end-edge finis terrae, a unicursal pilgrimage of self-discovery to eventually reach the threshold link between the finite and the infinite. The whole theme of the libretto text is about the tortuous passage from in-time to out-of-time. Again, the words of Jorge Luis Borges seem perhaps best to relate to Peter's theme 'I imagine a labyrinth of labyrinths, twisting, turning, ever widening that contained both past and future'. Giacomo, the Apostle James, the opera's main protagonist, dreams of a city built on dialogue and communication which perfectly reflected Peter's own visionary urban reverie. The Arte Cristiana article also tackles journey and wayfinding meandering through the labyrinth of life to the exit of death, rebirth and redemption. He also considered his text on food... yes believe it or not, he was also an expert on food! ... amongst his best writings. Entitled Eating as A Process of Identification, it pioneered the idea that one's choice of food is in reality a manifestation of one's identity.

Among Peter's most locally influential texts, An Alternative Future for Malta, an oracular beacon for a new reality deserves special mention. This seminal 1980 document laid out a prognostic roadmap for the foundation of a society built on dialogue. The paper was to form the basis of the 1981 Nationalist Party's electoral campaign. This came about thanks to the initiative of a Louis Galea 1980 organised meeting between Peter and then Nationalist Party Leader Eddie Fenech Adami. This was a propitious and auspicious encounter which planted the seeds for vital changes in the island's political history. Soon Peter was to become the prime minister's consultant, advisor and speech writer and the party's main policymaker, although with no political portfolio. There is no doubt that he was indeed the right person at the right time. The Alternative Future article promoted a philosophy for a left wing central Christian Democratic party, which was later to form the basic roots for the ghoxrin punt electoral manifesto, which gained the party the 1987 electoral victory. Peter's visionary writings on the direction Malta could have taken remain a compelling and cognizant testament, well worth revisiting today as a valid contribution for the country's cultural and social reinstatement. Although the Nationalist Party's strategic visionary mastermind, he always focused more on the good of the nation than on the good of the party.

There were, of course, times when, because of his avant-garde thoughts, he ruffled feathers. Specifically controversial was his argument that embryo freezing was not immoral if kept for future use by the couple who created them, and even if not eventually used. On the other hand, he remained strongly against anonymous egg and sperm donations. He was again ahead of his time when he proposed that it would be appropriate for Malta to legislate for divorce. Another example of his avant-garde thinking was that when at his second tenure at the Istituto Beato Angelico he fostered the introduction of electronic media in liturgical celebrations; an avant-garde proposal rejected as too advanced for its time.

Once appointed rector of the University of Malta he was quick to rescue it from its long politically imposed frozen spell. Before assuming this role, as Professor of Philosophy, and after, he taught and lectured on a myriad of subjects, theology, economics, Mediterranean studies, film, theatre, literature, art history and of course philosophy. When delivering his scintillating lectures or talks Peter would inevitably meander into tangential escapades which initially seemed irrelevant to his main subject. Italo Calvino's words from his Six Memos for The New Millenium, 'jumping from one subject to another, losing the thread and finding it again after endless twists and turns' provide an apt description. Finding the thread again in his last few sentences manifested his ability to relate the forked twists to the thematic of the main subject. These mid-talk excursions were also in themselves miniature masterclasses.

Despite his exceptional sagacity he was perilously absent-minded, especially on mundane subjects. He also retained a clownish sense of humour and often recounted, with a mischievous impish smile and a twinkle in his eyes, his many escapades, real or contrived by him or others always salted with an overdose of jocular humour. These ranged from sitting in a cage with a tiger in Paris, boarding the wrong plane in Rome and ending up in Peru instead of Milan, falling off a boat in crocodile infested waters in Burundi and ending up trouserless on a train. Over and above his intellectual prowess, his goodness, kindness and generosity prevailed. The loving care he poured on his mother, especially in her final ailing days is another testament to his altruistic nature. Always, he fostered the music of humanity.

Now back again to his international status. As a voracious globetrotter, even when his health was failing, his visionary ideas and intellectual acumen produced telling contributions to international conventions, conferences and institutions. In his capacity as advisor to Unesco on Future Generations, contributor to the International Ocean Institute and chairman of the Commonwealth Council of Science and Technology he was highly esteemed and respected. Not surprising then that he was the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates and recognitions from an array of international institutions and universities together with honours from the French, Italian and Portughese governments.

Today, as our island descends into a seemingly bottomless abyss of environmental spoilage and dwindling moral standards, I wonder what Peter's reaction would have been to our parched and seared souls were he still with us. Without doubt he would have shed a few tears, as he watched the ever-ascending towers of mammon, and their prenatal skeletal cranes eclipse the once dominant, now weeping, spires of faith. Perhaps he may even have proposed some form of road map for rehabilitation. At these times of turbulence and moral vacuity it is perhaps time for echoes of his sagacity to resound anew.

All of us who knew Peter constantly urged him to produce his magnum theological philosophical opus on the existence of God. However, he believed that human language in attempting to describe God flounders and fails. He considered the human lexicon not adequate as a Divine meta-language, stating that human vocabulary dies once it crosses the threshold to the unworldly. He considered conceptualizing God practically impossible, as also understanding and knowing God's nature. He believed that while words are inadequate, silent appreciation was closer to experiencing God. We, however, must consider ourselves fortunate in having a taste of Peter's profound reflections on God thanks to Daniel Massa's insistence of a Coda on the subject to his Kingmaker tome. The book's closing chapter features dialogues between Peter and Daniel and Peter's interlocutions with Mary Ann Cassar, which provide us with tantalizing morsels of Peter's spiritual and theological concepts on the Divine. His title for these dialogues Beyond Shsh towards H'm is vintage Peter! Shsh points us towards the aforementioned silence and H'm, the noise we make when we are at a loss to find the right word emphasises human inability to find an adequate lexicon to describe God. Beyond Shsh towards H'm must surely ring forever in our minds reflecting the human incapacity to understand and comprehend God.

In conclusion, allow me to lapse once more into personal mode. A long-time friendship with an outstanding polymath personality of Peter's stature can only enrich, illuminate and fructify one's life. In a way he was to me in Aristotle's words 'a form of second self'. Now, however, the hourglass is empty, the clepsydra dry and the sun dial shaded, yet still his legacy resounds loud as ever. At his demise I felt that part of me passed with him as if to paraphrase Flaubert's words 'when a friend dies something of you also dies'. Peter was indeed a Promethean figure ignited by the fires of a rare intelligence; a transient pilgrim sprinkled with golden wisdom. At his funeral mass I had initiated my last farewell by requesting the congregation to allow me a deep breath, for I felt that part of me also lay in his casket. Grief is the price we pay for love. At his passing I felt that chapters of the book of my life had been torn out.

Peter, dear and cherished friend, I lament your loss. As myriad alchemist and luminous numinous lantern of wisdom I salute you. In view of my difficulty to find adequate words to express my final respects, allow me to borrow the verses of the poet Robert Burns, 'few hearts like his with virtue warmed, few heads with knowledge so informed'."

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