Office of the Ombudsman, Valletta
17 February 2016
The sign that Jesus gives in the Gospel we have just heard (Lk 11:29-32) is a paradoxical one for he says that no other sign will be given to this generation other than the sign of Jonah. From the very beginning, the Christian community strove to understand precisely what the Lord meant by these words. At one point Jesus says that just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish, and then was spat out from it, even the Son of Man spent three days in the womb of the earth and then was resurrected.
If we visit the archaeological sites of the early Christian era, that are rightly called paleochristian, we find that wherever there is the memory of death and resurrection, we also find the story of Jonah who emerged from the mouth of a fish, that is the sign of the resurrection of the Lord. This is also the sign that is given to our generation.
First of all, in this Gospel passage, the Lord compares himself to Jonah and to Solomon. Jonah is the prophet that insists on a change in our mentality – meaning, conversion. In Scripture texts, most notably those translated into Greek, we find the concept of metanoia – which means that one goes beyond one’s current mentality. Solomon, on the other hand, was called to be King and to exercise civil authority while, at the same time, having the necessary humility to pray for wisdom and knowledge when the Lord demands from him certain tasks, in order to lead his people with justice. The Lord says to Solomon that since he asked for wisdom, he will therefore bestow on him all the riches that he needs (2Chr 1:11-12).
I believe that these two important persons that Jesus mentions can also help us to understand how you could better carry out your mission of the Parliamentary Ombudsman that you represent and support. Why is that, you ask? First of all, because you are all called to be the prophetic voice of this country by calling for a change of mentality of how the people perceive civil authority. To frame it in historical terms: alas, it seems to me at times, that the people still follow the colonial model in how they view the government. We do not have the Queen, we have the President of the Republic, but we still reason things out in the same manner as ‘It’s the Queen that foots the bill’ or ‘Isn’t this from the Queen’s coffers’ – so if there is a cake, I can take a slice of it because the Queen can afford it. We still do not realize that this is an out-dated model that must change, that instead we should have one that reflects our Independence and democratic process, which ensures that the citizen himself is the owner of his dwelling. This is the fundamental achievement of Independence. When I view the government as a benefactor from which I receive benefits because it looks upon me favourably, then I have yet not understood that the government represents the Maltese people and therefore it is not a means through which I become a beneficiary, but rather, as a citizen, I too have a responsibility to bear. If I damage public property, I am damaging my own property and that of future generations because I am denying them the same advantages I enjoyed before the thing that I damaged broke down.
Therefore, the first important role of the Ombudsman, while protecting the citizen from the arbitrary exercise of authority, is to call and strive for a change in mentality in order that we, the people, acquire a truly democratic mindset that does not look upon the government as the benefactor before which we fall to our knees in order to obtain something for ourselves. Neither should whichever party is in government act as if it has won the lottery by doing what it wants with the people’s resources until the next election. Even this attitude is a feudal mentality that is anti-democratic. Therefore, the Ombudsman, who in a colonial mentality is ineffective, must promote a truly democratic mentality where the people are sovereign, not only during elections, but also when they are being governed by democratically-elected representatives. This is Jonah’s role.
It is interesting to note that Jonah was a little more fortunate than the Ombudsman because at Jonah’s command, the king of Nineveh went on a fast. The Prophet created a movement that contained an urgent message and Jonah was fortunate enough that the person in authority heeded his words. Not everyone enjoys the same good fortune, though, for there is none so deaf as those who will not hear. Hence, the Ombudsman thrives where there is a democratic will and the necessary humility that allows for the discretion of authority to be submitted to a truly independent and autonomous scrutiny. The great tragedy would be if the Ombudsman, due to some flaw in his or her selection, submits to the powers that be, and consequently invalidates the Office. At this Eucharistic celebration, I pray that this Office, which was founded two decades ago, will have a future of truth, and thus will never be just a façade that simply serves as a rubber stamp for the authorities. This would only lead to the suppression of the authentic democratic spirit of the country and subsequently, also of the common good.
Solomon is the second person mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel passage. Jesus recommends him for his wisdom during a happy time in his reign. Solomon was in high demand for even the Queen of Sheba travelled from Ethiopia to listen to his words. What is fascinating about Solomon is that even though he was celebrated for his wisdom, he still prayed to have it. He prayed for wisdom so that he would be fair in his dealings. We are then regaled with the story of the two mothers who were fighting over a baby. We all know the story of how the wise king realized who the true mother was when she objected to the king cutting the baby in half with his sword. The maternal instinct of the mother in question was confirmed because she preferred that the baby live. The Ombudsman has a similar approach whereby every citizen enjoys the same dignity in the eyes of the authorities. Furthermore, every citizen has the right to a fair hearing when an arbitrary or discriminatory decision has been taken that has impacted negatively on his or her life. The citizen, then, also has the right to seek the intervention of the Ombudsman, since the Office has the authority to conduct a thorough investigation and subsequently suggest a just remedy.
I believe that these three roles of the Office of the Ombudsman should be facilitated by an attitude of cooperation from all State entities: that the citizen’s dignity is upheld, that he or she feels empowered to lodge a complaint, that the Ombudsman enjoys the possibility to investigate without being hindered by government. Whoever hinders such a role is the enemy of the common good. Additionally, when the Ombudsman, in an autonomous manner, arrives at the conclusion that the law, either was not respected, or the judgement of the authority in question was not exercised correctly, he or she must have the option to suggest remedies that are not hollow promises that are left to rot in a drawer. Today we pray so that this service be a shield of the citizen, the conscience of authority, and moreover serves to hold the government accountable to the public. Only in this way, can the Ombudsman be an important institution that works justly and correctly.
I am aware that everything must come to an end, even roles, and therefore I thank everyone who has worked in this place. In a special way, I thank you Your Honour Chief Justice Emeritus Said Pullicino, your colleagues, everyone who works in this area of expertise, and I pray so that what the country has achieved in Independence, and then twenty years ago with the role of the Ombudsman, would be truly a valid contribution for the common good.
✠ Charles J. Scicluna
Archbishop of Malta