Homily by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna
Westminster Cathedral, London
9th September 2017
On the 7th of September 1565 the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and Rhodes realised that the horrible Great Siege had finally been lifted. The Ottoman galleons were on their way back to say that they didn’t manage to find the islands of Malta. “Malta yok” is an expression in Turkish that means Malta is nowhere, and that was the excuse the Ottomans that returned to Constantinople, or Istanbul, could give for their great defeat.
The Knights and the Maltese had a great Te Deum in the great city of Birgu and they realised that it was the birthday of Our Lady, the 8th of September. From that time Birgu became Citta, or Civitas Victoriosa and the first church which was built on Mount Sciberras which came to be named after the Grand Master Jean Parisot de Vallette, was dedicated to the birth of Our Lady under the title of Our Lady of Victories, Sancta Maria della Victoria.
And for centuries the 8th of September became also the memorial of an important victory that saved the Islands of Malta and Gozo from slavery and from forced abandonment of their faith. An unfortunate state had fallen on the island of Gozo in 1551. There had been first attempts by the Ottomans namely to capture the islands; they didn’t manage to capture Mdina, the main city of the island of Malta and, frustrated and angry, they went to Gozo and took all the inhabitants, except for some old people, into slavery.
The Maltese knew what fate they had to expect, if the Ottomans in 1565 in huge numbers had to win, it was the end of freedom and also the end of their faith. And so they attributed their victory not only to the savoir-faire of the Grand Master and his Knights but also to the courage of the Maltese but especially through the intercession of Our Lady.
On the 7th of September 1943 the Italian navy surrendered to the British in the Grand Harbour. For Malta and its islands, that was the end of World War II. As we all know, World War II had to continue on different fronts, the European one and the Pacific front, but for our little Mediterranean islands another important date was linked to the birth day of Our Lady. And so the memorial of these two victories which gave the certainty of freedom and the enjoyment of our faith, is part of our important historical narrative and, as his excellency the High Commissioner said, “part of our heritage”.
But what does it mean for us today? Does this memory have a future in the world today? I had the opportunity in a number of homilies I gave in Malta before coming here, during the feast of Our Lady of Victories, the birthday of Our Lady, I said that these victories are really a work in progress. It is not that we are celebrating something that happened in 1565 and then in 1943. We may still be under siege in a different way on different levels and we cannot lower our guard. There are values of freedom, human dignity, religious freedom, the value of solidarity and compassion. They are the heritage that we need to preserve and defend. And the enemy may not be coming in ships or on planes but maybe in our hearts: that temptation and seduction to take care of ourselves and forget the others. You think that private interest is the sole criteria for success, forgetting the common good.
And so I think that as we celebrate victories past, we need to hope and pray for victories present and future because we have sieges that are present and we also have enemies in the future. We need to keep on fighting the good fight. Having been blessed by finding ourselves on the right side of history on a number of occasions, we need to keep on bringing from one generation to the other, the blessed heritage of our faith and of our values: the values of the family, the values of a society that is open to others and dearly holds compassion and solidarity that are very, very important values in the interest of civilisation. The civilisation is the attribute of people who know how to go beyond self-interests to take care of the common household of human kind, of mankind, then we need to strive to hold together, work together, and keep civilisation alive. Otherwise, we are doomed to the defeat of a people who have no future because they have forgotten their past.
And as we remember our forefathers with pride and with gratitude, we also remember people who have settled here in the United Kingdom. Maltese have found a home in the United Kingdom. May they still find in the United Kingdom hospitable love to provide a home. They have contributed to this country. It will be a sad day when the contribution is forgotten and they are sent packing back from where they came. That will be a sad day indeed.
We are here today to thank God for the contribution of the Maltese to Britsh society, praying that we will have a future by so many other contributions of so many other cultures to this great country which has been made strong, glorious and great by the contribution of so many who made a home where people can work together, live together and grow together.
✠ Charles J. Scicluna
Archbishop of Malta