Ian Borg’s mark

▪️ Ian Borg’s mark ▪️ Wanted: Indian or African priests ▪️ Happy days?

It is not often that tiny Malta has an impact on world affairs, but the recent couple of years have been particularly productive.  With no less than 97.3% of votes cast, in 2022 our country was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to take a non-permanent seat at the UN’s Security Council for the period 2023-2024. It is the second time since Independence that we have fulfilled this role.  For a one-month period in February 2023 and as we speak, Malta has served as presidency of the UNSC. Malta’s work has drawn praise from other countries.

It was particularly gratifying that Malta contributed significantly to the adoption by the Security Council of a first resolution calling for an “immediate” ceasefire in Gaza, after Russia and China had vetoed an earlier text proposed by the United States.  The ceasefire would coincide with the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan, hopefully “leading to a permanent sustainable ceasefire”. The resolution also demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages as well as the “lifting of all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale”.

Although Israel is likely to ignore the resolution, being in the grips of an ultra-nationalist Prime Minister and government, this does not diminish the importance of the resolution in sending a strong message to Israel that the world has become impatient with its assault on Gaza and its lack of respect for humanitarian rules.

Malta’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, Vanessa Frazier, has said that some of the language used in the resolution was taken from the Malta-led motion four months ago.  Apparently, the United States had attempted to replace the words “immediate ceasefire” with “humanitarian pauses”, a request resisted by Malta and the rest of the elected members. But Frazier added she was grateful for the willingness shown by Israel’s closest ally, the United States, to engage with the elected members during negotiations.

“It’s true Israel has a history of not implementing UN resolutions, but now with international pressure building   ̶   including from the US   ̶   if they continue to violate international law it will weaken their case in the ICJ (International Court of Justice),” she said.  Israel is currently facing accusations at the ICJ of having illegally occupied Palestine less than three months after being hauled in front of the same court to answer allegations of genocide.

Vanessa Frazier, Malta’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. Photo: Loey Felipe/UN.

 This and other achievements all confirm the enthusiasm of the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Ian Borg, who has raised the status of his ministry from one normally associated with dull and mundane tasks to one which shows that diplomacy is a tool which any country can use to good effect. 

Wanted: Indian or African priests

Recently, Fr Jimmy Bonnici, Rector of the Archbishop’s Seminary, told the Times of Malta that, for the first time in 40 years, this year there were no new recruits embarking on studies for the priesthood in the Seminary.  The number of recruits has been on a constant downward trend for several years, dropping from an average of over 30 a decade ago to just a handful in recent years.

Vocations continue to dwindle, reflecting cultural and other changes taking place in Maltese society, according to Fr Bonnici.  He mentioned the decline in the fertility rate and a similar decline in practically all caring professions, such as teaching and nursing.  This trend, which is also common in Europe and the US, contrasts with rising vocations in in Asia and Africa.

“It’s the result of the way youths look at wealth, going for money-making careers. They often choose a certain course at university but then opt for something that pays more… the consumer mentality has increased, even through the influence of social media,” says Fr Bonnici.

In Malta, the drop in vocations is affecting both diocesan priests and the religious orders. Last month, the Maltese Province of the Carmelite Order decided to close down its Balluta and Mdina parishes.  Also hanging in the balance is Mdina’s Monastery of St Peter, Malta’s oldest female monastery, as the number of nuns declines.

Earlier this year, in an interview with Times of Malta, Archbishop Charles Scicluna suggested that the Catholic Church should revisit its celibacy rules for priests, saying this might attract people to the priesthood while still having a family.  Many took to the social media to express horror at the idea, while others said that this was another ruse by the Church to raise more money.  I am inclined to think that any suggestion that women might be ordained to the priesthood would have most Maltese men in convulsions.

The latest Church’s Book of Statistics in 2021 showed that the total number of priests in the world decreased by 2,347 to 407,870.  Europe was the continent which registered the biggest drop (-3,632), followed by America (-963). On the other hand, increases were registered in Africa (+1,518) and in Asia (+719).  Diocesan priests in the world decreased by 910 to 279,610, while religious priests decreased by 1,440, to 128,260.

Formerly a priest in southern India, Fr Francis Xavier Kochuveettil now ministers to Catholics in the Shannon Parish, in south-west Ireland.

Apart from lower numbers of ecclesiastics in parishes, the drop in vocations also affects other institutions of the Catholic Church which are in danger of becoming purely civil in nature.  This affects 235,930 schools ranging from kindergartens through primary and secondary schools to high schools and universities, where 68.4 million students receive their education.  On top of that, the Catholic Church has 20,160 hospitals and dispensaries, 15,280 homes for the elderly, chronically ill and handicapped, 9,700 orphanages, 10,600 marriage counselling centres, 3,290 social rehabilitation centres, and 35,530 other kinds of institutes.

What to do?  Well, we could subsidise seminaries in India and Africa for a fraction of what it costs in Malta, and then offer placements in Maltese parishes to some of the ordained priests.  In any case, over the years we have donated thousands of euros to the Missions in these countries, and there are many families in Malta who have contributed to the religious studies of Indian priests. 

Happy days?   

In recent weeks, the media outlets and social media have bombarded us with claims that the Maltese population is up to its tethers, being depressed about life in general and prone to outbursts of anger, even prompting some to consider opting out of life altogether.  Is this the real situation or is it an exaggerated take on the sentiments of people?

Now, we have some statistics, courtesy of the European Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) survey undertaken by the National Statistics Office (NSO) among persons residing in private households in Malta and Gozo.  Naturally, such surveys tend to look back with a delay and therefore might not necessarily reflect the current situation.

Be that as it may, the latest survey for 2022 shows that, in general, most respondents (57.6%) reported feelings of happiness and calmness whereas less than half (47.1%) enjoyed peacefulness most of the time.  Feelings of nervousness and agitation were characteristics rarely experienced by 31.6% and 31.2% of the respondents respectively.

It is interesting to note that women are more likely to experience feelings of nervousness and agitation, being down in the dumps, or downheartedness and depression than men.  Such feelings also seem to be age-related, with respondents aged 65 years being more affected most of the time than persons aged between 30 and 64 years, and even more so than respondents between 16 and 17 years of age. And it is no surprise that the situation applies to a comparison between respondents who were at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion and those who weren’t, with the former more likely to report feelings of nervousness, agitation, depression, and loneliness than the latter.

The same survey revealed that, on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents not at all satisfied and 10 represents completely satisfied, an average score of 7.4 was reported by respondents with regard to their overall life.  Respondents between 16 and 29 years of age reported a higher mean score with regard to overall life satisfaction (7.8), when compared to respondents aged 65 years and over (7.1).  Again, the kind of job and financial situation of the respondents was a material factor in their state of satisfaction with life.

Happiness is something that people seek to find, yet what defines happiness can vary from one person to the next. Typically, happiness is an emotional state characterised by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment. While happiness has many different definitions, it is often described as involving positive emotions and life satisfaction. 

Of course, when most people talk about the true meaning of happiness, they might be talking about how they feel in the present moment or referring to a more general sense of how they feel about life overall.  Because happiness tends to be such a broadly defined term, psychologists and other social scientists typically use the term ‘subjective well-being’ when they talk about this emotional state. Just as it sounds, subjective well-being tends to focus on an individual’s overall personal feelings about their life in the present.  

The ancient philosopher Aristotle suggested that happiness is the prime human desire, and all other human desires exist as a way to obtain happiness. He believed that there were four levels of happiness: happiness from immediate gratification, from comparison and achievement, from making positive contributions, and from achieving fulfillment. 

Happiness, Aristotle suggested, could be achieved through the golden mean, which involves finding a balance between deficiency and excess.  But, when one is talking about feelings and emotions, it is difficult to imagine that people would sit down at the beginning or the end of the day and assign percentages to the different categories of happiness to work out the mean for the day. 

However, one can derive some guidelines for research carried out all over the world.   For example, there is plenty of evidence that achieving goals that one is intrinsically motivated to pursue, particularly ones that are focused on personal growth and community (volunteering, for example), can help boost happiness more than pursuing extrinsic goals like gaining money or status.

Studies have found that people tend to over-earn   ̶   they become so focused on accumulating things that they lose track of actually enjoying what they are doing.  So, rather than falling into the trap of mindlessly accumulating to the detriment of one’s own happiness, it might be better to focus on practising gratitude for the things one has and enjoying the process. 

Again, when one finds himself or herself stuck in a pessimistic outlook or experiencing negativity, they will be better off looking for ways how they can reframe their thoughts in a more positive way.  After all, it is a fact that most people have a natural negativity bias, or a tendency to pay more attention to bad things than to good things. So, reframing negative perceptions is important to ensure a more balanced, realistic look at events.

I am not into counselling, but I would agree that being positive is one sure way to improve overall life satisfaction. Perhaps, those who do not agree might give some thought to Taylor Swift’s Happiness   ̶   the track about moving on from a decaying relationship, but acknowledging the bits of joy that existed within a more destructive, hurtful context.  It’s ultimately a hopeful song   ̶   what was bad was also good at times, and there will be good things still to come.

“There’ll be happiness after you
But there was happiness because of you
Both of these things can be true
There is happiness

“Past the blood and bruise
Past the curses and cries
Beyond the terror in the nightfall
Haunted by the look in my eyes
That would’ve loved you for a lifetime

“Leave it all behind
And there is happiness”

Main photo: Jason Borg/DOI

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