Volume 13 Number 2
Listening to the Voices of Suffering
01 April 2000

Bjørn Ole Austad meets Monsignor Victor Grech, the Director of Caritas Malta, a priest who feels the pain of those in difficulties—and puts others to work to help them.

Some years ago I attended a Mass for the parents and families of young people who had lost their lives because of drug abuse. The Mass was celebrated by Monsignor Victor Grech, who constantly reaches out to those who suffer more than most.

His life began in Cospicua near Malta's Grand Harbour. During the heavy bombing raids of the Second World War this area was the hardest hit. The Grech family had to flee to the town of Zejtun some kilometres away. 'It was the beginning of the war and I was around 11 years old,' he recalls. 'Everything was crumbling around me. I saw people and buildings fall.'

Victor's father was stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, with the Royal Navy, and at one point his mother and brother were injured and had to spend three months in hospital. 'My smaller sister and I stayed all that time in the shelters,' he goes on. 'I realized the futility of things and looked for something permanent, something which made sense. The painful experience of powerlessness was a time of intense purification. Something in me was dying, and something was being born. I felt vulnerable, but safe at the same time. It was a liberating experience of God and the beginning of my surrender to his healing presence.'

A conviction grew that the priesthood would be his way of serving God. After eight years of studies at the seminary and the university in Malta, he was ordained in 1956. He was soon asked to be the Vice-Rector at the seminary, and in 1963 became Rector. However, Caritas has been his life and calling since 1977.

This work grew out of the talks he used to give to young people at the Catholic Institute just outside the capital, Valletta. He believed they would find a deeper commitment to God once they were put in touch with suffering and injustice. Initially 20 responded to his call to give time and energy to attend to the country's spiritual and social wounds.

'Fr Victor had a vision,' says one of those who accepted the challenge. 'He seemed to go about it in a very serious and professional way. That attracted us.' The young volunteers received spiritual and social teaching and training by experts in their fields. Every three months there was a spiritual retreat. Fr Victor, as he prefers to be called by those who know him, sent them to visit elderly and sick people, the children's homes and the slum areas of Valletta. They talked with people, finding out their problems. They met prostitutes and their children.

Rita Rizzo was amongst the first to volunteer. Today a mother of three and one of Caritas' paid staff, she remembers: 'Fr Victor used to say that it was not clear in his mind how the work should develop. He just sensed a leading from God to proceed.' This approach inspired her and others to give their best.

The number of young volunteers grew quickly. When Mgr Grech took over as Director of Caritas Malta it was only a coordinating committee for four associations. Today it is an organization with more than 20 different programmes, combining the dedication of 500 volunteers with 51 paid professionals. This enables Caritas to have a significant impact on a country of only 370,000 people. Among recent volunteers have been some highly qualified retired people, including Anglu Fenech, for many years the General Secretary of Malta's biggest trade union.

'To stand alongside people in difficulties' reads the cover of one of Caritas' booklets. The organization branches into care for families, youth, the sick and the elderly. It runs programmes in schools and parishes, and offers much-praised courses in parental skills. Recently it has also come to the assistance of victims of unscrupulous loan sharks.

Caritas' work with drug addicts began in 1984 when the Foundation for the Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers was set up. Fr Victor decided to employ professionals alongside the volunteers. He travelled to Ireland, the USA and Italy to study what kind of rehabilitation programme would best serve the needs in Malta. There are now two rehabilitation centres, and Caritas has its own research team to monitor the Maltese drug problem and its causes. Its school survey in 1998 showed a dramatic increase in the use of illicit drugs compared with 1991. New research shows that 80 per cent of those in rehabilitation have been neglected or physically or sexually abused before taking drugs. Such research gets media attention and builds public and political awareness of the problems.

Caritas' literature conveys its high standards. Good intentions are translated into clear targets, hard work and professionalism in the service of people in need. Yet the leader of Caritas, seated behind his desk, is reticent in speaking about himself. His voice conveys helplessness as well as certainty. Once or twice there are tears in his eyes as he speaks about the painful reality with which they are in touch. During all these years he has kept an attitude of being on the search. Success has not lured him into adopting a self-assured image.

In the last 30-40 years Malta has gone through huge changes. The social reality -- where there used to be large pockets of poverty -- has become one of general affluence. The Maltese mentality still has a strong imprint of traditional Catholic teaching but is turning pluralistic. There are easy-going lifestyles and less emphasis on morality. Fr Victor is happy about the material progress. But he feels a passion to reach out to those excluded from the table of the wealthy majority and to the victims of the modern stresses which make love freeze in so many homes.

'Young people are particularly vulnerable,' he says. 'There is a lot of emptiness in our society. Young people feel it. They yearn for something that is meaningful. Many of them jump from one thing to another. Others, however, know how to commit themselves. Young people in general detest a double life. A life of total dedication to God interests them.'

He says that a feeling of not being valuable causes inner pain. Young people need to know that they are loveable, valuable and capable. That idea is at the heart of the rehabilitation programme for drug addicts. First the focus is on getting them free from physical dependence, then on giving them back their sense of dignity and self-esteem. His experience is that many become free through rehabilitation.

Fr Victor keeps up a tough pace of work. A constant stream of people come to him for counselling. He prepares numerous talks, sermons and radio programmes. Does he feel worn out or lonely when so many expect so much from him? 'It does not take much for me to relax. I look out of the window, I listen to some music. Five minutes do a lot. I marvel at the beauty of the countryside and nature.' But some friends and colleagues have been insisting that the occasional five minutes of relaxation are not enough. They think he needs a holiday. To apply some gentle pressure they collected money for his 70th birthday last year. He laughs. The money has not been touched yet.

'I never feel lonely,' he says. 'There are patches of solitude. But they help me to be with God. I do not get depressed or fed up. I love people. There is a lack of awareness today. Spirituality is about becoming aware of the gifts which people around us represent. There is something beautiful in every person. People need to know that they are loved by God and are his children.

'I need God's guidance every day, and God's moment is every moment,' he goes on. 'I listen a lot to what is on people's minds and hearts.' In his radio programmes he reckons to speak for only two to three minutes and listen for the rest of the 45.

Listening to people is not just a spiritual matter for Mgr Grech. It is the key to good leadership. He sees a pressing need for sound leadership in Maltese society. 'Leaders need a vision and a sense of mission. Too often their attention is only on the short-term problems and providing crisis-management. In order to find a vision they need to learn to listen to people at the grassroots and discover their needs.' Then their lives, just like the young people's, may be transformed by contact with suffering.
Bjørn Ole Austad