Bishop Charles Caruana celebrated 50 years as a priest on Sunday, May 24. His Golden Jubilee Day held much significance for him as it was on this same date he also made his First Communion, and then many years later he was made Bishop of Gibraltar – eleven years ago in 1998.
“The last 50 years have flown. It has felt like a dream because it has gone so fast,” said Bishop Caruana.
Describing the past 50 years as enriching and a most adventurous time, he said.
“I can only say what a marvellous thing it has been to be a priest all this time. For me it has been a continuous experience of admiration for the people I have served. I have no regrets.”
Bishop Caruana has served in Gibraltar throughout this time, and it is the people, his congregation, which he emphasises have been his inspiration throughout these short 50 years.
“It has been beautiful to serve in this community, I would not change it for the world and I would do it all again.
“People are so good, wonderful and inspiring. Life can be so difficult and yet their resignation and the tremendous way in which people overcome their troubles and sufferings has been an inspiration for me.
“One has to seek new ways and means of guiding and helping each and every person. Each person is different in their needs and in their way of being. Bringing about reconciliation between parents and children, between couples, that is not always easy. But the way people live their lives, the way they overcome what life puts before them is an inspiration.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Bishop Caruana was born October 9th 1932 and was educated by the Christian Brothers. It was his grandfather Joseph who influenced him especially in his formative years.
“There was always something there. My grandfather’s spirituality, religiosity, he was a person who was always very devotional. And without my knowing I was led into that upbringing so much so that people used to tell me that when I went back home after mass I would play at Mass in my grandfather’s house imitating the priests that I saw at the altar when he took me to hear Mass in the Cathedral. He used to go five times a day to Mass and Church”.
During the Second World War he was evacuated with his family to London and later to Northern Ireland.
“I suppose the Christian Brothers, instilled in me a need for dedication and a life of service. But it wasn’t easy. I liked dancing, I liked all social activities. And before I decided to join the priesthood I went through a time of trial and of testing myself to see if this was what I really wanted to do so”.
He carried out his military service. He worked as a Civil Servant for the Government in the Labour Employment Department which at the time was based at Casemates before studying for the Priesthood.
“There was a need to make a choice. It was either to dedicate myself to married life or to the service of the people. And I felt the need for helping people was greater. I felt a need to know more about God’s presence and his love”.
Once he took the decision he never once thought he had made the wrong choice. As he said, “once I took it I stuck by it”.
Surprisingly some of his close friends who also went to study for the priesthood whilst he was still making his mind up gave it up.
“It took me a long time to decide. I did not enter the priesthood until I was 21, and yet none of my friends today are priests today and I am”.
And contemplating on what he just said he added:
“When you dedicate yourself totally to the service of God in the seminary itself you wonder if you have done everything you could possibly do. At this point the temptation to become a monk may overtake you as well. Now that is far more delicate a decision than between ‘a right and a wrong’ or between being married or being a priest”.
WORKING IN THE COMMUNITY
Charles Caruana was ordained a Priest in 1959 by Bishop Healy. His first pastoral assignment was to the cathedral as junior curate. In 1965 was assigned to the Sacred Heart Church and appointed Parish Priest a few years later by Bishop Rapallo.
In 1975, the bishop, transferred him to the Cathedral as Administrator.
Bishop Devlin, on his appointment as Bishop of Gibraltar, made him his vicar General, when he was created a Domestic Prelate by Pope John Paul II, with the title of Monsignor.
“My life as a priest has been very enriching and very full. I have no moments of regret. I have lived a very full life. But perhaps my one regret is that I did not become a priest sooner.”
As a priest he has always worked in all areas of Gibraltar’s social life, always very much involved in the community.
For 12 years he was Chaplain of St Bernard’s Hospital, and a member of the Board of Visitors for 17 years.
For over a decade he was the Prison Chaplain.
From his earliest priestly days he was involved with the youth on the Rock and worked with the Young Christian Workers, leading them to a number of European Congress in places like Cordoba, Pau and Strasbourg.
But he is perhaps better known for his cultural, musical activities and has always been involved in many social events.
He was the backbone of the Gibraltar Song festival from 1966 to 1976, and was instrumental in the creation of the Gibraltar Music Centre. He was the representative in Gibraltar for the Associated board of the Royal Schools of Music for 15 years. And organiser of Arts Festival in 74/75. And he was also there when the Catholic Community Centre was built.
“I suppose my involvement in the community grew over the years. In 1962 Father Rapallo, who accompanied bishop Healy to the Second Vatican Council, needed help with the raising of the funds for the Catholic Community Centre and I was able to help out. We organised many events. The first ‘champagne style fashion shows’ were organised for example. It was then that I realised I could organise large events but I also noticed there was a great need for such events as well. By that time I was already involved with the Young Christian Workers. Community work in the life of a priest is very important, People need leadership and some recreational leadership as well.
By that time the Agrupacion Calpense had died away and we needed new things – and there you had the start of the Gibraltar Song Festival”.
The Gibraltar Song Festival grew into an International Festival within a few years.
He recalled: “At the time San Remo was the main Song Festival and when we were raising funds for the Community Centre I suggested we had a local show. I called Pepe Noguera, Wilfred Marsh, Francis Caruana, Mario Mifsud and together we were able to create the Gibraltar Song Festival which lasted 12 years”.
It was the Performing Rights Society in the UK which helped to then set up the Gibraltar Music Centre.
In the past he has led arbitration teams when negotiations between the Government and the Unions came to a deadlock in certain industrial and other disputes, for example, at the Prison, Generating Station and Medical Department.
Since 1970 Monsignor Caruana has been involved in the renewal movements within the Catholic Church.
He was instrumental in the beginnings of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, the Cursillo Movement and other movements of renewal.
For over 20 years he organised the diocesan Pilgrimages to Lourdes.
He helped in the creation of Camp Emmanuel and was instrumental in setting up the Nazareth Home, and also the Dr Giraldi Home.
KNIGHT OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE
A few years ago he was invested Chaplain to the Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre, and lately, he was invested by Prince Philip as Chaplain of the Order of St John.
Apart from music and reading his other interest, known to just a few, is carpentry.
BISHOP OF GIBRALTAR
In 1998 he became Bishop of Gibraltar. For eleven years he continues his work as Bishop as he began when he became a priest 50 years ago by serving the people both spiritually and socially, determined to be both a strong leader and good shepherd.
The Church he said is constantly meeting new challenges. He believes the church needs to modernise into the future.
“We have to adapt and change and give people what they need to live a dignified life. Help them obtain peace and justice and harmony. There is always room for God but there are those who don’t know this or don’t want to accept it.”
He believes that because we are living at a time when communication is so fast, so at hand, making contact between people so much easier, this has allowed for secularism and relaxtivism.
“People are given the impression that they are self-sufficient, and that they don’t need God. But this is not so.”
He tells me it is not an easy thing to admit but people turning away from the Church is a phenomenon which has occurred in his life time.
“People abandon and relax themselves from a way of life which they had before, everything has changed whereas before God may have been first or second now he has been reduced to 9th or 10th place, if at all in their lives – this is a reality which one has to recognise.”
He also admits he it can been disheartening but at the same time as people are falling by the wayside for a very long time, he says, the Church in Gibraltar has made a tremendous effort to renew Christian living.
“We have alerted people to an awareness of the presence of God through the various movements in the Church, and there are people coming back to the church.”
But the Church, he adds, needs to be constantly on the move meeting the new frontiers, the challenges imposed by this new millennium – confident that all will be overcome and people will find a way back to the Church.
Of his eleven years as Bishop he first pointed to the team of priests presently in the Diocese without whom he said he would not have been able to achieve anything. Meeting as often as he can with them there is always much to discuss. He recognised the tremendous work they each carry out.
But he said the Church in Gibraltar needed more priests to attend to schools more regularly, for pastoral care, for those seeking advice and counselling, in the administration of the Church, and of course for the functions of the Church, Mass and confessions, etc.
As he looked back on the highlights of the past 50 years, he remained silent for a long time.
“Everything has been a highlight, the whole of my life, everyday as a priest is a highlight.”
But there have been very many touching moments, when he became Bishop of Gibraltar, when he ordained his first priest Father Michael Bonifacio, but he quickly turned to the 700 years of Devotion to Our Lady of Europe and its celebrations.
“The attendance was tremendous. To see them in the impressive marquee joining in the celebration this was special. This was a very touching moment because of the work which had led us there had come to fruition. It was a great achievement.
“The celebration itself gathering momentum, like a crescendo leading to the presentation of The Golden Rose, and the singing of the Plegaria a La Virgen de Europa by Los Trovadores. This was another touching moment.
“Receiving the Golden Rose showed the greatness that exists locally, the fact that we have been equalled to all the important Shrines such as Lourdes, that this is a Shrine of Our Lady, now recognised as an important historical Christian monument which deserved the proper attention.”
And as he looked to the future, he hinted at retirement. Could a new Bishop be announced soon he was asked, a possibility he does not rule out but he quickly adds.
“If it is felt I still have more to contribute I will carry on.”
He suggested maybe Rome has allowed him the chance to celebrate his Golden Jubilee, waiting for these celebrations to pass by before there is any news of his retirement and naming a new Bishop.
But he said even if he does retire his work as a priest will continue in the Diocese.
“I will continue to serve for as long as I can the Diocese and the people.”
This article was first published in the Gibraltar Chronicle by Alice Mascarenhas