An Interview with Father Rene Micallef SJ

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Quinn Knight: Could you tell us about your call to the priesthood? How did your academic work inform your priesthood?

Father Micallef: I was born in 1975 and grew up as a single child in a devout Catholic middle-class family on the island-nation of Malta. Though generally shy, introverted and overly polite, I guess I always was an inquisitive boy, fascinated by languages, science, art, and religion; as an adolescent, I played out my rebelliousness arguing intellectually with my parents, especially on theological and moral issues, and asking tough questions to my teachers at school. My parents had lived abroad in the 1960s and were seen as “modern” by their peers; I made sure my grades were decent and they, in turn, kept me out of the afterschool tutoring industry, sparing me all the cramming and rote-learning my fellow students were subjected to at the time. Instead, they wanted me to read as much as I could and develop my creativity.


As a child, I didn’t want to attend the Jesuit secondary school, given its fame as a very strict and competitive school at the time, but my parents insisted. I discovered that Jesuit discipline was reasonable and fair, though, at the time, it could be a bit overbearing. I eventually got to know some of the Jesuits and to appreciate their intellectual honesty and their ability to provide pondered and sensible answers to most of my questions. I then started to sign up every year for a Jesuit spiritual retreat in the summer: this allowed me to get acquainted with Ignatian spirituality, and with Jesuits outside the institutional secondary-school setting, and I immediately felt I belonged. Nonetheless, after high school, my Jesuit spiritual director insisted that I do a bachelor’s degree at the University of Malta before joining the Order, and undergo a slow and sustained process of discernment, nourished by daily imaginative prayer using Scripture. I believe that was a wise proposal: during my university years in Malta I enjoyed my Biology and Chemistry courses, built a network of friendships within university and Catholic volunteering groups, got a taste of ecological and social-scientific research, spent time with the poor and suffering in Malta and abroad, and more importantly, deepened my personal relationship to Christ.


I entered the novitiate in 1997, in Genoa, Italy. After two years as a novice, I read philosophy in Padua and London. I then went back to the Jesuit secondary school in Malta to teach Philosophy and, funnily enough, I ended up mentoring students as a “division prefect of discipline”. Subsequently, I studied Theology in Paris and Madrid, and finally got a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Boston College, specializing in ethics and immigration policymaking, before joining the Moral Theology Department at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in September 2013.


Dr. Quinn Knight: You seem to really enjoy your ministry as an academic. What sustains and supports you in this challenging task?

Father Micallef: I believe I am nourished in many ways. Let me say first that I am engaged intellectually on two fronts: one concerns the groundwork of Theological ethics, with questions around the relationship between conscience, moral habituation, and norm-following, and around the proper use of sources such as Scripture, Tradition, Papal teaching, philosophy, the natural and social sciences, the “sense of faith” of believers, and commonsense based on human experience, to shape theological ethics today. We call this “Fundamental moral theology”. The second front concerns political and social ethics from a theological perspective hence issues like immigration, human rights, conflict and peacebuilding, social housing, and sustainable development.

I like the areas that I teach and research, given my natural inquisitiveness and their importance to the life of the Church and the world; they are indeed very topical, especially in the context of the Francis papacy and the current political situation in many countries. Furthermore, they are areas that readily stimulate the reflection, passion, and creativity of my students, and I tend to spend a considerable amount of time mentoring dissertations and research projects. I am blessed to be teaching in one of the most diverse universities in the world. Students come to Rome from a variety of academic backgrounds; to be sure, some have to struggle to reach the standards of one of the top Pontifical universities in the world, but most students are motivated, intelligent, and full of deep intuitions coming from their pastoral experience and rich cultural milieus. It is an amazing experience to see them flourish after just a couple of years here with us.


Dr. Quinn Knight: What are the issues at the Pontifical University that are of primary importance at this time in the history of the Church?


Father Micallef: Of course, though I am somewhat biased, I think it is fair to claim that the issues I teach and research are of primary importance. Firstly, interdisciplinarity, migration, human rights, and peacebuilding are central concerns for the Francis papacy and feature prominently in today’s academic and political discourse all over the world.

Secondly, the question of how to bring together the authority of a well-formed conscience and that of formal (religious and ethical) norms is an age-old concern for humanity and for the Church but has come back to the fore in recent years. The abuse scandals, the current debates around Amoris Laetitia, the rising wave of norm-scoffing populist politicians all over the world, the manipulative use of social media by dark money and power, the spread of popularized neuroscientific moral skepticism, and the pervasiveness of postmodern cultural relativism and, concurrently, of many forms of fundamentalism: against these and other troubling voices in our world, I believe we should form consciences and uphold the value of informed conscientious decision-making, while weaning people off their thirst for strongmen with overly clear, ready-made answers. They are ultimately seductive idols posing as saviors, selling simple “truths” in a morally-complex world, and often using religious conservatism as part of their branding strategy.


Thirdly, integral ecology is very important, especially since it offers a platform to shape the Pontifical University of the future and to network with other Catholic and lay institutions, as well as a lens through which to think and teach many issues in theology, philosophy, sociology, political science and possibly even history and mission studies. I am engaged in a Laudato si’ Observatory in our Faculty of Social Sciences given my previous studies in marine biology and Catholic social thought, but do not currently teach courses on the topic.


Fourthly, mature, open and honest dialogue with secular and agnostic thinkers, with non-Christian religious voices and with other Christian denominations is urgently needed, especially around concrete issues that concern the search for the common good in multicultural societies. Fifthly, I care a lot about an area of Theology that I had to put aside when asked to specialize in theological ethics: Fundamental theology. This is a discipline that is concerned with the sources of faith, with what makes belief in God and in Christ reasonable and attractive to inquisitive people with a critical, open mind and a tender, mature heart. How can we hand over our faith honestly, today, to future generations, using responsibly the intelligence of arguments, the beauty of art, the persuasiveness of social communication, the warmth of a community of sisters and brothers in the Lord?


Dr. Quinn Knight: Your academic scholarship is replete with issues of concern throughout the world. Who is part of the group that keeps you informed?


Father Micallef: Certainly, my current colleagues and students, hailing from around the world, keep me informed on many issues. I am also a voracious consumer of international news. I belong to several research groups and networks, some based in Rome or in Italy (such as the Italian Association for the Study of Moral Theology, ATISM), and others have an international scope, such as the Refugee and Migrant Education Network (rmenetwork.org), which I helped found, and Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC). I also try to stay in contact with some of my former mentors and colleagues in France, Spain, and the US, especially through regular video-conferencing. I have recently spent some months in East Africa, visiting Jesuit institutions there and exploring possible forms of collaboration.


Dr. Quinn Knight: As a priest, scholar and writer what part of your ministry do you most enjoy?

Father Micallef: At this stage in my life, I particularly enjoy accompanying people, both in spiritual direction (which is my main “spiritual” activity, at present), and in academic mentoring. I also like to write, but academic writing is hard, especially when your work schedule is fragmented with many commitments and urgent deadlines, when you have to read and include shallow and mediocre works for balance and completeness, and when you are asked to convey very complex arguments in a few accessible pages, paring down important nuances: the gratification does come along at some point, often belatedly, when you re-read something you wrote months or years ago, after having distanced yourself from the travail of birthing it.


Dr. Quinn Knight: I am part of the RCIA program and I often reflect on how we can assist the next generation in being good Catholics. How does your ministry support the enlightenment of the next generation?

Father Micallef: The last image I evoked brings to mind a trend in French pastoral theology, the so-called “pastorale d’engendrement” (associated with one of my past professors, Fr Christoph Theobald). This approach conceives the proclamation and transmission of faith as an act of engendering or giving birth, in the Spirit, to the Christian initiate and neophyte. There is a richness in the Johannine idea of coming to the faith or rediscovering one’s faith, as a process of “being born again”, in spite of its current sectarian misuse and abuse in some Protestant movements born in the US.

I have studied RCIA programs in France as a student, prepared youths for confirmation in a very multicultural parish in North London, engaged in Hispanic prison ministry as a priest in the Boston area for four years, heard confessions in important city-center churches: my experience has taught me that the learned ministry which I practice and cherish at the Gregorian University needs to be a listening ministry, humbly at the service of the life of the Church rather than one that seeks to impose its didactic and academic methodology and content on the process of evangelization. In the past, the transmission of faith was often equated to teaching the Catechism, reduced to a list of clear doctrinal dogmas and moral norms. More recently, some have started “marketing” the Christian faith as a clear, exclusive and triumphant identity, a prestigious and vintage brand to be worn with pride and used to conceal one’s existential doubts and insecurities. I am very skeptical of these approaches. Instead, I am very convinced of Pope Francis’ approach, outlined in Evangelii Gaudium, promoting an outgoing and humble church that brings people to a personal encounter with Christ, witnessing to God’s mercy, deeply engaged in dialogue with the secular world and with other faiths.

Transmitting stereotyped social identities or dogmatic and moral concepts should not be our first concern in the process of evangelization. Yet, we should also encourage neophytes and cradle Catholics alike, once they have been truly engendered in the faith and built a deep relationship with Christ, to overcome postmodern fideism. They should not leave their intelligence, their intellectual curiosity, and the tough questions on faith and morals arising from their daily life and concerns outside in the parking lot, and walk into a Church that is merely a safe haven offering beautiful rites, good friends for the kids, and warm and fuzzy feelings. This is why my main ministry, which I live fully as a priest, is that of forming future lay and ordained ministers and evangelizes, enabling them to offer mature, pondered and intellectually honest answers to the complex questions of the faithful.


Dr. Quinn Knight: The Catholic School system in our archdiocese is struggling to figure out the use of our resources in the best way. What are some of the issues you address at the university level? How does this inform the community?


Father Micallef: I think that the concept of integral human development, as proposed in Laudato si’, can be very useful in this discernment, and for me, the main feature of such human development is a deep respect for life, truth, and justice. Firstly, I believe that Catholic schools should — through the various disciplines and using myriad pedagogies — imbue students with a sense of awe when faced with life in all its forms: that of the unborn, the vulnerable, and of chronically ill persons, that of exploited workers and migrants, that of prisoners and homeless people, that of victims of grave human rights abuses, that of future generations and of the animals and plants whose diversity speaks to us of God’s wondrous beauty and love.


Secondly, as regards truth, I believe young people should grow in an environment that cherishes intellectual honesty, which values critical thought, and which doesn’t carelessly cast aside the learned and moderate voices of the “grand tradition” and the Church “establishment”. An environment where people systematically debunk fake news, mistrust simplistic answers, while at the same time respecting people who think differently and avoiding the tendency of weaponizing the truth and using it to exclude, hurt or humiliate people, or to further polarize and fracture the Church.

Finally, I believe that a deep yearning for justice, in its many forms, flows from the conception of life and truth I have outlined. After reading books like Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, I think that what can help a great deal, in a US setting, is real contact between students in rich and poor neighborhoods, and real experiences of engagement with foreign cultures and Church realities outside the US. By “real”, I mean not superficial, touristy, folkloristic, tokenistic. That probably entails learning a second language, starting in late elementary school or middle school, since monolingualism and monoculturalism can become a trap severely filtering our interactions with others, even with others who can speak English fluently.


Dr. Quinn Knight: The social media of this day and age has provided some wonderful aspects of communication as well as drawbacks. How can we use social media to assist others in knowing/loving/serving God?


Father Micallef: I agree that the social media can offer a great opportunity to reach others, help them grow in the faith, nudge their consciences and stir inside them the desire to serve God and humanity. Within the Catholic church, the more moderate and thoughtful voices are often not very social-media savvy, and sometimes look down at these modern instruments of social communication as overly “popular”, “superficial”, “sensationalistic”, or inhabited by extremist trolls and crazy people whose misleading replies and nasty comments are not worth an answer, especially given all the anxiety and anger that usually accompanies such debates. It is indeed hard for moderate voices to produce “viral” materials, to penetrate and remain within certain groups and debates: many groups on social media have a tendency to become bubbles where people who think alike meet to reinforce one another’s’ beliefs and protect them from being truly challenged in a forum of real dialogue.


Yet, we should not be discouraged by this. We can start by setting the standard, by helping Church leaders and Christian “influencers” distinguish attractive, persuasive communication from dishonest and manipulative uses of social media platforms and bots. We should stick to the former and seek to excel in it. Rhetoric — the art of persuasive communication — can be a great tool when placed at the service of truth, since people do not usually come to the social square with neutral attitudes or perfectly balanced opinions on hot and complex issues like the ones I am interested in: migration, human rights, conflict and peacebuilding, climate change, mass incarceration, homelessness, the humble and dialogical use of scripture and Church tradition in public discourse, etc. People often have strong and deep-rooted opinions on these and other subjects, shaped by personal histories, religious beliefs, political ideologies, and psychological structures that leave them open to fearmongering attacks by vested interest groups. We need to be able to reach such people today through the internet, and effectively convince them of what we hold to be true.


On the other hand, we should clearly tag manipulative and dishonest use of social media as sinful, even when purportedly used to “defend” the Church. For all it’s worth, we should invite all the faithful who engage in such practices to accuse themselves of them in the confessional, and confessors to demand appropriate reparation for the serious harm caused to others. We should also educate young people and the faithful in general to stay out of self-referential social-media environments: a group that disrespects harasses or trolls whoever expresses an opinion different from that of most members is unhealthy. It is usually an inappropriate place for a Christian to linger in, no matter how “Christian” or “moral” the group influencers claim to be. Believers might, however, decide to stay in the group to keep the trolls in check, to make it more inclusive and respectful of minority opinions, to raise the level and seriousness of the debate, but only if they are honestly willing and able to do so in such a hostile and polarized environment.


Personally, I contribute to some blogs and have a relatively active presence on some of the professional social media platforms. I’m not very active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Not everyone has the time, patience and skills for popular social media: I personally need time for silence, contemplation, and research, so to offer my students, the Church, and society at large pondered answers to complex questions, published through more traditional means. I however actively encourage my students to use and research novel internet trends and technologies: in fact, several students in our moral theology department end up writing licentiate and a doctoral thesis on the ethics of such technologies.


Dr. Quinn Knight: You have very impressive academic degrees – do you have time to read what appeals to you?

Father Micallef: My interests are many, going from cooking to architecture to computer programming to biology to music to linguistics… I spend a considerable amount of time browsing and reading popular articles in online magazines and international news sites on many issues and in several languages, though somewhat focusing on what is more useful to my work: religion, philosophical ethics, sociology, politics, and economics. I certainly would like to read more scientific articles and academic books on most of these topics, but I tend to read good academic works slowly, critically and thoughtfully, engaging deeply with the thought of the authors, and that can be very exhausting. Hence, unfortunately, I often end up reading only those academic works that are directly pertinent to my current classes and research. In my free time, I also enjoy watching movies, especially those which help viewers to frame and reflect on pressing social and moral issues.


Dr. Quinn Knight: What part of your past ministry has been meaningful to you?

Father Micallef: I mentioned my Hispanic prison ministry in the Boston area: this certainly nourished my priestly vocation and energized me during the bleak periods of doctoral research and writing: the desire for God in some of the men I ministered to, and the commitment of the sisters and volunteers, was palpable. Another beautiful moment was the time I spent working in a parish in Malta after ordination, accompanying a very dedicated parish priest whose availability to the faithful and pastoral presence was inspiring. A third moment was a wonderful 6-week period working with Congolese and South-Sudanese refugees in Uganda, teaching English and basic computing, and administering the sacraments: it was certainly hard for me to leave Kampala!


Dr. Quinn Knight: What are your hopes for the future of the Church in light of the abuse scandal?

Father Micallef: I hope the Church can learn from this, heal and grow stronger. In the last 20 years, my native Church in Malta has been proactive in investigating reports, accompanying victims, and establishing safeguards; our current archbishop, Msgr. Scicluna has reinforced this and helped bishops in other countries to do the same. Here in Rome, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have taken the matter seriously, and their reforms are slowly coming to fruition. Our university programs in the safeguarding of minors and vulnerable people — here at the Gregorian University’s Centre for Child Protection — are growing: I myself teach a unit on the vulnerability of unaccompanied child migrants.


Even so, I think that in some countries, many priests and Church authorities are still dragging their feet on the issue, claiming this is an “American” or “European” problem, invoking conspiracy theories, pointing their finger to uninvestigated abuse happing outside the Church (as though the sin of others made us less sinful), and at times secretly thinking that they have a sacred duty to protect the Church’s honor and avoid scandal by covering up past mistakes. Certainly, some cases are fake, invented by greedy lawyers or anti-Catholic crusaders. Certainly, in some countries where Catholics are a minority, the scandal has been used as an easy excuse to restrict the Church’s religious freedom. Certainly, honest, dedicated priests have suffered verbal abuse because of the rage that these lurid cases enkindle in the general public: on occasion, some people did say nasty things to me in Boston simply because I was wearing clerics. Yet our focus should be on the victims, past, present, and future: we need to be ready to suffer for them and with them, as a Church.


More importantly, though, the scandal has exposed some serious problems in our Church and society. Many experts believe abuse is primarily a question of power, rather than of sex. Just as in other human institutions, there are narcissistic, power-hungry individuals in our midst who should be weeded out during formation, but who sometimes reach positions of power, crushing the most vulnerable and proposing themselves as clear-headed and effective problem-solvers. We sometimes let ourselves be completely seduced and hoodwinked by their charade of efficacy and holiness, to the point of systematically drowning out the contrary voices of their victims. This is why I insist so much on intellectual honesty, respect for diversity and for the vulnerable, and critical thinking: they are essential tools to unmask dangerous narcissists vying for influence and power.


Furthermore, the abuse scandal has taught us that there are weak leaders who will sit and wait for the ever-elusive “definitive material proof” in order to act, rather than follow the precautionary principle and stick out their neck to protect the vulnerable: of course, abusers know how to exploit that weakness, warning them against “abuse of power”, “calumny”, “unjust action based on hearsay”, “manipulation by the enemies of the Church”, or pretending to be healed after a period of therapy: this stratagem usually gets weak leaders to desist from taking any effective action. To be sure, the over-confidence of certain psychologists who, up till a few years ago, claimed they could easily “heal pedophilia”, and the readiness of Church leaders to believe such claims, proved disastrous. Then, there are people whose obsession with respecting privacy and minding their own business makes them blind and oblivious to the crimes happing in the next room. And, finally, there are others who have let their consciences be tamed, silenced and twisted to the point of no longer being able to recognize, denounce or push back against misdemeanor done by their superiors, mistaking complicity for holy obedience. All of this brings us back to Fundamental moral theology, and my classes about consciousness and norm-following.


Dr. Quinn Knight: I am reading Father Louis Cameli’s Mary’s Journey which celebrates the strength of Mother Mary and the importance of imitating her. Could you describe Mother Mary for you?

Father Micallef: For me, Mary is that mother who lovingly points me to Jesus, her son and the Son of God. She insistently wants me to focus my gaze on the Son, not on her. And as I stand in the presence of Jesus, and seek to listen to him, I know she is there, accompanying me, silently, smiling. With Ignatius, following the Jesuit tradition, I ask Mary insistently: “place me with your son”. And she does that. Then, as a priest, I learn from her humility: I am called in turn to place people with the Son and let them fix their gaze on him, while I fade out in the background, ready to fade in again whenever they waver and seek encouragement. And when I waver or get distracted, I know that Mary is there, and with her, a large crowd of witnesses, steadying me, cheering me on, and pushing me deeper into the arms of the Lord.

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