One Bird's Song
by Mario Gerada

A remembrance of Fra Ġwann (João) Xerri OP, a Dominican priest who died of Covid in 2021 in Brazil where he lived most of his adult life and who embodied liberation theology. This article was originally published online by the Dominicans in Malta.

If we look at the natural world migration is everywhere. In Malta we are familiar with the migration of birds, those leaving Europe to fly to Africa in September and when they fly back at the beginning of spring. In ancient Persia men cultivated gardens to invite songbirds to stay and delight people with their song. Birds fascinate us, they symbolised freedom before man could fly, as they moved across countries and continents freely. Humans have that same longing for freedom. Terry Tempest Williams writes:

'Once upon a time, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten. That the world is meant to be celebrated.'

Bird song brings joy and perhaps it is one of the reasons why finches are so coveted, and men (mostly) go to great lengths to trap them, for their flight and song to be caged, an act of pleasure perhaps.


The trajectories of our own lives offer us similarities. We also get entangled or trapped in-between the poetics and realities of our own lives. The longing for freedom (be it physical or spiritual) is perhaps shared with that same longing that birds feel. Like them we encounter a number of dangers along the way. My personal friendship with Fra Ġwann Xerri taught me to stay alert, to remain attentive to the song, in spite of the conditions (captivity) asylum seekers in Malta find themselves in, and not only.


Migration is a loaded term. European politicians have now chosen to reduce and frame it within security discourse. NGOs and International Organisations focus on a Human Rights perspective. Migration is also a reality that is linked to International Development, an important perspective that is often overlooked. Migration is also, simply put, a human thing (and not only), because people move, they always did, though one must say that the nomads and the farmers often end up in conflicted relationships, dating back to Cain and Abel.


It is also true that many asylum seekers leave their country of origin not due to any choice of their own. Freedom is a complex matter. What does freedom mean when one is escaping from war and violent conflict? Asylum seekers try to desperately reach the European continent and even more so, the countries members of the European Union because perhaps, they more than us, believe in the so-called European project: the promise of peoples living on the same continent with an agreed and a common understanding that violent conflict should be unthinkable, that human rights are inviolable and that should be respected at all times. It is a dream. In some ways the European Union has come close to this ideal, but not always, and like the small cage that finches find themselves in, so do people find themselves enclosed behind fences, walls, barbed wire, various detention centres – prisons really, and all sorts of directives and laws. Perhaps dreaming is not for everyone. Sometimes, European politicians sound like they are singing to that tune.


Fra Ġwann found hope in every circumstance he encountered. It was always a matter of perspective. He often made reference to the Gospels, starting from the story of the person or communities he was interacting with, in that specific moment. He often said that San Ġorġ Preca practiced this way of reading Scripture as well, to be immersed in the here and now while looking at the narratives found in the Gospels for that light one needs to glimpse the authentic ‘sacred’. He did have his favourite Gospel parables and narratives, like the one about the Syrophoenician woman or the one of the rich men who neglects Lazarus at his door. Ġwann was fascinated by these narratives, each and every time he read or discussed them and found them everywhere. The shepherds were Ġwann’s favourite characters in the nativity narratives and Maltese cribs. He looked out for these characters anywhere he went and built relationships specifically with them. For Fra Ġwann worship was about relationships, he also knew that relationships are complex and hard work, the Gospels never promised anything different to that.


What mostly attracted us to Fra Ġwann was his ability to weave a thread, seamlessly through his life as a Dominican priest, the Gospel he fervently believed in (proclaiming the good news), and friendships he had with people across society, be it a weekly meeting with Graffitti, a mass celebrated for Drachma, a coffee at one of the African coffee shops and restaurants in Malta, attending for a vigil or protest, or a meeting with someone who is high profile. He approached each and every encounter with that same curiosity and interest.


Fra Ġwann and I often met in Valletta for morning tea and pastizzi and spoke about all of that, newspaper articles, current affairs, theology and politics. However, Ġwann was always on the look out for hope, finding the occasion to bless and proclaim the good news, that was always his reading of affairs.


Ġwann’s life was radical in more ways than one. Though his radicalism was nothing outside of the ordinary, if we use the Gospels’ lens. It is that perspective that our societies have lost and so, someone like Fra Ġwann comes across as outside of the norm. His life, the one we celebrate, re- minds us how a life faithful to being the disciple of Jesus actually looks like, and it is lived at a cost, even within Church structures themselves. For Ġwann it was important to stay alert, he repeated that often. That was a Jesus command he took very seriously, including the one of not being called Father.


Fra Ġwann often migrated himself, Latin America and Malta, and beyond that as well. Like the birds he flew seasonally, till news reached us that he went on his last flight to the eternal garden. It is in that moment that perhaps, like others I felt jealous for the birds. And yet, that is the human condition, we have to wait, even though some of our loved ones take flight before us. And all of a sudden human life seems to be a little bit like watching the birds migrating, like the ones I saw last Sunday in Baħrija, not really knowing where they were coming from nor where is the exact place they were going to. In their flight
the promise of hope of reaching that beautiful place. Though for us, birds keep
being shot down or trapped, and humans keep drowning in our seas. For us, for now there seems to be no end to all sorts of closed centers, and dreams shattered. We keep looking for the song in spite of captivity. And yet, no matter how many birds are shot down or trapped they keep migrating. They trust their urge to fly in search of a beautiful place. Perhaps we are more like the birds than we think, perhaps there is a beautiful place here on Earth as well.

© 2022 Mario Gerada


Links to tributes to Fra Ġwann :


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