God & I: Fiorella de Maria

November 07 2022 | by

CAN YOU tell us something about your childhood, and in particular the religious education you received at that time?

Both my parents grew up in Malta in the 1950s, and faith was just part of the backdrop to their lives. They went to daily Mass. They went to benediction. They prayed the family rosary. It was almost an effortless part of their existence, and my parents grew up with a very strong love of the faith, particularly my father. He was a very gentle guide when it came to instilling the faith. He very much taught by example. I saw him at Mass at my side. I saw him praying. We prayed together and I think that’s what was most important for me when, as a teenager, I struggled with doubt, like so many teenagers do.

He was very calm in the way he responded to my doubts and objections. He would say, “It’s alright. I’m praying for you and I’m going to keep praying for you.” I do believe that it was his prayers that stopped me from falling away.

Both my parents were very involved with my catechesis, especially my father, and when you have that in childhood something of the faith remains with you always.


When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

When I was about 7, when I started writing little stories. I was always a reader, and I think most writers start off as very avid readers. You have to start somewhere and I experimented a lot with writing while I was growing up. I was very fortunate that I had several very inspiring English teachers and mentors who really encouraged me. They really went beyond the call of duty to help me develop my writing skills and to help me to get to university to study English. The idea of creating and storytelling has always been something that’s fascinated me.


Your book on St. Robert Southwell, a Jesuit Catholic priest martyred in 1595, was an instant success and is now out of print. Why is so little said about the persecutions against Catholics in Great Britain that continued for about three centuries after Henry VIII?

Well, they always say that history is written by the victors, and the narrative in England has always been, quite falsely, that Anglicanism was very tolerant, and that there was no real persecution – that it was all political.

Being Catholic became more acceptable in Britain after Vatican II, and at the same time the narrative regarding the English Reformation was toned down so as to make it less divisive. However, the Reformation is a very important part of our heritage; it’s something that we need to be a lot more aware of, because the repression of Catholics went on for centuries. In this age of revisionism, when we’re supposed to be questioning the prevalent narrative, we should also be questioning that part of our history a lot more.

Now the fact is that none of those Jesuit priests were martyred for political reasons. They were martyred for their faith. It was in fact illegal to be Catholic in this country until Catholic Emancipation in the 19th century.

When I came to writing about Robert Southwell I came up against some very strong opposition. I found it very difficult to be taken seriously. The negative aspects of the English Reformation are still downplayed a lot because they are an ugly part of English history, and one perhaps that people would rather not talk about, but we must talk about it.


You have also written a book on St. Maximilian Kolbe, who died a martyr’s death in Auschwitz and belonged to the same religious order as we friars of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. What particularly struck you about his personality?

Maximilian Kolbe is one of those saints we all grew up knowing about, maybe because of his connection with the Holocaust which we all study at school or maybe because we have a huge Polish community in Britain.

Kolbe’s sacrifice of his life for someone he didn’t even know was truly Christ-like. It gets to the heart of everything we believe in, the ultimate Christian self-sacrifice. What I found very intriguing about him, though, was discovering what an extraordinary person he was, and the power of his absolute faith, which for him was absolutely real. For instance, when he felt called to go to Japan he just went. He knew nothing about Japan, yet he went with no money and with no help, knowing that it would work because it was God’s will.


Four of your novels are crime fiction and feature a Benedictine monk-turned-detective: Father Gabriel. What makes him a particularly sharp detective?

His late vocation. It becomes clear during the books that he had a wife and a child. He came to the religious life late in life, after the terrible loss of his wife and child. He therefore has had both the experience of living in the world and the experience of living in community. He is slightly autistic, and this gives him a very penetrating insight into human behavior. Autistic people tend to be very straightforward and to take things literally. As a result, Fr. Gabriel has neither the capacity to deceive or to be deceived.

Fr. Gabriel is also a very holy and innocent man, and therefore he knows if he’s being lied to. He knows if something doesn’t work because he has that slightly obsessive way of thinking. Once he gets on a trail, he just can’t leave it alone. He just has to take it to its conclusion, even if he suffers, even if it’s difficult. He just has to go and find the truth at whatever cost.


Two of your books Poor Banished Children and We’ll Never Tell Them are about women from Malta. You are of Maltese heritage yourself. How has that heritage played into your writing?

It’s been hugely influential. There is a Maltese saying that where the heart lies, the legs will follow. In English we would say, “Home is where the heart is,” and I am always drawn home in my writings. I grew up on stories about Malta’s heritage, like St. Paul’s shipwreck on the island; the Great Siege against the Turks, and the fight against the Nazis during the Second World War. Malta has a 7,000 year history, which is full of folklore and mythology.

In Poor Banished Children I wanted to highlight the Mediterranean slave trade, of which there is little knowledge. When we talk about the slave trade, we tend to think about the transatlantic slave trade of black people to the Americas, which obviously was much bigger and also more recent in our history, but very little has been written about the Mediterranean slave trade, and I was very keen to write a novel set in that time. It took me two years to write that book.

We’ll Never Tell Them is set in colonial Malta and England during the early 20th century. The title is taken from a First World War song. Malta’s heroic role in the Second World War is well known, but its role as the Nurse of the Mediterranean is not as famous. The book focuses on Malta, but many of the themes are universal – the futility of war, the grief of women widowed young, concepts of heroism and cowardice.


In the book The Abolition of Woman you claim that radical feminism is betraying women. Can you briefly explain?

There are a number of problems with radical feminism. First of all, radical feminism embraced abortion, whereas the first feminists were not in favor of abortion at all. They saw it as a sign that society was exploiting women. It was only in the 1960s that feminism became radicalized and adopted the idea of abortion as something that was liberating for women.

From that moment on there was a split within the feminist movement, and radical feminists began to sell the idea that abortion was a weapon protecting women.

Radical feminism has been very quick at ignoring the many ways in which abortion is used to exploit women. So, for example, there is almost complete silence about sex selective abortion, in which hundreds of thousands of baby girls have been and are still being killed simply because they are girls. This is the ultimate attack on women.

Radical feminism has been very silent about population control policies in China, and the way forced abortion is being used there to control women.

Radical feminism does not campaign to help women as mothers, but instead proposes abortion as a quick-fix solution instead of promoting maternity and the importance of motherhood.

Finally, radical feminism has pitted men and women against each another, and sees men very much as an enemy that must be fought against, instead of focusing on the complementarity of the sexes and urging men and women to work together as a team for the common good.


Do you think that in today’s society there is a demand for religion or spirituality?

Spirituality has never disappeared. We are all inherently spiritual beings because we are created in the image and likeness of God. But I think that with the decline of Christianity, in Europe at least, people have started searching for the truth in the wrong places. Chesterton famously said that if you stop believing in God then you will start believing in anything. This is clearly seen, for instance in the obsession with well-being or with specialist diets. These are all attempts at seeking the truth and leading a good life. But they all miss the point, because God is not at the centre of this striving. I believe that if we, as Christians, did our job properly; if we were evangelizing more successfully, then a lot of lost people who are clearly seeking the truth would find it.


How do you perceive God? How would you describe Him?

I grew up with a very personal relationship with God. I always refer to God as our Father, as Christ taught us.

The New Atheists believe that if you bring up children religiously you will instill in them the frightening idea of a big tyrant up there in the sky, but God was never a big tyrant in the sky for me, or for anyone I knew who grew up in the Catholic faith.


What implication does your image of God have in your life?

I agree with the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, that God loves us and wants us to be saved. He wants our own good. What is most attractive about the lives of the Saints is that they understood that God is everything. Therefore they wanted to give Him everything, and as Christians that’s what we should be striving to do.


You are a mother of four children. Is it difficult to give them a religious education?

Children nowadays are facing challenges and temptations that are quite different from the ones we faced as children. It has always been difficult to live a good life in a world that is increasingly secular, but nowadays it’s even harder.

I have never expected that someone else will do the educating of my children for me, even though my children go to Catholic schools. They’re very nice schools, but the catechesis is very poor. They get very little religious instruction. I am, however, blessed in that we have a very active parish which has youth groups and three excellent priests who are very approachable, very orthodox. The children respect them, but in the end education always starts at home. And sure, it’s difficult, but I’m trying to make sure that they take pleasure in going to Mass and that we pray together as a family. As they say, “The family that prays together stays together.”

I also think we have to be a lot more open with our children. It is my duty to have difficult conversations with my children at an age that my own parents would never have thought of having with me; that is, until I was much older. This is necessary because our children are hearing and seeing certain things; they’re getting mixed messages. They’ll come home and say, “Mummy, do you know what the Morning After Pill is?” So we have to discuss things with our children that I would rather not discuss with them. However, it’s important to keep the lines of communication always open with them, and I’m the first person they turn to when they have a question.

As parents, in the end it’s a question of doing your best and then commending the rest to God.


Since you have already written biographies of saints, have you ever thought of turning your attention to a great Portuguese saint who, buried in Padua, has become the world’s best-loved saint?

I haven’t yet but, I write for Ignatius Press, and they have a series called Vision Books that published biographies about Catholic saints and heroes, so maybe I could negotiate with them about writing a book on St. Anthony.


What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve recently submitted another life of a Catholic hero, an Irish priest called Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, also known as the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”. I’m hoping it will come out next year.


ARRIVING in England from the Mediterranean island of Malta as an infant, Fiorella De Maria (aka Fiorella Nash) grew up in a rural town close to the famous Stonehenge monument. She made her first attempt at writing a novel, hiding behind the library curtains at her boarding school and went on to study English Literature at Cambridge University.

In 2003, Fiorella published her first book, a biography of the metaphysical poet Robert Southwell, closely followed by her debut novel, The Cassandra Curse, which won the National Book Prize of Malta.

Fiorella’s novels – ten published, with three more under contract – are mostly historical and
crime fiction. Fiorella’s most popular writing has been her crime series, The Father Gabriel Mysteries featuring a sleuthing monk living in a sleepy
English village in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Fiorella also writes for radio, and is currently preparing the second season of her Five Minute
Mysteries series, in which listeners are invited to solve a fiendishly difficult locked room puzzle. Fiorella lives with her husband, four children and a dog called Monty in Surrey, England.


Updated on November 07 2022