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Dr. Ivan Grixti - Faith in Valletta

A few years back I happened to be in Valletta on Good Friday of the Easter Week. I had seen a Good Friday procession in the village of Paola before so I was looking to see one in the capital city. This procession took place from Our Lady of Jesus (Ta’ Gieżu) church in St.John Street which is located on the east side of Valletta close to the Grand Harbour. When I arrived the procession had already started but I was still able to get a good spot on the very narrow St. Ursula Street. A couple of things struck me as being different or unique from the one I had witnessed previously. One thing for sure was the somberness of it; surely one would expect this in a Good Friday procession but it felt different. Another thing that struck me and it’s something that has been with me for over three years now - is one or more gentleman with a noticeable hump or callus on their back. I had later asked someone in Valletta about the noticeable hump on the gentlemen to which the person responded “It’s from carrying the statue.”

Three years had passed and I was in search of one of the gentlemen with the noticeable hump on their back. There had to be a neat story there. I returned to the church where the Good Friday procession was run out of and encountered a gentleman and explained my intentions on finding one of the gentlemen that I had witnessed. Thankfully he knew what I was asking for however he had to make a few phone calls to find out who would be the best person to talk to. “I’ll find you the big one” he said. I can’t lie, that excited me. “Noel Grixti, the big one”. So we had a name but we needed to locate the number. He flipped page by page through his hand written telephone book about 4 times without any success. “One more time”. Thankfully that one more time located the mobile number of Dr. Ivan Grixti.

I was able to get a hold of Dr. Grixti and we arranged to meet at a boutique hotel in Valletta. After some time talking about his upbringing in Valletta, we dove into his personal passion with statue carrying. “It’s roughly 1.2 miles”. “I do it with devotion. In fact so much so every year I have a different intention”. He recalls that one year a friend of his had a break up and because his fiancèe was so taken back, she attempted to harm herself by overdosing on medication. He suggested to his friend that he could be at the hospital and just wait or join in prayer at the Good Friday Procession. The intention that Ivan made that year was to heal the pain and suffering of his friend’s finance. “it was life or death” he says. He simply wrote her name on a piece of paper and placed that paper at the base of the cross that was part of the statue he was to carry. He recalls looking at the knees of the statue of Jesus and feeling compelled at that moment to run inside the church and write down her name and place it at the base of the cross. “We did a miracle that day. She survived. “She came back to her senses”.

He has been carrying statues for 29 years – next year will be his 30th. “To be honest with you, I’ve already planned to step aside” he says. To him, this is like professional football. “There are an amount of years that you’re good at but then you have to be gentleman and that’s it”. There are 8 statues and each one has its own intricacies and own weight. He began to carry statues even before he considered it serious – so adding to his 30 years. He carried one particular statue “Behold the Man” for 11 years straight. He says it is carried by 6 men and weighs 400 kilograms. Ivan says that for those that do well with this particular statue, there is a great likelihood that that person will do well with the crucifixion statue. Him and his “buddy” carried the “Behold the Man” statue together for years and now they share the honour of carrying the crucifixion statue. “I’m left wing, my buddy is right wing”.

It’s time for me to zone in on his callus that has formed on his back from carrying the statues. The crucifixion statue weighs nearly 1.2 tons carried by 10 men. He confesses that it’s not an easy feat. He stresses that carrying the statues in Valletta during this procession, they move from corner to street corner with the band moving in one way and the bearers moving in another way. “Sometimes I close my eyes” thinking about having to walk so far and even uphill still. He’s actually very thankful to have the callus. “Once you get used to the weight, this becomes so hot with the friction of the wood, you can practically take any weight”. He confirms that other gentlemen carrying the statue have calluses as well. He says it is a phenomenon. “Most statue bearers in Valletta has some form of this”.

After Valletta 2018, Dr. Grixti says that although he will not be participating as a bearer, he will be involved. “I’m going to do surgery to take this off”, he says. I ask him if he wears it as a badge of honour. He answers me this way: “I’ll answer your question this way. I would prefer dying with it”. He has a smaller callus that he will retain so the significant physical reminder – of his immovable devotion – will not be completely removed.

Excerpt from: “Valletta – A Personal City Guide by 8 tourist guides from Malta” Midsea books

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