ROME – One of the leaders of a controversial lay movement in Malta has said the group was shocked to find out second-hand that the archdiocese had told priests to steer clear of the group, insisting that they have never been contacted about potential problems.

Clyde Attard, the leader of the Jesus the Savior community in Malta, told Crux that “We were absolutely speechless” when the Archdiocese of Malta issued an internal communique to clergy July 10 saying that it “disassociates itself” from the community and forbidding priests from hosting community functions in their parishes or on church property, but without specifying what the issues were.

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Attard noted that the community has been active in Malta for around 15 years, and also has an international presence through participation in “Rhema” celebrations, which consist of Mass followed by praise and worship.

“This measure came as a shock to us,” Attard said. “We have absolutely no idea why the Archdiocese of Malta has communicated to the clergy the official communique.”

Described on their Facebook page as a Catholic prayer community operating in Malta, the community is led by a Core Group, its three main branches are an Intercessory Team, various “Cenacles” of priests, religious sisters, children and adolescents, and open community meetings.

The community’s spiritual director is identified on its Facebook page as Father Elias Vella, a known leader in Malta’s charismatic movement and one of the archdiocese’s exorcists.

Attard described the community as “charismatic” in nature, saying they also draw on elements of Marian spirituality in their activities, which he said include Masses, prayer events with the laying on of hands, reciting scripture and the Rhema celebrations.

“We especially proclaim that the Lord is alive, and his Word is alive, and we are absolutely not aware why the community has been stopped, the community has never been approached,” he said, noting that in its roughly 15 years of existence, there have been no other issues.

Born out of parish catechesis programs, the movement for the past two months has been holding virtual meetings and livestreaming events on their Facebook page due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the archdiocese has communicated to the clergy that they cannot participate in our activities and that we cannot hold any activities inside the premises, we obviously accept and obey and would like to meet as soon as possible so that we establish communication and understand what the problems are,” Attard said.

He said the community has already been in touch with the auxiliary bishop of Malta, Joseph Galea-Curmi, who told them that he would forward their request for a sit-down to Archbishop Charles Scicluna, and that a time for a meeting would be arranged.

Some former members of the community had complained that the community exhibited “cult-like” behavior, and that members shunned those who left the movement.

Asked whether he had heard of these complaints, Attard did not address accusations that the community behaved like a cult, but insisted that “When you preach the Word of God, it is inevitable that there will be people who do not like the Word of God. When you proclaim the Word of God, it is normal for people not to agree with you.”

“If you work in the field of law, you have to be prepared that people will not like what you are saying,” he said, but admitted that he was surprised to see some former members speak to the media about their experience in the movement.

At the moment, Attard said he has “absolutely no idea” when a meeting might take place, but voiced hope that it would be soon, so as that Scicluna can “help” and “guide” the community through whatever issues there are.

In comments to Crux, the archdiocese did not offer information on when a potential meeting could be set, but said that at this stage, it “has nothing to add to the statement of July 12th.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen