Bishop Mario Grech has been rocketed from the tiny diocese of Gozo to a heavyweight post at the Vatican. The appointment is very telling both about the choices Pope Francis is making in his struggle to reform the Church. It also says a lot about Bishop Grech himself, who passes from a diocese the size of a parish to a strategic post involved in decision-making and management of the universal church, as General Pro-Secretary of the Synod of Bishops.
The appointment is in line with the Pope’s strategy to fill Curia vacancies not with bureaucrats but with people who are pastorally hands on. It shows the trust Pope Francis has in Bishop Grech, a canonist by specialisation.
As bishop of Gozo for 14 years, his legacy is a pastoral one with a soft spot for social issues that impact on society at large but which call on the Church to be more attentive to the real needs of people. He put care for the people on top of his agenda. He was a shepherd with a listening ear and gifted with a powerful and prophetic word not just when addressing internal Church issues but even those of a social and cultural nature. He exploited the fact that Gozo’s size makes it easier to connect personally with people, to foster a deeper sense of community and more meaningful relationships.
One major concern of his was the ongoing formation of the clergy, still relatively numerous in such a small context, and to instill in them a pastoral mindset.
He boldly struggled to bring some discipline to village festas.
Undoubtedly, he had his minuses, but all in all he earned the respect of many in both Church and society.
His approach in the context of the divorce referendum back in 2011 was almost fundamentalist. Then, he had the golden opportunity to participate in a number of Synods, outstanding among them those tackling marriage and the family; perhaps something of a damascene experience for him. Even a bishop, after all, can go through a rethinking, which is something he himself acknowledged.
Now Bishop Grech will be one of Francis’s right-hand men at a time when the Church is in turmoil but going through one of the most interesting and challenging times since Vatican Council II.
With Francis, the Synod of Bishops is assuming a very different face and function.
Soon after the closure of Vatican II in 1965, Pope Paul VI set up the Synod’s permanent structure mainly as a tool to foster better connection between the Pope, the Roman Curia and the episcopates around the world. Successive popes convened the Synod regularly and promoted internal debates on high-priority themes and issues. With Francis, the Synod is becoming a permanent, more inclusive, consultative and listening process.
This is not cliché. It happened in the Family and Youth Synods and in the one addressing the crucial issues of the Amazon continent.
As Secretary General, Bishop Grech will attend mainly to the choice of themes to be brought before Synod assemblies, the entire listening process leading to and following the gatherings, as well as facilitate the actual management and logistics.
This is a daunting task indeed. May he rise to the occasion as he did as pastor for Gozo.