In the end, what each one of us will remember about our outgoing Bishop Mario Grech will be our direct personal contacts. I can mention his kindness in visiting my late homebound wife Sandra and even in coming up with the unexpected offer of saying Mass by her bedside.
A friend told me how she happened to be talking to him and all of a sudden, a need arose to carry some things, and he gave her a helping hand.
I am sure several will recall his spontaneous smile, his much appreciated habit of saluting everybody and asking people to convey his regards to their next of kin, the visits to the sick and to prisoners, whom he even welcomed as pilgrims at Ta’ Pinu seven months ago, and the visits abroad to Gozitans and especially to the various priests ministering oversees and particularly in poor countries.
It goes without saying that the mission of ‘Dun Mario’, as he unfailingly continued to style himself after becoming our Bishop in 2005, has its fair share of positive qualities and shortcomings, only brought to the limelight due to his leading position.
Yet, it is also very fair that after these years under his guidance, we acknowledge his valid contributions to the Church and to society at large, at least as a sign of basic gratitude and especially to make the most of his living legacy left by his vision, line of action and the processes he set going.
A striking feature of his episcopate amid challenging changes in our complex society was surely the ordering of all pastoral activity in the footsteps of the Holy Father.
While Bishop Grech’s first part of his term in office coincided during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the emphasis of this theologian pope on strengthening the faith resonated in the local drive to enhance the catechesis of adults, the budding of prayer groups of Lectio Divina, a house-to-house missionary drive, the foundation of a female cloistered monastery, the introduction of Godly Play for children and an intrepid defence of the indissoluble marriage in the lead up to the introduction of divorce law in Malta.
However, it bears noting that the bishop’s general style about civil issues and the unchurched was positive and proactive, by shunning controversies, stirring the existentialist quest for sense in life, irrespective of any sort of affiliation, but at the same time decisively proposing to all an authentic spiritual encounter with Christ. His voice in the public arena, frequently hitting the national headlines, offered an unwavering guideline in a society disoriented by flimsy moral relativism.
No less effective was the implementation of the line put forward by Pope Francis, actually Bishop Mario’s pastoral mentor. The interventions he personally voiced in two crucial Synods about the family, as president of the Maltese Episcopal Conference, decisively supported the open-hearted evangelical attitude of deciphering the signs of the times in view of a wider integration within Christ’s fold of persons in various dysfunctional family settings. His input was valuable and presumably appreciated by Francis himself, considering the hot debate that marked those two events and the diverse public opinion worldwide.
He is receiving an eloquent endorsement for the way he exercised his ministry among us
A most notable aftermath of those crucial events was the publication of the Guidelines by the Maltese Bishops applying Chapter 8 of the post-synodal document Amoris Laetitia, while drawing the praise and scorn of many. Now that the initial uproar somehow abated, the guidelines remain as a long-standing valid tool in the Church’s ministry of Mercy, which Bishop Grech cares to call in its Italianised version of miserkordja to denote its evangelical peculiarity.
Over time, mercy, coupled with its twin key notion of the personal encounter with Christ, became the leitmotiv of the Bishop’s teachings and pastoral directives.
These teachings are contained in various homilies, speeches and pastoral letters, with a touching and idiosyncratic way of explaining Scripture, interspersed by the periodic use of typical Maltese idiom and remarks of various postmodern secular philosophers. The availability online of much of this material augurs well for the unavoidably long-term assimilation of its loaded contents.
The guidelines, on the other hand, transpire in virtually all sectors of pastoral ministry, such as the constant stress on catechesis for all ages, the highlighted need of proposing freshly the core of Christ’s message to the bulk of cradle Catholics, a very systematic prenuptial preparation and of an effective counselling service, among other things.
Though Bishop Grech’s emphasis was overtly on the Church’s strictly pastoral mission vis-à-vis those within and outside the visible precincts of the Church, the material and administrative means that serve that primary purpose were in no way ignored.
Here enters the scene a general administrative reform comprising an appreciated upgrade of the salary to the national minimum wage for priests working for the diocese; the acquisition of property for pastoral services as that of Trionfi House; the extensive works at the Boys’ Minor Seminary and the Girls’ Bishop’s Conservatory; the splendid renovations at Ta’ Pinu; the lodgings provided for Gozitan students in Malta; the setting up of a Liturgical Art Diocesan Centre; the overhaul of the building of the Curia and the first-ever joint venture by 13 Church entities which benefitted from structural European funds through a coordinated centralised effort by the diocese.
As a whole, this material aspect was handled professionally and efficiently, but the bishop rather laid the emphasis elsewhere. He steadfastly guarded against a nostalgic Church life, fossilised in obsolete and parochial traditions or pretending to have a monopoly to dictate to the State and impose triumphantly its tenets on one and all. His ever-present vision of the Church that transcends the insular confines of Gozo and Malta and openness without resistance to the changes suggested by the Holy Spirit were at the foundation of a guiding service.
I am sure that two trademarks of Grech’s episcopate will remain the extra load to be thrown into the sea to lighten the ship and the belfry’s clock.
He came up with the first metaphor during the Pauline Year, in a programmatic call to the local Church to free itself of superseded practices and securities and proposed the second symbol a couple of years ago in a vigorous appeal to Christians not to be self-referential but become missionaries at home, after realising that the village belfry’s clock is no more the regulator of social life.
Following a Marian Year, of which only the Good Lord knows the full extent of spiritual blessings prompted through its course by the visit in all parishes of the dearest image of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu, to whom it’s an open secret that Bishop Grech is particularly attached, his latest initiative was the launch of a year in support of priestly and male and female consecrated life. The heart of the diocese, the Major Seminary, is still beating, though with a reduced number of seminarians, which is yet still proportionately significant by today’s standards.
When Bishop Mario assumed the responsibility of the Church in Gozo, almost 14 years ago, he found a community of faith, with its virtues and defects. As he is leaving it now, after being handpicked by Pope Francis to be his “Field Marshal” as secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, he is receiving an eloquent endorsement for the way he exercised his ministry among us, thus encouraging us to hold that all in all, despite all weaknesses and inadequacies, the Good Lord availed himself of his ministry to keep and confirm the faith.