02 October 2019, The Tablet

Maltese pastor chosen to head Francis' Synod of Bishops

Maltese pastor chosen to head Francis' Synod of Bishops

Pope Francis greets pilgrims as he arrives for his general audience
CNS photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters

Pope Francis is pressing forward with his reform of the Synod of Bishops by choosing a Maltese prelate who shares his pastoral vision as the Synod's top official. 

Bishop Mario Grech has been plucked from the small island diocese of Gozo, Malta, to become pro-secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, the structure which Francis has chosen to implement his pastoral renewal of the Church. 

Bishop Grech, a supporter of the Pope’s marriage and family life teaching as expressed in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which was written by Francis following two synod gatherings, will initially work alongside Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri.   

The 79-year-old cardinal, a former Vatican diplomat, has been secretary-general since 2013, and has helped to implement Francis’ push to reboot the synod and organise the gatherings on the family and youth.

Speaking to journalists today, Baldisseri said he would step down from his post when his mandate expires, although he did not indicate when that would be. Cardinals normally retire when they turn 80 and lose their right to vote in a conclave. 

Bishop Grech, 62, helped draw up guidelines for the implementation of Amoris Laetitia in Malta. Those guidelines say that remarried divorcees could receive communion following a period of discernment and once they were “at peace with God.” Some traditionalist Catholics have heavily criticised the document. 

In his new role, the bishop will lead the office that organises the synod gatherings, including overseeing consultations and suggesting topics for discussion. The Synod of Bishops was established by Pope St Paul VI at the end of the Second Vatican Council and was designed as a body to bring together Church leaders from across the world to advise the Pope. 

Francis has made the synod a central part of his programme for renewal, giving it more power to make decisions while calling for a "synodal" Church where bishops and laity address problems collectively. On Sunday, he opens a synod on the Amazon region and has held gatherings on the family, which at times have sparked fierce debate. 

Bishop Grech shares Francis’ view that the Church must be outward-looking, missionary and able to engage with the messy realities of the world. 

“Faith is not a static thing,” he said in an interview last year. “It’s not a choice you make once – even the choice of Christianity itself; not just the priesthood. Faith is dynamic.”

The bishop says pastors should not turn away people who fall short of the Church’s teaching but accompany them, something emphasised by Francis in Amoris Laetitia.  

“If someone comes to me, asking me for help to discover Jesus Christ… he or she could be homosexual, and even in a homosexual relationship. It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I will not impede that person; on the contrary I would help. The last thing I would do is take up a position against that person.”

He added: “‘Black’ and ‘white’ still exist; but the grey area inbetween has grown. It is in the grey areas that we must search. That’s why I said that I am wary of those priests, or Christians, who feel they already know all the answers. No one can make that claim. We all have to continue searching.” 

Bishop Grech, 62, has led the diocese of Gozo since January 2005. He will remain as apostolic administrator until the Pope appoints a new bishop, but the role of secretary-general is a full-time position.  

His appointment means the Francis has now drafted in both of Malta’s bishops to assist him in Rome. 

The Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, was chosen by Francis to be Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he helps process sex abuse cases. Archbishop Scicluna previously served as a top prosecutor on cases of clergy sex abuse. He combines his role as adjunct secretary with being Malta’s archbishop. 

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