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Is a Gozo bishop needed?

It was welcome to read the recent interview in The Sunday Times with Gozo Bishop Mario Grech, fresh from attending the Bishop’s Synod in Rome. The Roman air has obviously had a Damascene effect.

It seems a fair question to ask whether the Gozo diocese exercises a disproportionate voice in the Maltese Church’s affairs
- Martin Scicluna

In a break from his language at the height of the divorce referendum 18 months ago, Mgr Grech called for a Church that “accompanied divorcees in a journey of faith. The Church must show them love and not condemn them,” a message reflected in the Pope’s homily that closed the Synod last week. There is hope of enlightenment yet.

Mgr Grech’s intention “to correct those who are too enthusiastic to judge others and those who look down on these people” also struck a chord among those of us who were at the receiving end of his earlier, as well as quite recent, diatribes. I simply hope that his frank admission that “the Church is failing to connect with contemporary Catholics... in a world where irrelevance is a bigger challenge than confrontation” is duly conveyed to two of his monsignors, Anton Gauci and Joseph Farrugia, with both of whom I recently crossed swords.

I had the temerity to question whether there was any case for Gozo, an island of about 30,000 souls, to have its own bishop, and I suggested, tongue in cheek, that perhaps this was something the Apostolic Nuncio to Malta might care to examine. Mgr Gauci in a fit of Gozitan ire called me “an enemy of the Diocese” (of Gozo).

But this was still a fair question to raise as the Maltese Church grapples with modernising its organisation and communications. The launch of the Church’s own news portal, where the Bishop of Gozo made his peace with divorcees and those whose marriages have irrevocably broken down, is but the first manifestation of this. Any such adaptation must examine all options for change, whether pastoral, structural or hierarchical. There should be no no-go areas.

Given that Gozo comprises only about seven per cent of the Archdiocese of Malta in population terms (about the same size as the combined parishes of Birkirkara and Mosta), it seems a fair question to ask whether it exercises a disproportionate voice in the Maltese Church’s affairs and, indeed, whether there is any longer a real need for a Gozo diocese.

There are of course historical reasons for the creation of the diocese, with its own bishop and ceremonial panoply of monsignors, seminary and hierarchy.

The first Bishop of Gozo was created in the late 19th century. Malta was then a colony in the British Empire.

Throughout Malta’s colonial rule, the overriding objective of the British Crown was to ensure that the smooth running of the fortress colony was not affected adversely. To this end, it suited the British to support a powerful diocesan Church, bolstering it in every way, thus directly ensuring the support of the Maltese.

It is against this historical back-cloth of British ingratiation with the Maltese Church for its own political ends that the decision to establish a bishopric in Gozo should be viewed.

However, over a century later, with Malta now a modern, independent State, and with the advances in 21st century communications, the question must be asked whether the arguments that were obtained then for having a Bishop of Gozo make any sense today.

Direct access to Gozitan parish priests by mobile phone or internet can be obtained in a flash.

Physical access to Gozo has been revolutionised, no longer the luzzu or karrozzin of old.

The time when the Archbishop of Malta took the best part of a day to travel to his parishioners in Gozo are long gone. It now takes a half-hour boat crossing and the Archbishop’s ability to communicate verbally or in writing with the hierarchy there is instantaneous.

In terms of time and space, the Gozitan parishes are as much an immediate geographical part of the Archdiocese of Malta as the parishes of Birkirkara or Sliema, which they resemble in population terms. The case for having the post of bishop placed directly in the chain of command to lead under 10 per cent of the Archdiocese of Malta is weak indeed.

There can be no question that on pure governance grounds there are no persuasive cost-effective arguments in favour of having such a post. And there are strong arguments against. The existence of a Gozo bishop has in the recent past acted as a destabilising presence on the Maltese Archdiocese as a whole, as the divorce and IVF debates showed. Having a bishop there shouting from the sidelines has been a disadvantage.

There remains therefore the argument on political grounds, the very argument that led to Gozo having a bishop in the first place. While I personally am not persuaded that the political arguments – the “special” position of Gozo, its unique historical make-up – should override the practical reasons adduced above, I am sufficiently sensitive to the peculiar make-up of the Maltese political, as well as the ecclesiastical, psyche to know that logic, hard-headed efficiency, cohesiveness and cost-effectiveness weigh less in the balance of decision.

We must therefore reluctantly reconcile ourselves to there being no immediate demotion of the status of the Diocese of Gozo.

Provided the Bishop of Gozo adheres to the spirit expressed by him after the recent Bishops’ Synod, I for one will be content, on balance, to live with the current structural contradictions.

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