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‘Church must reach out. It is how we need to convert’

Gozo Bishop Mario Grech tells Keith Micallef that the recent bishops’ synod could usher in a new era for the Church.

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The recent bishops’ synod conveyed mixed messages, amid reports of a split between conservative and progressive factions. Has the Church come out of the synod stronger or more divided?

This was a very useful exercise as the Church tried to read the signs of the times. It also tried to respond to fundamental needs of the people – the need for God. Considering the contrasting realities between secular Western society and the highly religious African communities, we managed to find ways of responding to the challenges being faced by humanity.

What kind of replies are you referring to and how did the synod help the Church to understand the realities surrounding families in this day and age?

The final document is a snapshot of the fami­lies’ strengths and weaknesses. The synod tried to quench what I describe as the ‘thirst for God’. In a Christian community, marriage and the family have to be viewed from a religious perspective. Marriage is also a way of living God’s mission, which is beyond any sociological analysis. The Church needs to put forward a more serious proposition of marriage to upcoming generations.

Are you saying that increased emphasis needs to be placed on the sacramental aspect of marriage?

There is a difference between civil and ecclesiastical marriage. We need to make people more aware of this distinction.

How can such awareness be raised?

This is the change we want. We cannot limit ourselves to tackling the issue from a technical or psychological perspective. I am afraid couples marrying in the Church do not benefit from God’s blessing to live this way.

Does the Church need to start communi­cating in a different style of language with young people?

It is not just the language that must be diffe­rent, but also the content. We need to rethink the approach.

Like revamping the Cana courses for couples who wish to marry?

I would not even use the term ‘courses’ as this is not an academic subject but more of a Christian experience leading to marriage, which is not only about chemistry between two people but the beauty of God’s proposal. Such preparation need not address technical aspects, but ought to focus more on catechumenal issues – the manner in which a couple can put into practice God’s teachings.

There has been a lot of debate over whether divorced couples should be allowed to receive communion. Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, said that if the family synod opened the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion then it has “departed from Catholic teaching in a very fundamental matter”. What is the Church’s position in this respect?

These mixed messages are causing great harm to the Church. This is not in line with the synod, as the Pope made it amply clear from day one that this was not about doctrinal teachings but a new pastoral approach. The synod is trying to respond to those situations where people, including those in their second marriage, are longing for God. It does not necessarily mean that somebody whose marriage has broken down has lost the faith.

The Church cannot refuse to administer communion to somebody who genuinely wishes to receive it

But how can a Catholic opt for divorce, if such a thing goes against the core values of its teachings? Is this not a typical case of someone treating religion as an a la carte menu?

Life is not black or white – there are also a lot of shades in between. What makes a good Christian? Perfection? If this were the case it would probably be beyond everybody’s reach. We are not a Church for perfect people, even though we have been brought up with theidea that there is only room for saints within the Church.

We are a Church made of sinners, who wish to improve themselves. Life is a journey from one stage to another, and the Church needs to support the faithful in their quest to find God. We are not saying the Church agrees with divorce, as the synod lays emphasis on its dissolubility.

This messages also need to be conveyed to those whose marriage has failed and who are in a second relationship. Shouldn’t these people have another opportunity to start a fresh experience and aspire to be loyal and faithful in line with the teachings of God? The same applies to those who only discovered faith at a late stage in their life, perhaps after their marriage broke down.

So where does this leave the Church on this particular issue?

The Church cannot refuse to administer communion to somebody who genuinely wishes to receive it and is trying to live in forgiveness, regardless of whether they are divorced or not. This could be the first step of a longer journey towards God, and the Church must not hinder such a process.

The Church needs to ‘educate’ the cries of these people to understand the motive behind their desire. The synod is a proposal for the Church to support those looking for God. These people can even become God’s apostles.

Last May I was at an episcopal conference in Italy, and one of the bishops turned to the Pope and asked him: “While we do not accept divorcees as godfathers to children, you are giving them your blessing.”

The Pope replied: “This could be an opportunity for these people to admonish children not to follow their example, and try to remain loyal in marriage.”

There is a degree of schizophrenia how we talk about these matters. A number of people who ask to be a godfather are unsuitable – either because they are corrupt, or are committing gross injustices. But nobody utters a word about them.

Gay relationships was another issue that stirred controversy during the synod. In view of the fact that the Church does not condone same-sex marriages, what is the role of gay people genuinely wanting to be close to God?

The synod said very little about this matter for the simple reason that any further focus could have seriously jeopardised the approval of the entire document. In fact, the 2014 synod delved into much more detail on this issue.

This year the synod said that families who have homosexual members need to be supported, their decisions respected and not hindered in any way. The important thing is to be sincere and fully committed to live the gospel. Why should this be a source of disagreement within the Church?

What form of family is in line with the Church’s teachings – a man and woman?

Marriage can only be referred to when talking about heterosexual couples. This is why there can be different forms of relationship. But this does not mean we are excluding or delivering judgment on other types.

But would a homosexual couple feel they have a kind of second class status within the Church?

No. We are neither condoning nor condemning anybody. As long as the individual tries to imitate the values preached by God, we embrace them. There are other values in the gospel, which are difficult to attain, such as forgiving the enemy. We need to strive to reach this goal. We seem to have very clear ideas about justice and love but then stumble upon kindness. These are all proposals put forward by God – like marriage between a man and a woman who form the natural family.

So are gay couples within a civil union welcome in the Church?

Of course. They are part of God’s people, and like everybody else they are going through a journey and the Church needs to support them in revealing God’s hidden face. We cannot define such a journey in stages and put up barriers, as the road is wide open to those truly seeking to follow God’s footsteps, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The synod said that families who have homosexual members need to be supported

So should we also expect to see gay couples accompanying adopted children at holy communions, baptisms or confirmation?

Yes. This is already happening and is fully accepted by the Church. The child or baby should not be held accountable for their parents’ deeds, decisions or way of life. Why should the Church deny the opportunity for same-sex parents wishing to give a Christian formation to their adopted children? They are most welcome. This is why the synod tried to give a new lease of life to those who are genuinely looking for God.

But wouldn’t such an approach be condoning same-sex relationships and at the same time be perceived as the Church bending over backwards to accommodate these people?

No. Mercy is not populism. We are not seeking to boost church attendance at all costs. This is the gospel. Certain choices are not the result of the example being set by others, but reflect the fact that we believe in certain values. This is why great emphasis must be placed on Christian formation. My dream is to make people long once again for God’s goodness. When people discover this beauty many things will fall into place, though I can’t see this happening within my lifetime.

But is there not the risk that the Church may lose its role as a moral compass in society?

Here lies a problem as this question bears the mark of a lay person, which is the same attitude still harboured in sections of the clergy. Before being a moral agency, the Church is an experience of God. I fear that at certain times we have put the cart before the horse as we speak on moral obligations but leave no room for mercy and forgiveness. The Church must be different. If God is at the centre of our lives all other things would naturally follow.

How will the synod help to improve pastoral work on the ground?

We must first be convinced on the essence of the gospel’s message. On many occasions accidental issues have replaced the core substance. If need be, we must cleanse ourselves of certain things in order to be close to the ideals. There must be greater urgency to reach out to people out there as many are looking for God, in various forms. It is also a question of attitude. We need to convert in this respect. The weaker the individual, and the more trouble they are, the greater the need to demonstrate mercy. Let’s hope the Year of Mercy will be the start of a new era for the Church.

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