“Spiritual illiteracy,” “clericalism,” “immature faith”: Bishop Mario Grech, the new General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, takes a very critical look at the attitude of many Catholics during the COVID-19 crisis, in a long interview given to Civiltà Cattolica, published on October 14, 2020. For him, the Church must learn the lessons of confinement by changing its “pastoral models” and rehabilitating the “domestic Church.”
The former president of the Maltese Bishops’ Conference (from 2013 to 2016) was appointed in October 2019 as Pro-Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, and then Secretary last September. In this capacity, he has received from Pope Francis the task of preparing the Synod on synodality to be held in 2022.
“During the pandemic, a certain clericalism emerged, even via social media. We witnessed a degree of exhibitionism and pietism that has more to do with magic than an expression of mature faith,” Bishop Grech said in the interview. In it, the Maltese bishop describes a Church that has not always been up to dealing with the situation and that has been torn apart over the issue of the impossibility of accessing the sacraments.
“Some have even said that the life of the Church has been interrupted! And this is truly incredible. In the situation that prevented the celebration of the sacraments, we did not realize that there were other ways in which to experience God,” he laments. He adds that “the fact that many priests and laity went into crisis because suddenly we found ourselves in the situation of not being able to celebrate the Eucharist coram populo is in itself very significant.”
Going even further, he finds it “curious that many people have complained about not being able to receive communion and celebrate funerals in church, but not as many have worried about how to reconcile with God and neighbor, how to listen to and celebrate the Word of God and how to live out a life of service.”
“The Eucharist is not the only possibility that the Christian has to experience the mystery and to meet the Lord Jesus.”
While recalling that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life,” Bishop Grech nevertheless stresses that it is not the only possibility Christians have to encounter Jesus. He quotes Paul VI, who taught that “in the Eucharist, the presence of Christ is ‘real,’ not by exclusion, as if the others were not ‘real.’”
For Grech, therefore, “it is of concern that someone feels lost outside of the Eucharistic or worship context, for it shows an ignorance of other ways of engaging with the mystery,” “a certain spiritual illiteracy,” and also “proof of the inadequacy of current pastoral practice.”
He then expresses his belief that it is “very likely that in the recent past our pastoral activity has sought to lead to the sacraments and not to lead – through the sacraments – to Christian life.”
“It will be suicide if, after the pandemic, we return to the same pastoral models”
Following in the footsteps of Pope Francis, the new General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops believes that the coronavirus pandemic must be recognized as an opportunity for the Church that offers a possibility of renewal. “It will be suicide if, after the pandemic, we return to the same pastoral models that we have practiced until now,” he said.
In fact, the crisis has led to the discovery of “a new ecclesiology, perhaps even a new theology, and a new ministry,” he said. First of all, this experience confirmed that service to the sick and the poor is an effective way for Christians to live their faith, “reflecting a Church present in today’s world, and no longer a ‘sacristy Church,’ withdrawn from the streets, or content to project the sacristy into the street.”
Secondly, this period of confinement has allowed families to grasp their vocation and “develop their own potential.” In this sense, he says that the crisis should lead to “rehabilitating the domestic Church and giving it more space.” Living the Church “within our families” constitutes, for the Maltese bishop, “the valid premise of the new evangelization.” He emphasizes that “if the domestic Church fails, the Church cannot exist. If there is no domestic Church, the Church has no future!”
The domestic Church, a victim of historical clericalism?
The former bishop of Gozo (Malta) believes that this notion of the domestic Church, although emphasized by the Second Vatican Council, has undoubtedly been the victim of a perverse clericalism. He traces this “negative turn” in the conception of the domestic Church back to the 4th century, “when the sacralization of priests and bishops took place, to the detriment of the common priesthood of baptism.”
According to him, “the more the institutionalization of the Church advanced, the more the nature and charism of the family as a domestic Church diminished.”
In the end, while “many are still not convinced” of the evangelizing charism of the family and its “missionary creativity,” Bishop Grech is convinced of the contrary. The spouses are “capable of finding a new theological-catechetical language for the proclamation of the Gospel of the family.” And he quotes Pope Francis: “God has entrusted to the family not the responsibility for intimacy as an end in itself, but the exciting project of making the world ‘domestic.’”