We are the living Church and it would be suicidal if, after the pandemic, we simply continue in the old, tired ways. This was unifying thread of thought in the pastoral letter issued by Gozo’s Apostolic Administrator Bishop Mario Grech. The fact that churches are closed and empty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Bishop Grech, causes heartache. But, he pondered, is it the churches or is it our hearts which are empty?
Ritual is not faith
Bishop Grech said that the reaction of several, clerical and laity alike, that the lack of Masses left people rudderless speaks volumes about the nature of the way the faith is viewed. Freedom to pray is not the same as freedom of how to pray and our faith, said Bishop Grech, is not identified with the way we practice our faith. “There are periods when the Christian can survive without observance without breaking his or her fealty to God,” said Bishop Grech. He expressed the opinion that, so tied to the observance of ritual is the faith, that the withdrawal of the celebration of mass has precipitated a crisis for many. He said that archaic formats of ritual may be visually appealing but do little for the soul. “I wonder if the empty churches are not, in fact, a sign and a challenge coming from God,” said Bishop Grech.
Self conversion a priority
With churches emptying perceptibly and consistently, Bishop Grech asked if we are willing to recognise this process of attrition and react to it or if we stubbornly persist in further deepening the furrows of habit. Should we, he asked, expand energy to convert society when we should perhaps start from converting ourselves, the way Pope Francis indicated as ‘pastoral conversion’? He had strong words for those who, when the pandemic is over, aspire to turn back to the way things were. “There is a new ecclesiology, perhaps even a new theology and a new way of pastoral care and now is the right time to make the necessary choices to build a new framework,” said Bishop Grech.
The church’s Carpe Diem
COVID-19 pandemic may be a historic moment for the church where Christ will take again centre stage in His church, said Bishop Grech. He said that in spite of the great efforts, many are still illiterate from a Gospels perspective and while one may survive without the celebration of the sacraments, Bishop Grech said that without the Gospels one can only perish. He added that the gospels should not be disseminated through preaching but through practice and service. “As Pope Francis says: If we go amongst the poor, we find God. The centres for the teaching of Christian doctrine are important. Equally important are the kitchens for the poor…whoever says that there are no poor is out of touch with the world” warned Bishop Grech adding that the ‘church in the home’ is the keystone to the true faith.
The heavy burden of leadership
Bishop Grech referred to three instances highlighted by theologian Tomas Hallik which showed that the strength of the Church lay in its adaptability to the signs of the times. He said that the present pandemic is not a threat to society but an opportunity for regeneration. What we need is the good sense to carry out valid personal and communal discernment, said Bishop Grech. He added that this is a heavy burden for leadership as such a step is bound to set people against the leader, as resistance to change is ingrained.
Speaking directly to his parish priests, Bishop Grech said that this would be one of the last times he would have such an opportunity and he reminded them that leaders have, ultimately, to answer to God. He reminded them of the need to throw away excess baggage and give a new face to the church of God. “We need to sanitize, not only from a health perspective but also from a pastoral perspective. This pruning and sanitization should be done out of choice and not out of constraint” concluded Bishop Grech