Church must not be deaf to change: ‘My fear is we’re being complacent’

Gozo’s outgoing bishop Mario Grech said on social media the Church would be committing suicide if it returned to the same pastoral models in a post-COVID world. KURT SANSONE spoke to him over the phone to get a deeper insight into his observations

“Many times, what I see is us offering the same minestra, when tastes are changing and this is when we lose relevance”
“Many times, what I see is us offering the same minestra, when tastes are changing and this is when we lose relevance”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced change on everyone, but the more enterprising are trying to harness some of the disruption to be prepared for a new future.

Businesses discovered the benefits of teleworking and are looking at a future where more employees can work from home. Industries are also reassessing their supply chains and delivery methods. And European institutions and some governments are speaking of a more environmentally-friendly future and the need to speed up the ‘Green New Deal’.

Not all of this will succeed; many will probably return to the ways of old.

But there is a realisation that the post-COVID world will be a much different place than it was at the start of this year, and outgoing Gozo bishop Mario Grech is quick to realise this. On the phone he tells me of his concern that this re-assessment is not happening in the Church.

It was a Facebook comment Grech posted on his wall a fortnight ago that sparked the conversation. He wrote: “We will be committing suicide if, after this pandemic, we return to the same pastoral models we have practised until now. We have discovered a new ecclesiology, perhaps even a new theology, and a new ministry. This is the time for us to make the necessary choices to build on this new model of ministry.”

Many times, what I see is us offering the same minestra, when tastes are changing and this is when we lose relevance

Like every other aspect of life, the Church has had to adapt to the COVID-19 reality as restrictions on public gatherings also impacted places of worship, feasts and other religious services.

Daily Mass went online and on TV as devout Catholics tuned in to hear ‘lonely’ priests celebrate the Eucharist and deliver short homilies. For some this provided an intimate experience lived at home with the family.

In some places, the Eucharist was paraded in the streets as people watched from their balconies and windows.

But Grech’s concern goes beyond the mere provision of religious services, which is what many in the Church have come to expect.

“The world is passing through the fifth season – a prolonged winter where the land does not produce – which is why we have to ask ourselves whether it is appropriate for the Church to continue giving the same answers and services of the past. We have provided Mass on social media, giving people an individual experience and yet the predominant call we hear is to reopen churches – the physical buildings,” he says.

Grech does not advocate the closure of churches but would like to see a more spiritual approach that reaches out to people in their homes, on the streets, in their lives.

“At a time when unemployment and poverty are on the rise, economies are battered, school education disrupted and health services postponed, we have to be asking ourselves whether we can continue as we used to. Our time is talking to us. Should we remain deaf to it?”

He says the current turmoil is not like a sentence bracket that started in March and will end in June. The consequences will remain with us for a long time.

“We have to be a Church that dreams. God’s word does not change but we have to offer a fresh way of taking this to the people, because I truly believe that the answer to the need people have to make sense of all this can be found in God,” Grech tells me.

He shuns the word ‘frustration’ when I suggest it to him. Just like other sectors of human endeavour, he believes church leaders should also be questioning their pastoral ways.

“During this time, we rediscovered the value of spending time with our families. We rediscovered the value of community. Let us not allow this to escape. We must be a church that is open to the community. We cannot be exclusive and this is why we have to ask ourselves how we can open a dialogue, internally and with the rest of society,” he says.

Grech’s words reflect Pope Francis’s reformist attitude. Only last December in the annual Christmas greetings to members of the Roman Curia inside the Vatican, the Pontiff insisted that to carry out the continuing reform of the Church required a willingness to change and a commitment to personal conversion. It was a message, like many others, intended for Church leaders as much as it was for ordinary Catholics.

Grech says he wants a Church that does not need to physically go to church. “I want to see God’s people going beyond attending mass in church – that is important, but not enough – by reaching out to people in their homes and on the streets without imposition but with understanding and compassion. Many times, what I see is us offering the same minestra, when tastes are changing and this is when we lose relevance.”

His is a yearning for a more intimate spiritual experience that transcends the religious expressions that are part and parcel of Malta’s culture. Society has been changing – Pope Francis describes this as a change of an era, not an era that is changing – and COVID-19 may have hastened this by positing new challenges and opportunities.

Grech insists the Church must not remain deaf to change. “My fear is that we are being complacent,” he says.

His words are meant to provoke thought among church leaders. He will undoubtedly receive flak from traditionalists, as evidenced by some of the comments on his Facebook wall beneath the post.

But Grech insists he wants a future for humanity and the Church. “There is a cry out there from people who want to make sense of this turmoil and I believe God is the answer but to reach out we have to come out of our comfort zone.”