Closer to the Infinite | Bishop Mario Grech

Gozo Bishop Mario Grech reflects upon the societal changes his diocese is going through, and the challenges faced by the Catholic faith in an increasingly secular society

As Gozo Bishop, you are a widely known public figure. Yet little is widely known about your personal background… for instance, why you chose a life dedicated to the Catholic Church. It is often talked of as a ‘vocation’; but what were the specific circumstances that led you to make that choice in the first place?

As a child, my experience of the Church was that of any other child. But time passed; I grew up, and I eventually got involved in the ‘real’ Church. It’s an important difference: the Church is a different thing when you’re young. There is an element of fun and games. I was an altar boy as a child; we used to ‘play’ at being members of the Church. But I remember one specific moment, when I was in fourth or fifth form. […] One of the priests, Dun Manuel Curmi, used to organise activities for people with disabilities.

Back then we were still in the very early days of public awareness, when disabled people were only just beginning to emerge from their homes. He invited me to help out at one of these activities; and I remember that, at one point, I was assisting a young man in a wheelchair – he was around the same age as me – and it was then that I felt my calling, my vocation. But naturally, it doesn’t come about in a vacuum. God calls us, walks with us, in the context of everyday life. He talks to us through the people we meet. It was my experience with that youngster that first inspired me to reflect, and to consider the possibility of entering the priesthood.

This calling would also expose you to realities beyond the narrow sphere of Gozo. As you rose through the ranks you will have been acquainted with the complexities of Church politics; conscious, perhaps, of a much wider world full of very different realities. Was there any point where this broadening of your horizons, also caused you to feel any doubt about your vocation?

Not only did I feel it then, but I still feel it today… all the time. It’s a constant tension: faith is not a static thing. It’s not a choice you make once – even the choice of Christianity itself; not just the priesthood. Faith is dynamic. So constantly, these questions will be passing through your mind. Was it the right choice, or not? Does Jesus Christ – who is the reason for the existence of the Christian faith – have a message for me, or not? These moments between light and darkness, as it were, are not an experience from those times only. It is a continuous process.

At the same time, the Catholic Church has traditionally portrayed itself as a beacon of light in the darkness; there has always been a sense of immutability about it, as though the truth of its faith is ‘etched in stone’. Is this a flawed perspective of Catholicism?

Faith is not ‘etched in stone’: at least, not in my case. And I believe that that is how it should be. To me, the Christian who says ‘I have accomplished everything’ [jien wasalt] is a dead Christian. The priest who is not open to self-doubt, so that his vocation continues to develop, and grows with him... to me, that is a weak priest. This, I believe, is the dynamic of Christian life.

Let’s talk a little about the Gozo Diocese in particular. Gozo has changed a lot in recent years, as has everywhere else. If you were to assess the current social climate in Gozo at the moment, what would your weather forecast be? Is it a time of storms or fair weather for the Gozo diocese?

As you said, we are going through a period of change. And to me, this is a very positive thing. But there are those who are nostalgic for the past; and they tell you, for instance: ‘This morning I celebrated Mass for 20 people. A few years ago, the Church would have been half full…’ That is certainly an indicator. But it doesn’t mean that people no longer believe. Nonetheless, the practice of religion is in decline, in Gozo as everywhere else. To us, as a Church, this poses great challenges. On top of that, it also saddles us with responsibilities. For if we do not take note of these changes, if we choose to remain ‘the Church of yesterday’… we will end up being neither relevant to society, nor even fulfilling our mission as a Church…

But it’s not just in religious matters that life in Gozo has changed. Economic improvements have also raised people’s personal aspirations, and global communications have undeniably broadened people’s horizons. Could it be that the Church was also caught unprepared by the sheer pace of change? That it hasn’t done enough to keep abreast of new realities?

I am conscious [of the challenges]; and I try to address them. I am a little less satisfied with how much participation there is in this vision, however. I think there are still those who have not yet woken up to reality of the revolution we’re passing through. And by ‘revolution’, I don’t mean it in a negative sense. To me, it is a very positive development. In fact, you earlier asked me for an assessment of the current situation for the Gozo diocese… I would say we are living in the best of times.

Why the best of times?

Because, in the situation we are going through, God appears to be far from society’s horizons at the moment. Today, people may be deriving satisfaction from other things; but it is an illusion of satisfaction. It still leaves us with a thirst. So, we will reach a situation where humanity – society, the individual – will feel the need to look for God. A man without God on his horizons, is disabled.

If I’ve understood correctly, even the fact that people today are more empowered by social change, and have tasted of the ‘forbidden fruit’ of materialism – they own their own houses, have a car, go abroad more often, eat out more, eat what they like, wear what they like, etc. – is not enough, and people will eventually realise something is missing from their lives?

The fact that we are in this situation is suppressing the need for God. We are substituting the satisfaction only God can give mankind, with the satisfaction provided by material things. […] But even though the masses are moving in this direction, I still encounter individuals who feel that what really satisfies the human heart are not material possessions, but the Infinite. Now: what is the Infinite? I call it ‘God’, who revealed himself to us through Jesus Christ. For others, it may be something else. This is not something unique to the Church. To be open to the Infinite is something natural to all mankind.

At the same time, these words are likely to resonate only with people who, as you said, already share that belief or vision. What about the masses who don’t? Could this also be the reason that the Church struggles in today’s environment? That this sort of language just isn’t pushing the right buttons for the people you need to reach out to the most?

We must be patient, so that when people come round to asking the truly fundamental questions of life, we will have an answer for them. Today, perhaps, is not the right time. The message might not be understood. There is indifference. But this shouldn’t dishearten us from carrying on our mission. And our mission is precisely to share this conviction, and this wealth, with all mankind.

When talking about Gozo, the term ‘insularity’ often crops up. While the island has progressed in many areas, there still remains a ‘connectivity’ issue. Literally, in the sense that Gozitans are doubly isolated – an island within an island – but also when it comes to access to jobs, education opportunities, and so on. The Gozo Church, too, is often viewed as being ‘apart’ from its sister diocese. How much of an issue do you think insularity is for the Gozo diocese today?

First of all, although we are isolated – we are an island, after all – I would say that, with the grace of God, Gozitan society is today more open than ever. The Church played a large part in this, too. It might not be evident to everyone, but in reality, the Gozo Church also has a universal dimension to it. It is an open Church. For example, in our history, we have founded two religious orders: the Franciscans, and the Dominican sisters. These institutions originated in Gozo; but today, they are part of international network. Their reach is global. Not to mention Gozitan missionaries, both lay and religious, who are also in contact with the wider world. And as in the case of immigrants: when immigrants come here, they tend to communicate something of our culture back to their homeland. Our emigrants, too, send back messages. They add a globalised dimension to our Church. Naturally, it doesn’t mean that everything is perfect; but this openness is not a factor I would exclude, or minimise in importance.

Turning to more specific issues: we ran a Vox-pop in the streets of Victoria, asking for popular assessments of Mgr Mario Grech. Some refused to comment, many were either positive or non-committal in their responses… but two viewpoints stand out from the rest. One is the criticism that you are not ‘confrontational’ enough, given the problems and challenges faced by the Church today. And the other was a young man’s open accusation that you are homophobic, or ‘have a problem’ with gay people. How do you respond to this sort of criticism?

Personally, I think confrontation does no good to anyone, because it breaks down communication. If you’re not communicating… what’s the point? I also believe that you have try and understand the viewpoint of others. I have my own convictions and beliefs; but if I’m to communicate them to others, I have to be able to see things from their perspective. And as I mentioned earlier, I am also a firm believer that everything needs to be given its due time.

But how would you react to an atheist, for instance… who rejects the existence of God, and therefore the very raison d’etre of your entire mission?

First of all, the most enjoyable discussions I have ever had have always been with people who identify themselves as atheists. To me, that is a challenge: it helps me sharpen my own faith. At the same time, however: even though they say they are atheists, I believe that in the heart of each human being, there is a spark, or seed of belief.

Yet a growing number of people do call themselves atheists. What would you say is the likeliest cause of loss of faith in God? Personal experience, or logical deduction?

Personal experience definitely plays a part. I myself am often amazed how some people manage to keep believing, even after passing through dark periods in their life. But there is also logic and structured thinking behind atheism, based on philosophy. It is certainly not something I would discard out of hand. But having said that: I also sincerely feel that would someone make a bigger effort to prove to me that God doesn’t exist, than I would prove that He does.

Have you ever convinced a declared atheist to return to the fold?

I don’t try to convince. I prefer having a dialogue with that person, in the hope that we will both be enriched. Because even atheists have values. And if there is a common basis that we can both share – fundamental human values – I would say we would both be much closer to the Infinite.

What about the accusation of homophobia? It was directed in part at Catholic teaching about sexuality in general; but also, perhaps, to some degree at you personally…

I wouldn’t say that’s correct. If that person knew me from years ago… well, I admit that I had certain positions and convictions in the past. Today, I have changed. And I don’t mean ‘me’ as in ‘Mario’… in this respect, I am also reflecting the teachings of the Church. Our approach to all people, as a Church, has also evolved.

What is the Church’s position on homosexuality today?

The position is only one; that hasn’t changed. But we now depart from the fact that, if a person is looking for God – whatever the situation: whether they are in homosexual or heterosexual relationships; married or outside marriage; in their first or second marriage… because it is true that, in the past, the issue of sexuality used to prevent us from speaking to people. It was a barrier. But at the same time, sexuality is only one dimension of a man’s life. Even I, who am celibate, have to come to terms with it on a daily basis. But it shouldn’t be an obstacle in the search for God. So, if someone comes to me, asking me for help to discover Jesus Christ… he or she could be homosexual, and even in a homosexual relationship. It doesn’t matter. I will not impede that person; on the contrary I would help. The last thing I would do is take up a position against that person.

But the question remains: is homosexuality still a sin? Having the Church’s teachings about sexuality changed, along with its approach?

To give an example of the Church’s earlier approach: before, we would say: ‘put your life in order first, and then we’ll begin the journey towards God’. Today, on the other hand, we would say: ‘Let us approach Jesus Christ… and Christ will help us put our lives in order.’ Now: this ‘order’ might be good for me, but not good for you. And we cannot presume to dictate the order for everyone…

That, in itself, is a major departure from the Catholic Church some of us remember from three or four decades ago. Back then, everything was either ‘black’ or ‘white’. Are we to understand that ‘black’ and ‘white’ no longer exist?

‘Black’ and ‘white’ still exist; but the grey area in-between has grown. It is in the grey areas that we must search. That’s why I said that I am wary of those priests, or Christians, who feel they already know all the answers. No one can make that claim. We all have to continue searching.