martedì 18 aprile 2017

The space to explore one’s faith
The Sunday Times of Malta
(Kurt Sansone) Understanding, forgiveness, mercy, love… these are the words that Gozo Bishop Mario Grech wants people to associate with the Church, not its rules or its ethical stands. He reflects on the state of the faith in a changing society and the Church’s views on irregular families. -- The faithful will be out on the streets in their thousands this Easter morning to follow the traditional runs with the statue of the Risen Christ.
Many more will have attended the Good Friday processions two days ago and visited the myriad exhibitions detailing Christ’s passion and crucifixion. 
But if numbers in politics equate with strength, not the same can be said of faith. On the contrary, in spiritual matters, numbers can be deceiving. 
I meet Gozo Bishop Mario Grech at the Curia in Victoria on a Tuesday. The gospel reading for the day is about Christ’s betrayal by Judas, and it has a bearing on confession, penance and reconciliation, he tells me. “But how many people who profess the faith know this?” 
While the widespread exhibitionism of Christianity is a sign of this country’s roots, it does not automatically translate into strong faith, he answers me. 
“I have a dream that no such processions are held on Good Friday proper, so that it will truly be a day of reflection and prayer,” he says. 
The processions could be held in the preceding days, with Good Friday reserved for a pilgrimage where the faithful can walk behind the crucifix, he adds. 
“I am not an iconoclast; on the contrary, I believe statues can help people relate to God and the saints, but I fear that we have exaggerated, and exhibitionism has usurped the meaning of Holy Week,” he explains. 
Smiling, he talks about the many requests he receives for baptisms to be done during Christmas Eve Mass and how parents flinch when he suggests the Easter vigil instead. 
The Easter vigil represents the Catholic Church’s most beautiful liturgy, even if it may appear protracted and boring for the uninitiated. It is also the night on which the Church celebrates the sacrament of baptism, which represents the birth of a new life in Christ. 
And yet, while people flock to Christmas Eve mass followed by a hearty English breakfast at some restaurant, the Easter vigil remains alien to most Catholics. 
“Pastorally, it hurts to see that the Our Lady of Sorrows and Good Friday processions draw the crowds, but few attend the Easter vigil,” Mgr Grech says. 
What he speaks of hits at the heart of faith and the understanding Catholics have of it. 
But could it also symbolise a Church that has lost its grip on the country’s moral and spiritual fibre, especially in the wake of profound social changes that have reshaped society since the introduction of divorce six years ago? 
He pauses for a moment. “For a long time, the Church was the only focal point as a teacher of morality for society, but today it is positive that there is more than one cathedra proposing its reflections on ethical and moral matters.”
Even the State has its own bioethics committee giving it advice, he says. For him, it is not a question of the Church losing out but that other voices have cropped up. 

And in a society, he adds, where people are free to make their own reflections and follow what they believe makes sense in their lives, the Church becomes another voice in the arena. 
“The competition of ideas is good, because it also means that those who subscribe to the Christian way of life are doing so out of choice and conviction,” Mgr Grech says. 
However, he insists the Church will remain relevant as long as it continues to serve its primary function of helping people find God. “It is God’s love that has to come to mind when people hear the word Church and not a set of rules or an ethical agency.” 
Mgr Grech is not fazed when I suggest that most Catholics today craft their own brand of religion by picking and choosing what to believe and live by. 
There is an understanding in his tone that this could also be part of the individual’s journey of discovery. His answer surprises me in its brutal honesty. 
“We cannot expect Catholics to be perfect in everything, because there are people who genuinely search for the truth and they need the space to explore their own faith and understand what God wants to tell them,” he says. 
It seems to me that his reply implies that the discord some may feel with Church teachings comes from not yet having discovered the truth. But what about somebody who believes the truth is that gay couples have every right to live an intimate life and still embrace their Catholic faith as a family? 
Mgr Grech’s intense gaze turns into an understanding smile as he nods his head. His answer sidesteps the gay issue – a contentious matter for the Church – as much as it embraces it. 
“What you say applies to many things that appear not in line with Church teachings, but the ideal I look at transcends the here and now, because what is important is the yearning to reach God. We must not get stuck at sexuality. While the Scripture is clear, building a relationship with God is only for the person to do, and nobody can substitute his conscience.”
However, Mgr Grech also reaches out to the wider community that may be confused by situations that do not appear to fit the Christian faith. He says people cannot all be expected to wear the same jacket or move along the same path towards God or even at the same pace. 

“Unfortunately, we easily pass judgement upon others, and yet God’s ways remain mysterious.” 
Only three months ago, a similar dilemma erupted when Mgr Grech and Archbishop Charles Scicluna released guidelines to help priests interpret Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the Joy of Love. 
The guidelines focussed on chapter eight, dealing with the highly controversial issue of how divorced and remarried Catholics should be embraced by the Church. 
Some rejoiced at the guidelines, which presented an opening to the sacraments for Catholics in complicated family situations, but others felt the moral compass had suddenly sent them off course. For traditionalists, the certainties of the past seemed to have been forsaken. The bishops faced flak, even within the clergy. 
“The certainties are still there, and the moral compass is still giving the right direction, but this development in the Church has fostered a change of attitude towards injured people,” Mgr Grech says. 
He argues that the Church’s fundamental teachings about marriage and the family have not changed, but he also posits a Church that is there to understand spiritual suffering and help faith to grow. 
“If there are people who want to meet Jesus, even if at face value their personal choices are contrary to Church teachings, should we stop them? I don’t think so, and this is what Amoris Laetitia is all about.” 
He specifically chooses the words ‘at face value’, insisting that nobody can substitute the individual’s conscience. 
Referring to the now-year-old exhortation, he says that there are instances when the small step forward made by an individual who appears not to be in line with God’s will is more pleasing to God than the choice made by the bishop. 
“What confuses me, pastorally, is this attitude of those willing to condemn others, like the Pharisees did with Jesus.” 
But priests also voiced their discomfort with the guidelines, with at least one young priest, who spoke to this newspaper anonymously, going so far as to say they contradicted Church doctrine. 
The bishop is not surprised by these voices of dissent. “The invaluable experience I got at the synods in Rome showed me the differing views that existed within the universal Church, and this is why I understood certain reactions.” 
He says that he and Mgr Scicluna have met members of the clergy who sought clarification and direction. “We need a lot of patience,” he adds.
There is no doubt that the bishop is singing from the same hymn book as Pope Francis. In the exhortation, the Pontiff called on priests to look beyond moral laws when dealing with irregular families. “
A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives,” the exhortation says. 
However, both the exhortation and the bishops’ guidelines speak of a discernment process that Catholics in these situations have to undertake. 
What are the elements of a proper discernment process? 
Mgr Grech lists sincerity, the ability to listen and patience. 
“The individual has to be sincere, first and foremost with himself, to understand what mistakes, if any, he made and acknowledge them,” he says. But there is also a process of introspection, where the individual listens to what God is asking of him. 
Mgr Grech acknowledges this is a process that requires a lot of patience but one that can lead a person to be at peace with God despite objectively leading a life that contradicts the Church’s teachings. 
He explains that these situations cannot be viewed from a black-and-white perspective. They are very delicate, and despite what the appearance may suggest, no two situations are the same. 
“The man who abandons his family and is now living with another partner and his ex-wife, who has also entered another relationship, are both objectively living in an irregular situation, but it is only logical that the moral burden they carry is very different,” he says. 
But conversion is there for both the woman and the man, he adds. And by conversion, he does not mean the two have to abandon their new families and reconcile by force. 
The Pope’s exhortation says that the ideal of having the couple back together may not be the desirable option in certain circumstances and may cause more harm than good. 
The woman’s position is understandable and excusable, I suggest, but how can conversion be available for the man? 
Mgr Grech does not flinch. There are wrongs that cause irreparable damage to others, such as injustices at work or murder, he replies. “These wrongs cannot be fixed, because nothing will bring back a dead person or bring back the years of suffering, but God’s infinite mercy is also available to these people.” 
He is quick to point out that this is not an easy process to understand, because God’s justice has nothing to do with the justice meted out by this world.
“It is very difficult for the victims of these circumstances who still have an open wound to accept this, and I understand them. But forgiveness has the power to heal even those who have suffered the wrongdoing.” 

He says the fact that the Church opened its doors to people in these complicated situations has already provided comfort in its own right. 
“I have met people who do not know where the discernment process will take them but who have already experienced the soothing effect of what Amoris has proposed.” 
How does it feel to be asked for spiritual guidance by someone who is suffering the pain of years of rejection by the Church because of his matrimonial status? 
Mgr Grech takes a long pause. His voice reflects the heavy burden of responsibility that every priest shoulders in these circumstances. 
“I shudder in front of these people who come to you like an open book, shedding tears of relief as they let their guard down and allow you to see and feel their pain. It is a humbling experience, and it is in moments like these that our mission becomes clear.” 
The clergy, he says, have to accompany the people to God’s door without pre-conceived ideas. He admits that the rigid, rule-based approach is much easier to follow, because it gives straight yes or no answers.
“This new road proposed by Pope Francis calls on us Catholics to be engaged, and we the clergy have to deal with these complex situations delicately, serving as a channel through which God’s tenderness reaches the person.” 

To some, this approach is nothing more than a Church that is trying to remain relevant in a more liberal society by bending to its mores. 
Mgr Grech dismisses this criticism. “Not at all, but if someone accuses me of bending in front of God’s will and respecting the individual’s conscience, then yes, I plead guilty.” 
He says that parents know all too well that they cannot deal with all their children in the same way, because each child has a different character and particular difficulties. 
“Why should we expect to deal with people in the same way? We often place God in a gilded cage and restrict his freedom through rigidity. But God is full of surprises, and he can write straight on crooked lines.” 
It has been more than an hour, and the lines on my notepad are looking crooked to me. We both agree it has been a heavy start to the day, discussing faith and the Church’s role in a changing society. 
But perhaps, this Sunday, this reflection on faith will accompany Easter lunch and figolla.
The Sunday Times of Malta, 16 april 2017