Friday 21 August 2020, feast of Pope Saint Pius X, who, besides of his humble origins, proved to be a great instrument of God for his people and whose episcopal motto was “restore all things in Christ”, at the parish Church of St John the Baptist at Xewkija in Gozo, there was the episcopal consecration of Mgr Anton Teuma. As a result, the latter became the 9th Bishop of Gozo. This pivotal celebration for the life of the Gozitan diocese was led by Bishop Mario Grech. He was flanked by Malta’s Archbishop, Mgr Charles Jude Scicluna as well as the Apostolic Nuncio to Malta and Libya Mgr Alessandro d’Errico.
Bishop Mario Grech’s homily was touching and challenging, as usual. He boldly said that the Church cannot afford remain enclosed like a fortress, within its walls of defence. Contrarily, and completely fascinated by the charismatic example of the Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Her Founder, the Church is called to go out and leave her securities behind her to openly, humbly and joyfully meet the people where they are and serve them on the streets. In no other way can her presence in our “post-Christian” society be tenable and deeply felt as much as this.
Mentioning the sister island of Gozo as a case in point, Bishop Grech did not mince his words by saying that even Gozitan society needed a missionary church. Leading a church is tantamount to navigating a boat, he said. The most confronting thing to do whilst navigating a boat is, precisely, to change its direction. Hence, he directly addressed Mgr Teuma by these clear, wise and foreward looking words: “This is your mission, Jesus is trying to set a new route for his people.” Even if this is a noble mission the new bishop has to face the hurdles that might present themselves while this lofty mission will be courageously and faithfully being fulfilled.
The down-to-earth approach of Bishop Grech continued to unravel rough waters for the Church in our Islands, including of course the Gozitan Church. The number of the faithful is impressively diminishing with Church pews are getting empty the more time passes. This fact might prove to be a fierce obstacle to steer Peter’s barque. He said: “We are moving from what had been a Christian society to a post-Christian one. It was difficult to steer the boat through those waters, let alone now.”
Amid this difficult situation the prevailing temptation is to run away and go and find some ‘solace’ in some ‘safe’ place. Reality can be too hard to handle. However, the biblical account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus to the fearful disciples definitely suggests another kind of action. In fact, it demands not a running away but a courageous and humble insertion. In authentic discipleship of Jesus a cowardly desertion has no place in its life dictionary! Bishop Grech higlighted that the distraught disciples Jesus met on the road were leaving a nascent Christian community in Jerusalem that was engulfed within both a spiritual and social crisis in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion. When confronted with that hurting crisis, the Bishop reflected, the believing community thought it could enclose itself in the erroneous belief that it would not lose anything. Unfortunately, it gravely failed to realise that people were leaving it.
Jesus’ actions in this confusing milieu are very telling. He met the disappointed disciples who where heading to Emmaus, gave himself to them by listening lovingly to their concerns, and, finally, He communicated to them the salvific impetus of the good news, harping on the reality that a missionary Church likewise needed to preach the Good News to the faithful.
Going out there to meet the people where they actually are implies a great risk. Bishop Grech humbly recognised that. Nevertheless, he was bold enough to say: “But it is better to have a wounded Church, than one that remains enclosed in its own walls and becomes an archaeological artefact.” In order to drive home this very important point in the way the Church is to announce Christ to our post-modern society, Bishop Grech reminded his hearers of that magnificent and always prophetic opening of the Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which says: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (no.1). This pastoral attitude should be the kernel and backbone of being a missionary Church nowadays.
Moreover, Bishop Grech stressed that Bishop Teuma, by himself, cannot be able to give a new direction for the Church. There will always be the scenario where his community, or some parts of it, may resist this change. Within this perspective, Bishop Grech heartily encouraged the entire Gozitan Christian community: “So let us cooperate with him, so that with his help, we can be a Church that responds to the times, and that gives hope not just to the faithful, but to all.”
Bishop Grech’s heartfelt appeal is reminiscent of another great patristic appeal which St Ignatius of Antioch made in the second century to the Christian community. He told them: But since love will not allow me to be silent about you, I am taking the opportunity to urge you to be united in conformity with the mind of God… It is fitting, therefore, that you should be in agreement with the mind of the bishop as in fact you are. Your excellent presbyters, who are a credit to God, are as suited to the bishop as strings to a harp. So in your harmony of mind and heart the song you sing is Jesus Christ. Every one of you should form a choir, so that, in harmony of sound through harmony of hearts, and in unity taking the note from God, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. If you do this, he will listen to you and see from your good works that you are members of his Son. It is then an advantage to you to live in perfect unity, so that at all times you may share in God”.
I am sure that the pastoral qualities of listening, gentleness, accompaniment, discernment and courage of the new bishop of Gozo, Mgr Anton Teuma, will certainly facilitate in making this vision come true in all its aspects and dynamics of the Gozitan Church. On the example of Pope St Pius X, whose gentleness and warmth for people characterised his petrine ministry and radiated the Spirit of Jesus amongst them, even Mgr Teuma will, by God’s grace and Mary’s maternal intercession, be a humble and faithful shepherd for the faithful at the Gozo diocese. Let us keep praying for him so that, guided by the Holy Spirit and that indispensable spirit of episcopal collegiality within his diocese, he will be representing a Church fully imbued with Christ’s Spirit, who, in Pope Francis’ words, “also knows to correct them, to forgive them and understand them. She knows how to be close to them in sickness and in suffering”.
What a wonderful healing answer would that be to his episcopal motto: And He walked along with them (Luke 24:15) as well as to Bishop Mario Grech’s prophetic words uttered in that unforgettible homily!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap