Wednesday, October 02, 2019

At Synod Central, The Future Comes Early

While peak cycle wasn't expected to kick in until Saturday's "Scarlet Bowl," as ever, the Pope has his ways of upending things.

Four days until the heavily-awaited Synod on Amazonia opens, Francis began charting the next chapter for what's arguably the cornerstone of his governing vision at Roman Noon today, naming the Maltese Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo (above) as successor-in-waiting to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, 79, the pontiff's field marshal in making the Roman Synod a more consultative and participatory organ, often with striking results.

Now the Synod's Pro-Secretary General, Grech, 62, will lose the prefix upon taking Baldisseri's place when the Italian cardinal turns 80 next fall. Before the turn of the millennium, the use of "Pro-" before a title was routinely employed to indicate that the holder of a post that ex officio belonged to a cardinal had not yet been given his own red hat. Until today, the distinction has never been used for the purposes of an heir apparent in a transition of office.

With the move, Malta – overwhelmingly Catholic, yet with fewer than half a million residents – now has two natives in key Vatican posts; still the island's top prelate, Archbishop Charles Scicluna has been doing double duty over the last year as an adjunct secretary at CDF overseeing its handling of abuse cases while remaining at the helm of its capital see at Floriana.

By contrast, Grech's Roman post will be full-time. Notably, however, the incoming Synod chief was not elevated to archbishop with the nod. (On a related note, Grech’s ascent adds to what was already a banner week for the Maltese at the Vatican: on Friday, the Pope will ordain another son of the island, Msgr Antoine Camilleri, as an archbishop-nuncio. Until now the Holy See’s “deputy foreign minister” since the end of Benedict XVI’s reign, the 54 year-old has emerged as the frontrunner to become the Vatican’s mission-chief at the United Nations headquarters in New York – one of papal diplomacy’s most prominent and intensive postings – which formally opened yesterday with the transfer of Filipino-born Archbishop Bernadito Auza as Nuncio to Madrid.)

While the Augustinian scripture scholar Prosper Grech was made a cardinal by Benedict XVI at his penultimate Consistory in 2012, as he was already over 80 – and thus ineligible to vote in a Conclave – Mario Grech is now in position to become the first Maltese cardinal-elector in two centuries. (Whether the two Greches are related is unknown at press time, but it is notable that Mario Grech served as a lead co-consecrator at his elder's ordination as a bishop, which took place in Malta prior to Prosper Grech's elevation.)

A canonist by training – who worked as a staffer at the Roman Rota during advanced studies – Grech (seen above with Scicluna) was a pastor at home upon his appointment to lead the island's second diocese in 2005.

On attending the 2014 Synod as president of Malta's episcopal conference, the gathering's incoming chief mused that "listening" to gays and lesbians made him realize that they "feel wounded by the language directed towards them in certain texts, for instance in the Catechism of the Catholic Church." Meanwhile, having been targeted by Francis' conservative critics over the Maltese church's guidelines on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia, the bishop was forced to deny reports fomented in traditionalist circles that he would suspend priests who refused the Eucharist to civilly remarried couples.

More recently, Grech took on the tone of anti-immigration rhetoric in Europe, declaring last year that those who "harbor resentment" toward migrants "are not Christian" and created misperceptions of the church as "tarnished by 'the stench of racial prejudice.'"

As "coadjutor" to the Synod's helm, Grech will take part in the upcoming assembly. And as of today, he'll walk in to a clean slate – for the first time in three years, no future convocations of the Synod are currently in process once the Amazon gathering wraps. Yet underscoring the key role of the Synod in this pontificate – and the critical import of its impending edition to the Pope himself – the Holy See announced yesterday that a Friday rite in the Vatican Gardens will consecrate this month's event to St Francis of Assisi, the pontiff's chosen patron.