By Alessandro Gisotti
The Holy Father’s intention in appointing Bishop Mario Grech as Pro-Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops last 2 October was “explicitly synodal”. In fact, since he will be taking on the leadership of the General Secretary of the Synod, right after his appointment as Pro-Secretary, Bishop Grech was called to “walk side by side” with Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri during the Amazon Synod. In this interview with L’Osservatore Romano and Vatican News (the first since his appointment), the Maltese prelate reflects on his experience during the recent Amazon Synod and shares his thoughts on how central the synodal dimension is in Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry.
The Amazon Synod concluded just a few days ago. How did you experience this special moment?
I became aware of the truth of something that the Holy Father loves to repeat—that reality is more clearly seen from the periphery than it is from the centre! This is true for social and cultural realities as well as for ecclesial experiences. I remember one Brazilian Bishop remarking to me how much he himself learned from listening to his peers. Even though he comes from the same region, he was unaware of some of the experiences and needs expressed by others. So, if the Synodal experience has been useful for someone who comes from the same territory, how much more valuable it is for those of us who think we are at the centre! Through listening to the experiences that emerged during the Synod, one not only becomes aware of how many semina verbi (seeds of the Word) there are in these peoples and vestigia ecclesiae (elements of the Church) present in these cultures, but also of how the centre commits a grave mistake when it thinks it is superior to those peoples.
You were appointed Pro-Secretary General of the Synod shortly before the Amazon Synod. How did you feel when you accepted this Papal appointment?
I come from a small diocese, but one that also possesses a strong missionary dimension. During my years of seminary formation, there was a saying that “the world is my parish”. Without being aware of it, the Lord has been preparing me for a long time for this new ministry that, in my opinion, encompasses a missionary dimension. Even though the Vatican is not a mission land, I consider the mandate entrusted to me by the Pope as a missionary call, both because the Secretary of the Synod is a crossroads that causes the world’s Episcopal Conferences to converge and because the same Synod of Bishops is an instrument of evangelization. As Pope Francis writes: “at a point in history when the Church is embarking upon a new chapter of evangelization requiring her to be throughout the world… permanently in a state of mission, the Synod of Bishops is called, like every other ecclesiastical institution, to become ever more suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world” (Episcopalis communio, 1).
“Synod” is certainly one of the key words of this Pontificate. Why do think the dimension of synodality is so important for Pope Francis?
I am of the opinion that Pope Francis’ thought regarding synodality is rooted in the category of “People of God”. It is evident that the Pope carries the Theology of the People in his “baggage”. This is the fruit of his understanding of the Second Vatican Council as well as his experience as the Bishop of the people of Buenos Aires. People have been at the heart of his pastoral experience. His theology and ecclesiology are the fruit of this experience in the midst of the People of God. In that light, the Church is not identified with the hierarchy, but with the People of God, comprised of all its members – bishops, consecrated persons, and laity – who, while possessing different charisms, possess the same dignity deriving from the same Baptism. The Pope loves to repeat what is found in Lumen gentium 12, that is, that the People of God cannot err in credendo (in matters of belief): “This means that it [the People of God] does not err in faith, even though it may not find words to explain that faith…. God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith – sensus fidei – which helps them to discern what is truly of God. The presence of the Spirit gives Christians a certain connaturality with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression” (Evangelii gaudium, 119). In fact, the sensus fidei is the hermeneutical key to understand the theology of synodality adopted by Pope Francis. Consdering that in his essay On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine, St John Henry Newman had reactivated a reflection on the sensus fidei, which later influenced the Second Vatican Council (Dei Verbum, 8; Lumen gentium, 12), his canonization during the Amazon Synod represented a golden opportunity for a profound reflection on the sensus fidei which, in my opinion, has been neglected. I do not think it accidental that the Pope made reference during the homily of the closing Mass of the Synod to the fact that “the sensus fidei [sense of faith] was missing in his [the Pharisee’s] utterance”.
In some respects, there were “two Amazon Synods”: the one in the Synod Hall was lived in a fraternal atmosphere among the Synod Fathers, and the one lived on social media was strongly contrasted to the former. What does this “dualism” bring up in you?
This is a well-known issue in the Church’s history about which some interesting books have been written. Look what happened after Vatican Council II. Regarding this problem, the Pope Emeritus recalled during his final meeting with the priests of Rome on 14 February 2013: “there was the Council of the Fathers – the real Council – but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media…. And while the Council of the Fathers was conducted within the faith – it was a Council … seeking to understand the signs of God at that time … the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today's media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic”. On one hand, the problem posed is in part physiological because the contexts are different. On the other hand, it signifies both that the Church needs to communicate better by specifying precisely its point of view, and that journalists need to foster a desire for a profound understanding of ecclesial events.
Also on this occasion, there was a request on the part of women in the Church to be able to vote during the Synod. Can you give us a reflection on the role of women in the Church?
There were diverse, interesting interventions on the role of women in the Church during the Synod. As can be read in the Synod’s Final Document, “The Church in the Amazon wants to create ever more extensive and incisive opportunities for a feminine presence in the Church… If the Church loses women in their complete and actual dimension, it will expose herself to sterility (paragraph 99). The request for the consolidation of the contribution of women in the Church came not only from women (religious and lay) present in the Synod Hall, but also from bishops who gave voice to the expectations of those who had participated in the consultation phase which took place in their dioceses. The fact that the Church in the Amazon is made present in many places through the intervention of women was particularly appreciated. The number of women, particularly women religious, is not small who are responsible for guiding the Christians communities in those places deprived of the presence of a priest. It is in light of this fact that formal recognition has been requested for the work that is already being accomplished by women in the areas of evangelization and pastoral ministry through the creation of appropriate ministries for women as leaders of the community. In this context, the proposal was advanced for the participation of women in the governing authority distinguished from that of sacramental power. From the consultation done prior to the Synod, the request emerged from many for the admission of women to the permanent diaconate (see Instrumentum Laboris, paragraph 103). All of this indicates that there is a movement toward which the Church can acquire a greater feminine face that would also reflect Mary’s face, the Star of evangelization.
There is the need to avoid limiting it to considerations of a functional character
Yes. I feel that many times the talk regarding women in the Church is still affected by utilitarianism, as if women should be conceded more space only so they can address certain emergencies. Instead, it would be more correct and evangelical if women came to be recognized for what she truly is. Pope Francis’ observation in his closing discourse for the Synod was very timely when he said that “there is a need to reflect on what the role of women means in the Church. When we think of the role of women in the Church, we only think of the functional part. But her task goes well beyond the functional.”
The institution of the Synod willed by St Paul VI has continually developed as a means of listening to the People of God and the impulse of the Magisterium. How can these two dimensions, which are also present in Episcopalis communio, be explored in greater depth?
In that Apostolic Constitution, Pope Francis offers some criteria to consolidate the dialogic process between the bishops and the People of God and so that the latter be guaranteed more participation in the Church – a process of greater integration between the communio fidelium, the communio episcoporum and the communio ecclesiarum. In fact, he affirms that, while admitting that the Synod of Bishops is essentially an episcopal assembly promoting dialogue and collaboration among the bishops themselves and between the bishops and the Bishop of Rome, this should not be done apart from the People of God, because “the life of the Church and life in the Church is the condition for exercising his mission to teach…. The Synod of Bishops must increasingly become a privileged instrument for listening to the People of God… A Bishop who lives among his faithful has his ears open to listen to ‘what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev 2:7), and to the ‘voice of the sheep’, also through those diocesan institutions whose task it is to advise the Bishop, promoting a loyal and constructive dialogue” (Episcopalis communion, 5). In this framework, the dynamics of the Synod emerge more clearly: “the sensus fidei of the People of God and the sacramental collegiality of the episcopate in hierarchical communion with the Bishop of Rome” (International Theological Commission, Synodality in the life and mission of the Church, 64, see 72). As Pope Francis affirmed, in his discourse for the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops, synodality “offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself. If we understand, as Saint John Chrysostom says, that ‘Church and Synod are synonymous’, inasmuch as the Church is nothing other than the ‘journeying together’ of God’s flock along the paths of history towards the encounter with Christ the Lord, then we understand too that, within the Church, no one can be ‘raised up’ higher than others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person ‘lower’ himself or herself, so as to serve our brothers and sisters along the way.”