On May 28, 2011, in the small island nation of Malta — nestled in a Mediterranean archipelago between Italy’s boot and Africa’s northern coast — a referendum was held on the topic of divorce. The official religion of the Maltese Republic is Catholicism, and the country traces its Christian origins back all the way to St. Paul, who is believed to have been shipwrecked there. This connection to the most prolific apostle confers with it a special status; the Archdiocese of Malta is designated as an Apostolic see.
You might imagine, therefore, that divorce is a controversial topic in Malta. And in fact, at the time of the 2011 referendum, Malta was one of only three countries in the world where divorce was still illegal.
On May 17, 2011, the Times of Malta ran a story entitled, “Beware Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – Gozo Bishop.” In it, the writer related a warning from the suffragan Bishop of the Gozo region of the Malta Archdiocese, Mario Grech:
In a veiled reference to the choice Catholics will have to make in the divorce referendum, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech has warned that those who do not follow Christ’s teachings should not receive the Eucharist.
In a homily on Sunday at the St George’s parish church in Victoria where teenagers received the sacrament of confirmation, Mgr Grech spoke about the sacraments and directly referred to marriage on more than one occasion.
In what was possibly the closest reference to the impending divorce referendum, Mgr Grech said: “If we want to find the right door, shortly [sic]… and adults, understand what I am trying to say… do not make a mistake, there is only one door.”
In his homily, Mgr Grech warned the faithful of “brigands”, who, he said, were trying to lead Christ’s flock astray. “They are going after marriage and then other things will follow,” he cautioned the congregation.
In an obvious reference to the recently set up Catholic pro-divorce group, the Bishop urged people to “beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
“And the wolf is now saying he is Catholic. This is a falsity, this is deceit. I am ready to dialogue with everyone but do not be false, do not lie. You cannot not be loyal to Christ and say you are a Christian or a Catholic.”
It was at this point that Mgr Grech made it clear to those present that people who did not follow Christ’s teachings could not expect to receive the Eucharist.
The voters of Malta ultimately chose, by a narrow margin, to allow divorce. Nevertheless, the bishop’s statements were a witness to the truth of Christ, and would certainly be welcomed now, in these days of confusion over Amoris Laetitia.
But Bishop Grech appears to have changed his tune rather drastically. First came a 2015 interview on the Family Synod in which Bishop Grech had already begun to toe the new party line:
But how can a Catholic opt for divorce, if such a thing goes against the core values of its teachings? Is this not a typical case of someone treating religion as an a la carte menu?
Life is not black or white – there are also a lot of shades in between. What makes a good Christian? Perfection? If this were the case it would probably be beyond everybody’s reach. We are not a Church for perfect people, even though we have been brought up with the idea that there is only room for saints within the Church.
So where does this leave the Church on this particular issue?
The Church cannot refuse to administer communion to somebody who genuinely wishes to receive it and is trying to live in forgiveness, regardless of whether they are divorced or not. This could be the first step of a longer journey towards God, and the Church must not hinder such a process.
Next came the shocking guidelines issued by the Maltese bishops on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia — guidelines that, according to our report by Fr. Brian Harrison, indicated that “in Malta there will now be no objective and enforceable limits whatsoever on the right of (non-continent) divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist.”
Now, another bombshell has dropped. The Italian liturgical-renewal website, Messainlatina.it, has reported:
We have been told by trustworthy and reliable persons – whose identity we know but, for obvious reasons, we must not now disclose – that in these recent days Msgr. Mario Grech (Bishop of Gozo) upon his return from Rome THREATENED [sic, capitalized in the original] priests of his own Diocese of Malta with ‘prohibiting their public celebration of the Mass if they do not support his implementing directives concerning Amoris Laetitia which were written together with Bishop Sciucluna.’*
Katholisches journalist Giuseppi Nardi has echoed this revelation in his own report:
Undisturbed [by criticism of his new Malta directives], Bishop Grech recently returned from his visit to Rome and has also made public the “directives” in his Diocese of Gozo. Thereby he went even further now – obviously fortified by Rome. He threatened the priests of his Diocese that he would “prohibit their public celebration of Mass if they do not support the directives concerning Amoris Laetitia which he has written together with Bishop Scicluna. Thus, if priests do not follow these new “criteria” in the Diocese of Gozo, their suspension a divinis would follow.*
During my research on this story, I was contacted by a concerned and well-informed Catholic living in Malta. “The funny thing is, before Francis was elected Bishop Grech was very orthodox,” the person told me, “Then he changed in the most spectacular fashion. These directives [the Maltese bishops’ guidelines on Amoris Laetitia] are his brainchild, and he wrote them. They are the latest in a long list of dubious teaching.” Asked how it was that Grech — who is under the authority of Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who was until recently considered reliably orthodox, and who worked with the CDF on the sex abuse crisis — could push through such guidelines, co-opting his “formidable” superior in the process, it was suggested that Grech had found favor among the powerful in Rome.
This person then put me in contact with a Maltese priest, who related the following story on condition of anonymity:
A friend of mine was [recently] travelling to Rome from Malta and upon his arrival phoned me up to tell me what he had learned.
On the plane he saw Mons. Mario Grech, who was sitting just in the seats in front of him. At one point he was on the phone shouting at the person on the other end. My friend heard the words clearly: “If you do not read it, I am ready to keep you from celebrating Mass.” My friend knew full well he was talking about the instruction letter given by the bishops to the parishes to be read before Mass during the weekend.
I asked the Gozo Diocese to comment on this story. The response I received was that the allegations — now being circulated widely in the Catholic media — are “absolutely false”. Similarly, the Diocese of Gozo issued this statement today on their Facebook page:
What the bishops of Malta cannot deny is that they have issued guidelines on Amoris Laetitia that are so damaging, they imperil souls — and that these guidelines have been published in the official Vatican newspaper, giving them the appearance of papal recognition. What has been done is already as scandalous and damaging as the allegations regarding the suspension of priests over a failure to share or implement these guidelines.
It is likely that the incident witnessed on the plane, if true, was the source of the allegation, rather than some official policy. I have been unable to speak directly to the witness, but the priest who shared this story to me insists that his source is personally known to him, and that he continues to affirm that it happened as he recounted it.
It is not without irony that we note the ramifications of this alleged implementation of Amoris Laetitia. Persons guilty of objective grave sin must be given communion if their conscience commends them to, but priests who believe in conscience that this is wrong are to be suspended for it? It appears that there are some choices that do incur prohibition of the sacraments among the bishops who support the new approach to “mercy” — or at least, the faculties to offer them.
One hopes that the scrutiny over this incident will at the very least act as a deterrent to Bishop Grech, keeping him from any use of such retribution against priests of his diocese who would act according to their well-formed conscience on this matter. If not, they needn’t suffer in silence. Any priest who stands for Christ and His Church will always find a voice here.
*Translation provided by Maike Hickson.