VATICAN CITY — In a significant appointment in light of Pope Francis’ emphasis on synodality, Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo, Malta, was named today as the general pro-secretary of the Synod of Bishops, intended to eventually succeed Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri as its general secretary.

The 62-year-old bishop, regarded as the principal author of contentious Maltese bishops’ guidelines on Chapter 8 of Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, was reportedly hand-picked by Pope Francis.

According to the Maltese news portal Newsbook, which is associated with the Archdiocese of Malta, the Pope recently met Bishop Grech and asked him to take on the position. The bishop confirmed his acceptance at a meeting with the Pope late last week.

He will stay on as apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Gozo which he has headed since 2005 until his replacement is appointed, but will be in Rome this month to take part in the Pan-Amazon Synod which runs Oct. 6-27.

In a statement read out to journalists today at the Holy See press office, Cardinal Baldisseri said the “general pro-secretary, in taking office, will work alongside the general secretary to get to know directly the institution and its members.”

The appointment therefore has an “effective synodal significance,” Cardinal Baldisseri said, as both Bishop Grech and he will “walk side by side” until the Maltese bishop takes over the cardinal’s role. Once he becomes general secretary, Bishop Grech will oversee the running of the synod secretariat, which prepares and manages synods.

While taking part in the Amazon synod, Cardinal Baldisseri said Bishop Grech will be able to “get to know directly the people involved in the synodal process in its celebratory phase, to accompany its implementation and subsequent developments, in full collaboration with the current general secretary.”

“In this way,” he added, “Pope Francis confirms and strengthens the synodal methodology — first of all and in an exemplary way within the institution itself — so that the general secretariat can calmly carry out its service as a sign of continuity and novelty, as is fitting for the healthy development of ecclesial tradition.”

Cardinal Baldisseri said this confirms the Synod of Bishops remains for the Pope “a privileged place for the interpretation and reception of the [Second Vatican] Council’s rich magisterium,” but also a “fundamental instrument for listening to the people of God” and as an “impulse of the papal magisterium.”

The cardinal’s words reflect the greater significance the Synod of Bishops has gained under Pope Francis, and with it, the growing importance of the general secretary.

The Pope has placed increasing emphasis on synodality during his pontificate, most notably through his 2018 apostolic constitution Episcopalis Communio that boosted the authority of the Synod of Bishops.

Rather than a deliberative body advising the Pope as envisioned by Pope St. Paul VI in 1965, the Synod of Bishops is now a “permanent,” more legislative body, “outside the dicasteries of the Roman Curia.” The Pope has said the aim of his reforms, which follow closely a vision outlined by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, is to strengthen the involvement of the “People of God” and “further promote dialogue and collaboration” between bishops and between bishops and the pope. 

Critics have pointed to weaknesses in the model and fear it could lead to a dissolving of catholicity and the growth of doctrinal anarchy, with national churches pursuing their own synodal paths at odds with the Church’s magisterium.

 

Controversial Figure

Bishop Grech has become a controversial figure in Malta in recent years, gaining a reputation as an enforcer both of Pope Francis’ magisterium and his own wishes.

Prior to this pontificate, he was reputed to be unyielding in matters of doctrine, warning ahead of a referendum on divorce in 2011 that those who do not follow Christ’s teachings should not receive Holy Communion. And he has continued to take a strong stand against abortion.

However, when Francis was elected and a new, left-leaning Maltese government came to power, his overall approach is said to have changed dramatically. “Overnight Grech performed the most spectacular volte-face,” an informed source told the Register in 2017. “We were all astonished.”

In 2014, he addressed the first Synod of Bishops on the Family in which he called for a Church more accepting of its LGBT members.

“Life is not black or white — there are also a lot of shades in between,” he told the Times of Malta in 2015. “What makes a good Christian? Perfection? If this were the case it would probably be beyond everybody’s reach.”

But it was in 2017 when his preferences began to show more clearly. Sources say he was determined that Malta be the first episcopal conference to issue guidelines on Chapter 8 of the Pope’s 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The chapter has become known for its ambiguity on whether or not to allow remarried divorcees living in an objective state of adultery to receive Holy Communion.

The Maltese guidelines were criticized for asserting the primacy of conscience over the objective moral truth, stating that remarried divorcees could receive Holy Communion after a period of discernment, with an informed and enlightened conscience, and if they are “at peace with God.”

Bishop Grech is understood to have written most, if not all, of the document and its guidelines, with the dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Malta, Father Emmanuel Agius, as an adviser. Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta added his signature as the other half of the island nation’s two-member bishops’ conference.

Responding to widespread criticism that the pastoral guidelines contradicted previous papal teaching, Bishop Grech and Archbishop Scicluna of Malta insisted they followed the Church’s magisterium.

The guidelines were given semi-official Vatican backing when L’Osservatore Romano published the guidelines, and Cardinal Baldisseri subsequently sent the bishops a letter thanking them for the document.

At the time of the guidelines’ release, Bishop Grech was accused of threatening to suspend a priest who refused to give Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics — an accusation he denied.

But he has a history of forceful tactics. Last year, he threatened legal action against a U.K. blogger who had commented on reports of alleged abuse cover-up involving Bishop Grech, first reported in Malta Today in 2015.

And in 2014, a group of Maltese clergy wrote a letter to Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, who then headed the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, warning him of Bishop Grech’s “reprehensible behavior” and urging that he not to be named archbishop of Malta to fill the vacancy that had arisen after Archbishop Paul Cremona resigned for medical reasons.

The letter, which was also copied to Pope Francis and the Congregation for Bishops, reportedly described Bishop Grech as a “bully” who nurtures a “bullying culture” and that he “thrives on a media spin culture.” Cardinal Marx reportedly advised the letter’s authors to communicate their concerns to the apostolic nuncio to Malta, and in 2015 Pope Francis instead appointed Archbishop Scicluna as Archbishop Cremona’s successor.