Friday, January 14, 2011

Homily at the Solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass for Bishop Joseph Grech, Bendigo, 6th January, 2011

Bishop Joe Grech (1948 – 2010)

Last week I posted the sad news of Bishop Joe Grech's death on the 27th December. His funeral was held on Thursday 6th January at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Bendigo.

More than 4,000 people attended the funeral (2500 in the great cathedral, and the rest outside, watching the Mass on large screens).

The Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Pell, who had consecrated Bishop Joe to the episcopate. The homily - a truly fitting tribute - was preached by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, and I have reproduced it here (from the Facebook Page of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference).

At three o'clock on the afternoon of 28 December - the hour of the Lord's own death - Joseph Angelo Grech, sixth Bishop of Sandhurst, breathed his last. This was deep in the Octave of Christmas when we were celebrating birth, even though the shadow of death loomed large on the feast of the Holy Innocents on which Bishop Joe died. His passing was peaceful - in fact it was barely observable. Most of us were standing by the bed, but Fr Karmel Borg, wonderful friend and wise guide to Joe for many years, was sitting a little away, watching the monitor that showed the ebbing of life. It was Karmel who noticed the moment of death, rose to his feet, approached the bed and said in a way I will never forget, "Good-bye, Joe". There was so much in those simple words - words so human, so faith-filled, so loving and grateful: "Good-bye, Joe". They are words that we echo this afternoon, words of farewell and gratitude as only Christians can speak in the face of death.

Walking away from the hospital, I thought of T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Journey of the Magi", imagined words spoken by one of the Magi in old age, not inappropriate on this 6 January: "...were we lead all that way for / Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, / We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death, / But had thought they were different". Was it a death or a birth that we witnessed on 28 December? There was a death, certainly; we had evidence and no doubt. There was no way back for Joe. But there was surely a way forward - a great birth into God, foreshadowed long ago in Joe's baptism.

In Bishop Joe's life, there were many little deaths to prepare him for the death that came last week. I first met him forty years ago when he came to begin theological studies at Corpus Christi College in Melbourne. Archbishop Gonzi of Malta had said to his many seminarians that they could go anywhere in the world to finish their training, work for seven years in the diocese of their choice and then decide whether or not to return to Malta. At first Joe wanted to go to America, but eventually he decided on Australia and came to Melbourne. He settled quickly, showed himself a bright student and fine companion, was ordained in Malta in 1974 and came back to Melbourne to work. After the allotted seven years, Joe decided to stay for life. And what a gain that was for us.

A turning-point for Joe came early in his priestly life when he was touched by the charismatic renewal, and how right it is that the readings of this Mass have spoken of the gift of Holy Spirit. Joe's ministry was in many ways the Holy Spirit's work of art. It had about it a touch of Pentecost, the sense of a new beginning, the roots of which however reached deep into the mighty heritage of Maltese faith. In earlier times, the charismatic renewal was regarded as something exotic, even a little suspect. Joe was exotic enough being Maltese, but to be Maltese and charismatic meant that he was exotic to the power of two. Looking back now, I can see that Joe Grech's career reflects the way in which the charismatic renewal has moved from the margin of Church life to the centre. Its influence is now found everywhere.

After some years as Assistant Priest, Joe was made Parish Priest of East Brunswick, which became a centre of vibrant Catholic life under the influence of the charismatic renewal. He was then sent to study in Rome, and this added breadth and depth to the charismatic impulse which was becoming stronger in his life. Upon his return from Rome, Joe was appointed full-time chaplain to the Catholic charismatic renewal in the Archdiocese, and this made him godfather to the many prayer groups, especially Italian-speaking ones, that sprang up all over Melbourne and beyond. He also established schools of evangelisation which stirred energy for mission, turning hearers of the Word into heralds of the Word. All of this was a crucial ministry, without which many would have gone elsewhere. It also helped the rest of us to see that the only way forward for the Church is to become more missionary. Yet in some ways it made Joe seem a marginal presence in the Archdiocese, an increasingly exotic figure who was underestimated by some, as he was at different times throughout his life.

A sign that things were changing in the Church came when Archbishop Pell chose Joe to be spiritual director of the seminary, an appointment which surprised some who either didn't know Joe or who underestimated him. The same reaction came when he stood in as Vicar General for a time and even more when he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne. The seemingly exotic man from Malta had moved decisively to the centre, and that was a sign of what was happening in the Church in this country and around the world. For Joe, it meant leaving behind much that he cherished: was it a death or a birth? His episcopal ordination - which sadly I couldn't attend - was by all accounts an unforgettable occasion. It was a triumph not so much for Joe himself but for all those who had felt themselves on the margin of Church life, especially perhaps those from ethnic communities not belonging to the Anglo-Celtic tribe.

Bishop Joe then moved to the Western region of the Archdiocese for which he seemed so well suited. He clearly thought that there he would spend the rest of his life. He set about planning and building a house in West Footscray - and what a house it was! Known affectionately as Casa Costalot, it was almost finished when Bishop Joe was appointed to the diocese of Sandhurst. He never lived in the house he built, but I did: so thanks, Joe . . . much appreciated. The appointment to Bendigo was a bombshell he didn't see coming, and to the day he died, I think, he wondered about it. Was it a death or a birth?

Whatever about his wondering, Joe applied himself to the mission with all his gifts. To the diocese, he brought faith, energy, humanity, enthusiasm, encouragement, simplicity - all gifts of the Spirit. He became a bush bishop, and only because Jesus is Lord. Bishop Joe may have been puzzled by the call, but he heard in it the voice of Jesus. "He has sent me to bring good news" (Isa 61:1): that was his response. So out into the bush he went, to Bendigo and far beyond. The boy from Balzan had come a long way.

Through this time, Bishop Joe was becoming more and more an international figure within the charismatic renewal, and he could have been full-time travelling the world as a preacher and teacher. Invitations came thick and fast, and it wasn't easy for Joe to balance these with his growing commitments in the diocese and the Bishops Conference. At times people forget that all bishops are involved on three levels - local, national and international. Most people see only the local. But some bishops are involved more than others at the national and international level - and Joe Grech was one of those. Here today it's good for us to recall that Bishop Joe's death will be lamented around the world because he was such a servant of the universal Church.

For all his vivacity, there was a darker side to Bishop Joe - especially perhaps after his brush with mortality when his blood condition first emerged. He spoke to me of how that illness had shaken his confidence; he spoke of the burden of loneliness, especially when travelling on his own; he spoke of how stressful he found the conflict that comes to any bishop; he spoke of a lingering weariness - indeed he once went to sleep on me over a meal in Rome. So much for my sparkling conversation. In ways not always obvious, Bishop Joe had to wrestle with the dark angel, alone and at midnight. Yet many of the best things of Joe Grech came from that struggle. He bore a cross, but it was the Lord's Cross because, far from destroying him, it made him what he was. Was it death or was it birth?

We gather in Sacred Heart Cathedral to say, "Good-bye, Joe". But we also say, "Thank you, Joe: grazzi hafna!" Thanks for so many beautiful and surprising things through your beautiful and surprising life, cut short in a way neither you nor we expected.

When the tubby little guy from Malta arrived in Melbourne forty years ago on this very day, who would have imagined the path that was opening up before him? Who would have thought that we would be burying him as Bishop of Sandhurst? How strange, how surprising it has all been, but how wonderful and how much a gift. That's why our thanks are not just to Bishop Joe but to God who is the One without whom nothing about Joe Grech can be understood, nothing in life and nothing in death.

As I walked from the deathbed out into the sunlight, I thought of the Holy Innocents. I had a merry vision of the baby boys of Bethlehem, now all smiles, taking Joe by the hand and leading him to God on the far side of death and saying to God, "Look who we found". Joe, I'm sure, would have been in his element with the little ones. There was a nice touch of the child in him, and he was always great with the young. God would recognise Joe immediately and say to him simply, "Thanks for all you've done, good and faithful servant, impassioned and joyful witness". And Joe would reply in that way of his, "Praise God".

Joseph Angelo Grech was born on 10 December and died on 28 December; he was ordained priest on 30 November and bishop on 10 February - all in summer time. He was very much a fruit of summer, very much a child of the sun: how often did people call him warm? We pray now, in the faith of Easter, that, beyond the great birth, Bishop Joe will enter the eternal sabbath of God where the sun never sets and where peace is complete, "the peace of quietness", as St Augustine says, "the peace of the sabbath, a peace with no evening" (Confessions). Eternal rest give unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen.

+ Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The wise still seek Jesus


Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far, and your daughters shall be carried in the arms. Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and
frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isaiah 60:1-6)

Lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10-11)

T S Eliot (1888-1965)

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bishop Joe Grech (1948 - 2010) - an anointed servant of the Lord

I have only just heard from Australia that the Most Reverend Joe Grech, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sandhurst, died in Melbourne on Tuesday (28th December) after the recurrence of a blood disorder. He was aged 62. Bishop Joe was an amazing man with whom I was privileged to share a number of times many years ago in the context of charismatic renewal. His ministry was one which brought countless young people to the Lord, and the means by which people of all ages experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph Angelo Grech was born in Malta on December 10 1948. He began his studies for the priesthood in Malta, and then arrived in Australia in 1971. At the completion of his theological studies in Melbourne he was ordained a priest and served a number of parishes. The Archbishop of Melbourne sent him to study Spirituality at the Gregorian University, Rome, and on his return to Australia he became full time chaplain to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and then spiritual director to Corpus Christi College (the Victorian provincial seminary).

Father Joe was appointed Auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne by Pope John Paul II. He was consecrated in Patrick's Cathedral on 10 February 1999 by Archbishop George Pell, and served in the western suburbs of the Archdiocese. In 2001 he became Bishop of Sandhurst - based in Bendigo.

"Passionate" is an adjective that occurs often in the various obituaries published so far. And he was. Whether he was preaching to a large charismatic rally, celebrating Mass, conducting retreats for priests and religious, evangelizing and nurturing the faith of young people, or advocating justice and proper care for refugees and migrants, his personal warmth and enthusiasm was a means of drawing many closer to the Lord.

As a tribute to Bishop Joe, here is the last Pentecost homily he preached, taken from the diocesan website.


The Greek word "pente" means fifty. This helps us to understand what the word "Pentecost" means. It is an important event which happened fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus. This feast has important significance for the Jewish people. They saw Pentecost as the feast of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. For us as Christians, this feast marks the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus when he promised to send his Holy Spirit on his disciples so that they would continue their mission.

Something very dramatic happened on this day. We are very well aware that the twelve with others which also included Mary, our Blessed Mother were enclosed in this room. There were one hundred and twenty present. They were very much in a confused state of mind. Jesus was gone. They invested so much time and hope in him and now it seemed that everything was evaporating in the air. It is true that he made many promises to them. Yet they could not fathom how these promises were going to become a reality. Moreover they were very scared. They were afraid that what happened to Jesus on the cross could easily happen to them. In the midst of this state of uncertainty and deep anxiety, they experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and they were literally transformed. It is enough to have a look at what happened to Peter. Peter was so scared during the passion of Jesus that he denied Jesus three times. However as a result of what happened on this day, he became courageous enough to speak boldly about Jesus and this resulted in many becoming believers. This is how the missionary activity of the church started. Moreover the other disciples continued the mission of Jesus with a certain confidence reaching far distant lands and many of them died as martyrs.

This is all wonderful. However what does all of this have to do with us today? All of us as baptized and confirmed, have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within us. We are totally immersed in the life giving Spirit of the Resurrected Jesus. What does this entail? St. Paul gives us a comprehensive explanation. In his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth a city which still exists today in Greece, he speaks about the variety of the gifts of the Spirit. In chapter twelve, he says that the Holy Spirit gives to us wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy and tongues. Wow . . . we are indeed powerful people. However St Paul also insists that all these gifts are for the benefit of helping others, for building the community of the church.

I would like to speak briefly about two of these gifts, wisdom and healing. The gift of wisdom does not mean that we would be able to know everything and have a solution for everything. It rather means to evaluate the situations which we are facing with the mind and heart of God. My grandma had ten children. During the Second World War, Malta was one of the most bombed places in the world. Some protection was made available to the population by building shelters under the main streets and each family was allotted a bit of space. One can only imagine the fear and anxiety of the people in these dire situations. One day I asked my grandma, "How did you survive all of this day after day with all those children crammed into this little space?" She said to me, "I did my best and God did the rest". What wisdom. I always remember these words especially when I have to face tough decisions. I am sure that many of us can relate to similar situations when we found courage to face difficult situations or when we were able to find the right words for the benefit of others.

The same thing can be said regarding the gift of healing. All of us need healing. Some of us need physical healing while others need emotional or spiritual healing. We are all called and gifted to bring healing to one another. This can be done in various ways. We can pray for the person concerned with the conviction that God desires to do the best for all of us. However there are also other ways. This week I came across these wonderful experiences.

In the Diocese we have the beautiful custom of having prayer partners to the children who will be receiving the Sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion. Members of the parish community are assigned to pray for a young person as they prepare themselves to receive these sacraments. The wife of one of the parish people involved died recently and as you would imagine he was feeling terrible down. He was finding it very hard to cope with life in general. There was always this great void in his heart after losing a great companion, friend and wife. One day he received a little note from the young boy who he was praying for. In this note the young boy wrote this "Thanks for your prayers, I pray for you too especially I pray for peace". That little note brought great joy and hope to the person concerned. Moreover he also felt the tangible presence of our God in this moment of great need.

Not so long ago, I heard someone telling this story. I was on a weekend of prayer and reflection and I met this person who shared with me her difficult life having gone through the experience of a broken marriage and the death of a son. Moreover, she spoke about forgiveness. She said that when we forgive, sometimes things get better while at other times they do not. However, the main thing is to forgive. While I was thinking and reflecting on this I realised that I have been paralysed by a very damaging situation for forty years. I found the necessary courage after all these years to be able to face squarely that situation and also to forgive. That woman by sharing her brokenness was able to help someone else to find life, to find peace. Indeed we can do a lot of good because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. Let us today thank God for these gifts and take every opportunity to do good knowing that even the smallest gesture of kindness can be the moment of grace to others.