Pastoral Letter by Bishop Mario Grech


A Pastoral Letter
by His Excellency Mgr Mario Grech
Bishop of Gozo

on the occasion of the Feast of the Assumption
and the Conclusion of the Marian Year


I was still at the Seminary when the Servant of God Dun Mikiel Attard recounted to us how once, returning to Malta by boat after a stay in Italy with the poor, he accosted a young man, a foreigner, and asked him what is joy. The young man opened a bottle of beer, sipped it and showing him the bottle, replied, “This is joy!”. It so happened that a storm began to blow and the boat began to rise up and down with the waves to such an extent that many felt seasick. This young man was one of them and he was so sick that he ended up feeding the fish! When the boat docked in our Grand Harbour Dun Mikiel gently asked him what had become of his joy. The young man apologised and told him he had been joking when he replied to him before the way he did.

Going by research conducted in these last few years, our country is one of the foremost places where one can live happily: possibly we are the happiest people worlwide!  This is an impressive result, but how true is it? And what standard does one use to measure joy? I feel that today there are many who are asking the same question posed by Dun Mikiel, the more so when it seems that true joy is becoming more of a rarity. We find ourselves surrounded by so many sad situations which weigh down heavily on the mind and heart. It is enough to think of the storm clouds gathering over certain married couples who are seeing their dream of a happily married life vanish into thin air; or to see the proliferation of new social problems leading to a diminishment of mental health among us and in so many other countries.

It is true that our “wellbeing” society offers many recipes for man to find pleasure. But pleasure is not joy; pleasure only constitutes a momentary feeling and one quickly finds onself empty again. The business world knows well enough that man has this natural need to feel happy, and so it goes to great lengths to make us buy what supposedly constitutes happiness. But before presenting us with the “products” which make us “happy”, the world has managed to unravel the code which guides us in choosing between behaviour which is worthy of us and that which harms us. It has been drummed into our heads that in order to be happy, anything goes. And this has brought us to the point where we now have a profligate society.

But does the fact that it is permissible for man today to do whatever he wants, mean that we have a happier people? We should be worried that we have come to the point where it is being proposed that cannabis or marijuana be legalised for “recreational use”: in plain words this is tantamount to saying we are offering drugs so that man may be happy! Can it be that, for man to be happy, the situation is so dire that we have come to the point of making accessible to him that which science is sceptical of, so much so that there are those who think that this is harmful to his health?

Many psychologists report that in the USA “millennials” (that is, people born in these last twenty five years), are three times as prone to depression as people from earlier generations.  It seems that this epidemic involving depression has also reached our shores: it has recently been reported that two out of every five persons over the age of eleven feel lonely, while one in ten are not happy with their life!

One of the causes for this lack of happiness is people’s increasing isolation. We are living in a time known as the golden age of communication, but this is a virtual communication, and so it lacks relationships between people. I know parents who are worried because their children are always locked up in their room, happy with the technological contacts they have access to, but unwilling to meet up with their fellows.

Why does individualism generate sadness and rob us of joy? It is because we experience true happiness only when we find ourselves relating to someone we know really loves us, who has a genuine interest in us, cares for us, accepts us with our good and bad points, etc. We experience joy when we get into a meaningful relation with someone who enters our heart. We all know that it is not everyone with his pockets full, who is happy, because happiness does not depend on how much we own but on how much we manage to build a meaningful relationship with someone who loves us.

In this context I would really like the Church in our country to do something so that people might experience joy. Together with the Church’s efforts to be close to those who are suffering and carrying the crosses of life, we can achieve this especially by preaching the joy of the Gospel and by helping others to welcome the gift of faith. Our faith is not a matter of laws rationing man’s joy. It is a real pity that there are those who present the Gospel as if it were censuring joy. Christian faith introduces us to a relationship with God – a relationship which by far surpasses relationships among men, while at the same time enriching them. If, as I said earlier, happiness comes from a relationship with a person who loves us, then what is the supernatural happiness like which fills the heart of a man who enters into a relationship with Jesus Christ, with a God who loves without limits! The love of God passes over even our infidelity, because God loves us even when we sin. The Son of God became man precisely to help us develop this relationship with God.

He who meets Jesus, meets joy. As Pope Francis says, the prophets announced the era of Jesus as a revelation of joy: “Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion; shout out with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zc 9:9). “All the people were overjoyed” (Lk 13:17) from wherever Jesus passed. Jesus wants us to be happy: “I have told you all this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete”(Jn 15:11).

But what about us, we who belong to Christ, do we give witness to this joy? The Pope is so right when he says that many Christians live out Lent without Easter  and “their face looks as if they are in mourning”.  A philosopher’s comment at the beginning of last century is still relevant today: “I expect Christians to sing hymns of joy so I can then start to believe in their Saviour”.  The way certain Christians regard life does not witness to this sort of relationship with Jesus our Saviour. We are sometimes too pessimistic and negative in outlook. On the other hand, there are people around us who witness to the hope that their faith in God gives them, and this hope fills them with courage and comfort, even though their life is an uphill struggle.

Throughout this Marian Year, there were several moments when we concentrated our gaze on Mary. Entrusting ourselves to Mary was a very significant moment, not only when we were gathered together as a diocese at Ta’ Pinu, but also when we did this as parish communities. I was told by several parish priests of many a moving moment involving a number of families when the image of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu entered their home. There have been a number of experiences over the past few months, which have helped to foster our devotion to Mary: we have had a number of occasions for catechesis (such as the Christmas novena and the Lenten spiritual exercises), there were a number of pilgrimages to Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary on the parochial, diocesan and national level, among them those by the Police Corps and the Armed Forces of Malta, the ecumenical meeting, the dialogue with non-Christians, as well as other such opportunities. We lived through a very intense moment when prisoners had the opportunity to meet Our Lady, both when they came to her sanctuary and also when we blessed and placed an image of Our Lady in the chapel at the Kordin Correctional Facility. By God’s grace, this meeting with our brethren in prison brought about much generosity. In order to commemorate this Marian Year in a live and practical way, we have started preparations to convert “Trionfi House” in Rabat into a diocesan centre for CARITAS. I am confident that all this should help us to fix our gaze on Mary, whom the Church for many reasons calls causa nostræ lætitiæ – the reason for our joy; a declaration we also repeat in the Litany.

Mary is the woman of joy because she had an intimate relationship with Jesus. In fact at Nazareth, the angel tells her: “Rejoice, so highly favoured. The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). In other words, the angel is telling Mary that she really has cause to rejoice, since the one she is to conceive is the same one who brings joy to men. Driven by this joy, Mary visits Elisabeth and when she greets her relative, Elisabeth tells her that the child in her womb leaps for joy (Lk 1:44). At that moment Mary breaks out into praise with her Magnificat which can be regarded as “an explosion of joy”.

When later on in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus, the angel tells the shepherds: “I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people” (Lk 2:10). In their search for Mary’s child, as soon as the Magi saw the star “they were filled with delight” (Mt 2:10). This all goes to show that our meeting with Jesus through Mary fills our heart with joy. In Mary, “standing by Jesus’ cross” (Jn 19:25), we find the motivation not to lose our joy in the midst of suffering, because through her we are certain God’s love will not fail us; God will not forsake us when we find ourselves weighed down with the heaviness of the Cross. As Dun Mikiel Attard used to repeat to us, quoting from the hymn Tina l-ħlewwa : “You have taught us the joy of sorrow, you have taught us how to bless you when trouble weighs us down”. And then, when Jesus rises from the dead, Mary from Magdala and the other Mary – who, according to certain authors is Mary, the Mother of Jesus,  - “filled with awe and great joy” go in a hurry to give the disciples the news of the Resurrection (Mt 28:8).

Thus we should not entertain any doubt that Mary is the cause of our joy, because she is “a sure means to come to the full knowledge of the Son of God until we reach the fullness of Christ(Ep 4:13)”.  A Marian devotion which does not help us encounter Jesus, is, in the words of St Louis Marie de Monfort, “a diabolical one”.

Mary fills us with joy not only because she brings us to Jesus but also because she is perfectly united to him. Mary is for us the way to joy and its model, not only because she is “the Gate of Heaven”, but also because she herself is a woman full of joy. There are a number of Fathers of the Church who have spoken of Mary as “the beginning of our joy and the end of our curse”.

In the fifth century, in a homily he delivered at Ephesus, St Cyril of Alexandria declared: “I greet you, [Mary], because in your pure womb you received the one whom nothing can contain; because of you the heavens rejoice; because of you the angels and arkangels are glad; because of you Satan has fled; because of you, creation which was lost, has been returned to heaven; because of you, creation which had been slave to idols has been restored to acknowledgement of the Truth; because of you, so many could be baptised and be anointed with the holy oils, the churches are full and men are brought to repentance; because of you the Son of God shone like a light to illumine those who were in darkness and in the shadow of death. It was because of you that the prophets announced the future, the Apostles preached the salvation of the nations and the dead rise up again”.

In a sermon St Sophronius of Jerusalem preached on the occasion of the Feast of the Annunciaton to the Mother of God in the year 638, he addresses Mary in these beautiful words: “Peace be to you, you who conceived Heaven’s joy; you who gave us the loftiest joy; source of saving joy; author of unending joy; mystical dwelling of inexpressible joy; happiest source of unending joy; heavenly flower of joy; beautiful tree of life-giving joy; beauty which more than anything else captures our gaze”.

And in a homily about the dormition of Mary, St John the Damascene declares: “With their mouths full of joy… Adam and Eve shout out: Blessed are you, oh daughter, you who erased the punishment due to us for disobeying God’s word. You who inherited from us a corruptible body, gave us in your womb an incorruptible dress. From the interior recesses of our body you received life but then gave us a life full of joy; you took away suffering, you broke the chains of death, you re-established our ancient abode. We locked up Paradise but through you everyone can come to the tree of life”.

In the light of all this, now that we have come to the conclusion of the Marian Year, I eagerly insist: if you want to be happy, “don’t be afraid to welcome Mary in your hearts”. I address this appeal to all, but in particular to those in whom, for whatever reason, joy is lacking. No one should resign themselves to sadness. Joy is a gift which the Holy Spirit offers to each and every one, even to those who in the past may have committed a folly in their personal life or in that of their family; it is a gift offered also to those who have been suffering for so long that time has made them forget how to rejoice; to those with a heavy heart because they are all too well aware of their spiritual and moral weakness; to those who have gone astray in their journey of faith and have been enticed to seek new roads. Just as in the marriage at Cana Mary played her part so that Jesus could fill with joy to overflowing the hearts of the spouses and their guests, so today too, Mary is ready to intervene in order that men (both those within the Church and those outside it) and all our settings (familiar, social and ecclesial) may be full of joy; thus among us and around us, we should encounter less people getting disheartened, grumbling, getting angry, complaining, giving way to negative feelings, quarelling and so on and so forth.

How can I ever forget the eyes swimming in tears of joy, when, in the course of this Year, the Image of Our lady of Ta’ Pinu came to our parishes! The call addressed to us by our Mother Mary from this Image is a call to safeguard joy in our hearts. Because in this, our dear Sanctuary, Mary wants us to contemplate her Assumption, as it is represented in this four hundred year old miraculous image. This event is a reminder that at death our eyes will be closed to this world, only to be opened to see God face to face. Who could express the joy which Our Lady of the Assumption felt when she saw once again Christ glorious in Heaven! This is the joy shining in the eyes of Holy Mary! We too earnestly hope that we will one day experience this joy.

With these wishes in my heart, while inviting you to the celebration of the Vigil of the Assumption on the parvis of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu so that together we may bring to a conclusion this Marian Year, I wish upon you the blessings of Heaven.

Given at the Bishop’s Curia, Victoria, Gozo, on Tuesday, 6th August 2019, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

✠Mario Grech
Bishop of Gozo