Lessons From a Learned Cardinal

Lessons From a Learned Cardinal

“Cardinal Prospero Grech was an esteemed gentleman, a learned scholar and an affable Augustinian friar. It transpires that one of the characteristics that distinguished him was his mix of profound scholarship and deep humanity. It would be apt to say that his very name, Prospero, says it all.”

This was the title and paragraph taken from the Times of Malta editorial of Friday 10 January 2020, a day after the funeral of Malta’s second Cardinal in the Catholic Church history, His Eminence Cardinal Prospero Grech OSA. But who was this humble, intelligent and compassionate Augustinian friar?

Stanley Grech was born in Malta, at the city of Vittoriosa, in 1925. In the year 1943 he entered the Order of St. Augustine and took the name of Prospero. In the year 1950 Fr. Prospero Grech OSA was ordained to the ministerial priesthood. His academic achievements were simply magnificient. In fact, he earned a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, a licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, as well as a diploma in educational philosophy at the University of Fribourg. Furthermore, he studied Hebrew at Oxford University and conducted research on Maltese literature at Cambridge University.

After teaching theology at the Augustinian College and at the Mater Admirabilis College in Malta, in 1965 Fr. Prospero was appointed dean of the Augustinian Theological Institute. In addition, in 1969 he founded the “Augustinianum” Institute for Patristic Studies, together with another great scholar on St. Augustine Fr. Agostino Trapè OSA, where he was dean from 1971 until 1979. Five years later, that is in 1984, Cardinal Grech was appointed consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 2003 he was appointed a member of the Pontifical Theological Academy. From 2004 to 2013 he was a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In addition, he was a member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas and of the International Association of Patristic Studies. At the venerable age of 86, Fr. Prospero Grech OSA was created a Cardinal by Pope Benedict on 18 February 2012. In view of that appointment, he received episcopal ordination on 8 February 2012. On the first afternoon of the conclave that elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Grech OSA was chosen to deliver the homily. Its introductory lines are really touching!

“At the venerable age of 87 I am one of the oldest members of the College of Cardinals, but as regards my nomination I am just a newborn; and since my life was always given to study, my knowledge of the affairs of the Curia do not exceed the third grade level. Only thus do I dare present this simple meditation in nomine Domini. What you are about to do in this Sistine Chapel is a kairos, an important moment of grace, in the history of salvation, which continues in the Church until the end of time. You are aware that this moment asks of you the greatest accountability. It does not matter if the Pontiff whom you will elect is of one nationality or another, of one race or another, what is important is only whether, when the Lord asks him the question ‘Peter, do you love me?’ he can respond with utmost sincerity: ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you’ (see John 21:17-19).”

From these words one can sense Cardinal Grech’s love for the Church. In his homily at the funeral given to Cardinal Grech in Rome, at St. Peter’s, on Thursday January 2, 2020, the Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, said that the study and teaching of theology of Cardinal Grech were “in full fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church”. Likewise, at the homily of the late Cardinal’s funeral in Malta, precisely at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, the archbishop of Malta, Mgr. Charles J. Scicluna, emphasized that Cardinal Grech loved being a servant of Christ, with eyes full of love and a profound sense of realism. Hence, it was such a love deeply entrenched in a great sense of realism for the Church that, during his meditation to the 115 Cardinal electors present on the opening day of the Conclave which elected the current Pope Francis, the wise Cardinal observed:

“Let us now take a step forward in our question concerning the will of God in regard to the Church. There is no doubt that the unity of his body is the summum desideratum of Christ, as evidenced by his priestly prayer at the Last Supper (see John 17). Unfortunately, Christianity is still divided, both in faith and in love. The first attempts at ecumenism immediately after the Second World War are bearing fruit (I remember being present in some meetings with Romano Guardini at Burg Rothenfels), as well as the commitment that came from Unitatis redintegratio. But there is still a long way to go. Prejudices die very slowly and to reach a theological accord is not easy. We are tempted to grow weary along this road that often seems a one-way street. But to stop the dialogue would go explicitly against God’s will. Of greater service than discussions or ecumenical meetings, however, is confident and intense prayer on all sides and a common path towards holiness and the spirit of Jesus. No less easy for the next pontiff will be the responsibility for maintaining unity in the Catholic Church itself. Between ultra-traditionalist and ultra-progressive extremists, between priests ribelling against obedience and those who do not recognize the signs of the times, there is always the danger of minor schisms which not only damage the Church, but which go against the will of God: unity at all costs. Unity, however, does not mean uniformity. It is clear that this does not close the door to intra-ecclesial discussion, present throughout the history of the Church. All are free to express their thoughts about the task of the Church, but they should be put forward in keeping with the deposit of faith, which the Pope, together with all the bishops, have the task of guarding. Peter will fulfill his task more easily the more he shares it with the other apostles. Unfortunately, today, theology suffers from post-modern thought that reigns in the philosophical sphere, and we need a good philosophical foundation to be able to develop teaching with a valid hermeneutic that speaks an intelligible language to the contemporary world”.

But from where did Cardinal Grech learn to take that step forward regarding God’s will about his Church? From which source did he get all these insights? Cardinal Re gives us the answer in his homily: Cardinal Grech’s passion for Saint Augustine’s teachings.

“On several occasions, he affirmed that Saint Augustine, especially in the book of his Confessions, talks about himself, about his experience, however, ‘as it is the experience that man lives in every age, then on reading Saint Augustine we read something about ourselves, about the problems of the Church today, about the problems of society, about relations between the State and the Church, and so on, because, suffice to read any work of Saint Augustine, one always finds something that speaks directly to the heart.’”

In his telegram to the Prior General of the Order of St. Augustine, Alejandro Moral Antón, OSA, on the occasion of the death of Cardinal Prospero Grech, OSA, Pope Francis said of the latter: “I have always held [him] in great esteem both for his personal witness to Christian and consecrated life, and for his exemplary service to the formation of new generations, especially priests… [and] … his long and competent service as a teacher in various Roman universities, as well as his service to the Holy See”.

The Times of Malta editorial of January 10, 2020 beautifully highlighted Cardinal Grech’s academic, pastoral and spiritual stature. “Malta, and particularly the Church, should be proud of such a worthy son. His broad theological and ecclesial perspective, and the depth of his knowledge as a scholar, are to be envied by us here. Both as a country and as a local Church, there is a general tendency to be provincial in our way of looking at things and in our vision for the future. So there are valuable lessons to be learned from this wise and broad-minded man who so fully lived his life”.

After quoting Ben Sirach 6:18 which says, My son, from your youth up choose instruction, and until you are old you will keep finding wisdom, Archbishop Scicluna commented: “Prospero was not born intelligent but became so intelligent because he was blessed with the knowledge of a person who knows that to be intelligent you have to continue to learn, work and excel”. Perhaps this is one of the greatest lessons in his long and lasting legacy which Cardinal Prospero Grech OSA left to the Church in general and, certainly, to us, Maltese in particular.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap