It is prayer that is the keystone of the Christian life
“We need much humility, we need to recite the Rosary and the simplest prayers, like those of popular devotion; one understands there that it is very often the people who hand on the faith to the learned”.
An Interview with Prosper Grech, the Augustinian created cardinal by Benedict XVI in the recent Consistory
Interview with Cardinal Prosper Grech by Paolo Mattei
The walls of the second floor of the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum are hung with black and white photos. The discrete frames hold glimpses of squares and churches at sunset, silvery seascapes, profiles of men and women in the sun. At mid-morning, the students glance at them as they drink coffee in the break between classes. Perhaps they take a little breather, letting their gaze – until a few minutes before fixed on a page of theology or patristics – rest for a while on the lights and shades of these splendid scenes from daily life.
The creator of this particular permanent exhibition of photography is one of the most popular teachers at the Patristicum and currently one of the most distinguished experts in Sacred Scripture: the Augustinian Monsignor Prosper Grech, who was made a cardinal by Benedict XVI in the recent Consistory. Born in Malta in 1925, Grech was, along with Father Augustine Trapè, the founder of the Patristicum – a highly specialized center with the power to grant a baccalaureate in theology, the licenciate and a doctorate in Theology and Patristic Science – which stands next to St Peter’s Basilica. In his long career of teaching, Grech also taught Biblical Theology for twenty years at the Lateran University and Biblical Hermeneutics for thirty years at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Author of many books and articles in learned journals, consultant for over twenty years of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he is currently a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
We met in Santa Monica International College, in the complex that houses the Patristicum.
Father Prosper Grech
PROSPER GRECH: Malta has a long Catholic tradition, and Birgu, the old town in which I was born was, and is, full of churches. I attended that of San Lorenzo – where I was baptized and where I later frequented Catholic Action – and that of San Domenico. As a child I was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph, in a village near Birgu, and with them I made my first communion. My memories from childhood and my youth are filled with images of popular devotion, such as the processions that wound, come rain come shine, along the streets of the small town, or the sound of church bells filling the air when the priest carried the viaticum through the streets ...
How did your vocation to the priesthood come about?
When I was a boy I felt something in my heart, something not clearly defined, that made me think about the priesthood as the way to my salvation. Then, of course, as often happens, you change your mind as you grow, and that happened to me also. But that sort of secret hint resurfaced during the war, in my last year of school. It was around that time that the seed of vocation gave its fruit. I looked back over all my life up till then and I said yes to that call.
Those war years were hard ones...
Malta went through devastating air raids, Birgu was bombed day and night and so I was forced to evacuate with my family to Attard, a town in the middle of the island, far from the arsenal, but close to an airfield constantly strafed. I was seventeen and had started medical school. They called me up into the anti-aircraft corps and so I went to lectures in uniform so as to be always ready to run for the battery when the enemy planes arrived. After an attack, should the university be still standing and me still alive, I went back to lectures with my classmates...
Why did you chose to join the Augustinian Order?
Well, quite simply because I had an Augustinian cousin whom I went to for advice. In Malta there was already then a province of the Order, which I joined in 1943.
And how did your love of St Augustine arise?
I knew very little of him, but in our novitiate there was an elderly professor, Father Antonino Tonna-Barthet, of French origin, an expert in St Augustine, who got us to love him very much. He had edited a fine anthology of his spiritual writings, entitled De vita Christiana, which was also translated into Italian, and would merit a new edition. That was my first encounter with Augustine. Then I went into it more deeply studying philosophy in Malta, and also, of course, at the Santa Monica International College, here in Rome, where I arrived in 1946 to study theology and where I met Father Augustine Trapè, who was my teacher: he was a fan of Augustine, of whom I myself, however, am no expert. I’ve gone more into the thinking of the Fathers of the second and third centuries.
In Rome you continued your studies ...
Yes, at the Gregorian for a doctorate and the Pontifical Biblical Institute for a licentiate in Sacred Scripture. And I was ordained priest in Rome in 1950, in Saint John Lateran. Then, in 1954, I went away for a while, to study and teach...
First the Holy Land, then back on Malta, where I taught Sacred Scripture for a couple of years to our Augustinian students. In 1957 I won a scholarship and went to Oxford to learn Hebrew well, and a year later I was in Cambridge as a research assistant of Professor Arberry... I returned to Rome in 1961.
Always to study and teach?
Yes, also to write a thesis in Biblical Sciences. But as soon as I was back I was appointed secretary to Bishop Pietro Canisio Van Lierde, who was sacristan of the Apostolic Palace and vicar general of His Holiness for Vatican City. With him, we ‘prepared’ the Conclave of 1963, the one in which Pope Paul VI was elected.
What do you mean?
As sacristan, Van Lierde oversaw the liturgical functions of the Pope, preparing the vessels, vestments and altars for the celebration of Masses. The Conclave also needed to be organized in its ‘logistical’ aspects. For example, since at that time there was no usage of concelebration, we had to prepare all the altars so each of the cardinals could say Mass privately.
Did you meet Montini on that occasion?
Of course. I heard his last confession as cardinal...
Photograph taken by Father Grech
I bumped into him in the Apostolic Palace and he asked me if I was the confessor of the Conclave. “No, Your Eminence, not me”, I replied, “I’ll go and find him for you...”. “No, no, it doesn’t matter ... Can’t you confess me?”. So we went to the Matilde chapel, that is now called Redemptoris Mater, and I confessed him. After a few hours he was Pope. I hope I didn’t give him too severe a penance...
You didn’t stay very long in the Vatican Palace...
No, because in 1965, Father Trapè, newly elected Prior General of the Order, said to me: “Instead of wasting time in the Vatican” – which was true, for that matter – “come and head the Institute,” which then became the Studium Theologicum Augustinianum.
A few years later along with Trapè you founded the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum...
Yes, the Patristicum was something of our dream, namely to have a place to nurture and deepen the sacred sciences, the thinking of the Fathers of the Church, of St Augustine and his heirs. Since there were many doubts about its feasibility and simultaneously a haste to establish it, Father Trapè asked for an audience with Paul VI, who blessed him with both hands and urged him to go ahead. It was inaugurated in May 1970. At first there were difficulties, but in time it settled down.
In Rome you also met Albino Luciani...
When he came to Rome he would stay in our College. He was really good and likeable, a humble man, who kept himself hidden... But also affable, we laughed a lot together. When he was here, we celebrated Mass together every day at seven in the morning.
He stayed with you also before the Conclave that elected him Pope?
Yes, with two other cardinals. At that time I was acting as ‘Substitute Prior’ of the College, because the Prior was absent, and the night before they went into the Conclave I didn’t know what words to use in saying goodbye: “Well, now I don’t know how to say goodbye, because a ‘see you again’ is in bad taste, good wishes are even worse... ”. Immediately after his election, the evening before going to sleep, Pope Luciani wrote us a letter, addressed to me as pro tempore head of the College, thanking us for our hospitality and mentioning Brother Franceschino in particular.
Who was Franceschino?
The old lay brother who straightened up his room. I remember on one of the occasions when Luciani was with us, Franceschino said to me, “We must take proper care of this cardinal, because one day he’ll be Pope”. There was even some risk of me becoming deputy secretary of John Paul I...
His secretary, who had to go to Venice to pick up his things and bring them back to the Vatican, asked me to replace him for a while. But I was hesitant, because at that moment I was under public attack by some ultraconservative quarters upset by the fact that I was teaching Biblical Theology at the Lateran: “Biblical theology is Protestant, it doesn’t exist, we have Dogmatic Theology”, they said. Well, I didn’t want to cause any embarrassment. So Monsignor Magee went with the Pope.
On the subject of Biblical Theology: you taught it for twenty years at the Lateran University and for thirty years held the chair of Biblical Hermeneutics at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. How did this passion for the Sacred Scriptures arise?
I’ve had it since childhood. Along with other things the schools in Malta taught Scripture seriously and I remember that as homework for the secondary school examinations we were given a Gospel passage and asked to explain the source and interpret it in its proper context. But I also loved the reading of the New Testament on my own, and was particularly fond of St Matthew and St John. Already in the time of the seminary I told the novice master of my wish to dedicate myself to the study of Scripture, and he certainly didn’t encourage me: “It’s difficult, you need to know many languages... And as for exegesis, then, overdoing the concentration on every comma...”. In fact, he didn’t over-exaggerate. Nevertheless, later, my project went through.
In teaching biblical hermeneutics, you have also gone into issues in contemporary philosophy...
Theologians like Bultmann and his disciples – Käsermann and Bornkamm – addressing the issue of the separation of the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith and that of the demythologizing of the New Testament, also relied on the thinking of Heidegger, whom I studied, as I also studied what Gadamer asserted on the subjectivity of interpretation, interpretation as a ‘continuous process’. I had to get inside the heads of those philosophers, going into the influence Kant had on their thinking, and while not accepting all the ideas they affirmed, I must say that I learned a lot from them.
Photograph taken by Father Grech
Yes, naturally, I love Shakespeare, Eliot, Wordsworth and Pound. Apart from Anglo-American literature, I remember in school we read Italian poets and writers such as Dante, Manzoni and other classics, and I particularly like Montale and Quasimodo, while of those in German I’m fond of Rilke and Hölderlin. When I was at Cambridge I also went into Maltese literature, in which Professor Arberry was interested. With him I edited a collection of Maltese poems with facing English translations, and an anthology of verses by Malta’s national poet, the priest Dun Karm Psaila. But I’m not a literary man, let’s say I consider myself a simple amateur. I’m more versed in art, I was a friend of Lello Scorzelli, the painter and sculptor Paul VI called to work in Rome, and with whom I also went to take a bust of Pope Montini to St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
And there’s also photography...
There you have it, art is also important for me because I use some works as a model for my photos. I also started using digital cameras some time ago.
You’ve written a large number of scholarly papers and books on biblical theology and hermeneutics. The most recent work you edited, however, is a small book on prayer: Lord, teach us to pray.
It’s a collection, edited by the Augustinian nuns of Lecceto and published by Lev, of meditations that I dictated to my brothers of the College of Santa Monica during the spiritual exercises which were held in Cascia in 1995. I think it’s prayer, and certainly not hermeneutics, that is the keystone of the Christian life. We need to come down off our pedestals, empty ourselves of intellectualism and pride. We need much humility, we need to recite the Rosary and the simplest prayers, like those of popular devotion; one understands there how it is very often the people who hand on faith to the learned.