-*Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
11 June 2018
The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) held their 30th General Body Meeting in February 2012 at Bangalore on the theme ‘The Church’s Role for a Better India’. At the end of the meeting, in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Bishops addressed a very meaningful message “to all people of goodwill.” The statement included the following, “We sensed in our hearts our country’s yearning for a Better India. Our country has been noted for its deep spirituality, its saints and sages, its rich diversity of cultures and religions. People yearn for the ideal enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India of a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic which will secure for its citizens Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.”
“But this yearning has remained largely unfulfilled. Economic development has brought about increasing inequities, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor with consequent tensions spilling over into violence. We see around us a betrayal of the poor and marginalized, the tribals, dalits and other backward classes, women and other groups who live in dehumanising and oppressive poverty. We witness rampant exploitation of children. There is disappointment with those in public life for whom ethical concerns matter little”…“But the Church does not wish to rest on her laurels. She recommits herself to being a prophetic Church, taking a decisive stand in favour of the poor and marginalized”…. “We envision an India with more attributes of the Kingdom of God such as justice and equity with its consequent fruits of love, peace and joy.”
A couple of years later (in February 2014 just before the General Elections) when they met in Palai Kerala on the theme, ‘Renewed Church for a Renewed Society – Responding to the Call of Vatican II’, they said, “When we look at our country, we see corruption plaguing every sphere of society. In such a scenario, Church institutions must be an example of transparency and probity. Another phenomenon is that of internal migration which, while opening opportunities to people, has torn the cultural and religious moorings that sustained them. Globalization too has brought in its wake problems like prolonged working hours which have disrupted family life. We witness the trend to fundamentalism which seeks to dilute the secular character of our nation. Against this trend, we stand by the values upheld by the Indian Constitution and appeal to governments to respect these values”.
“The experience of God will lead us to involvement in and solidarity with the marginalized and the exploited, those suffering from disabilities, those living in the peripheries of economic, cultural and social spheres. We will speak out against all forms of injustice meted out to them and we will defend their rights. We listened to the call of Pope Francis urging us to “work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 188). We want the Church to be truly a Church of the Poor. We reaffirm our solidarity with the Dalits in India who continue to be oppressed. The CBCI reiterates its resolve to struggle for equal rights of Dalit Christians on par with their counterparts in other religions. We will continue the fight against the 1950 Presidential Order, which unjustly discriminates against Dalit Christians and we demand that the Government remove this 64 year injustice. Justice delayed is justice denied. We also commit ourselves to rooting out all forms of discrimination within the Church and ensuring equal opportunities in leadership roles for Dalit Christians”.
Very strong and direct statements on both occasions; highly critical of the Government of the day; highlighting the ills that plagued society and above all, challenging the Government to ensure that the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of India must be guaranteed to every citizen of the country. Strangely enough, no rabid TV anchor yelled and screamed at that time “the nation wants to know!” or of an“international conspiracy”. There was no media, which took umbrage at what the Bishops were saying, there were no fascists and fundamentalists who went to town saying that it was “Vatican interference”. There were no self-appointed Christian voices who demanded “evidence” or substantiation to the Bishops statements or insisting that “the Bishops should not dabble in politics”. There was no one who selectively read only certain sentences or words and went to town about these; there was no one who lied and ‘fekufied’ stating,“all is well in India!” All of these charges would seem straight out of a joke book were they not spewed with falsehoods and divisiveness.
So how come when Archbishop Thomas Macwan of Gandhinagar, writes an internal letter prior to the Gujarat Assembly elections of December 2017 expressing legitimate concerns and asking for prayers; or Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi, asking Catholics to pray and fast prior to the General Elections of 2019 or Archbishop Felipe Neri Ferrao of Goa, writes a Pastoral Letter focusing on poverty – all hell breaks loose? The writings of the three Archbishops combined do not match anywhere near the above-mentioned CBCI Statements or for that matter any of the other CBCI Statements over the years.
On 20 May 2018 (Pentecost Sunday), Archbishop Ferrao sent out a Pastoral Letter “to the Priests, Religious, Lay Faithful and People ofGoodwill”. A Pastoral letter is normally written by a bishop to his people to inform, to inspire, to challenge and to encourage them in their lives as Christians. It is a well-established culture in the Catholic Church. It is optional and the contents of these letters are essentially directives but in keeping with the overall teaching and mandate of the Catholic Church.
The Theme of Archbishop Ferrao’s letter is "He Has Anointed Me to Bring Good News to the Poor” (Lk. 4: 18). It is a well-structured letter; besides an Introduction and Conclusion, it has four main sections (i) God’s Preferential Love for the Poor (ii) The Preferential Love of Jesus for the Poor (iii) The Preferential Option of the Church for the Poor (iv)The Social Mission of the Church. The letter is deep in Christian scripture and theology. Its mission statement is clear: that the Church (all Christians) must do much more for the poor. The letter is also rather contextual; it refers to the situation of poverty in India; the trampling of human rights and the danger to the Constitution. It also refers to some dimensions of ‘poverty’, which affect Goa today.
Archbishop Ferrao needs to be applauded. A careful, objective reading of the letter clearly shows that he is faithful to the teachings of the Church, he is concerned with the plight of the poor and like a true Pastor, and he is convinced that much more needs to be done. “My beloved brothers and sisters, as we have reflected above, in order to bear a vibrant witness to our Christian faith, we need to relentlessly and wholeheartedly work for the poor, since service to the poor is not accidental, but essential to our faith”.
The letter of Archbishop Ferrao is based on the Gospel of St Luke (4:18-19), the extract which is commonly referred to as the ‘Messianic Proclamation’, which in some ways highlights both the vision and mission of Jesus on earth. He challenges his followers to internalise these basics too. The Parable of the Last Judgement (Mt: 25:31-46), clearly shows the intrinsic relationship with the proclamation, “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”.
Throughout his public ministry, Jesus ‘took sides’ with the poor and the excluded; the vulnerable and the oppressed.He has strong words for powerful vested interests who ‘lay heavy burdens’ on the common folk. There is no doubt or debate on these incontrovertible facts! The ‘Magnificat’, which Mary sings when she goes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, is about God hearing the cries of the poor and lowly. John the Baptist when he prepares people for the coming of the Messiah insists that spirituality is intrinsically linked with social justice. He is beheaded, because like a true prophet he has the courage to speak truth to power. He does not attempt to be a ‘diplomat’. The Acts of the Apostles, the Letter of St James are some significant scriptures in the New Testament, which focus on the responsibilities of a Christian. In practice, Christianity has never wavered from its core belief and tenets that one’s faith is manifested primarily in reaching out to others. The dictums of Jesus are clear “love your neighbour as yourself”; “go sell all that you have, give the money to the poor then come follow me”; “not all who say ‘Lord’ , ‘Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven”; and much more.
In 1959, when St. Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, he emphasised that he wanted it to be a Pastoral Council, not necessarily creating new definitions in doctrine but an ‘aggiornamento’ which was essentially an updating of what the Church is all about, in order to communicate more effectively the values of the kingdom with the men and women of the modern world. The key question which was therefore raised at the Vatican Council was ‘what does it mean to be the Church of God in the modern world?’ The path-breaking Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world ‘Gaudium et Spes’ is a fitting response to what Pope John XXIII wanted as a sum and substance of a historic intervention. In his Encyclical‘Pacem in Terris’ he speaks of the inviolability of human rights and the four non-negotiables of Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty which are fundamental for sustainable peace. Church Teaching and the Popes have all been very consistent in emphasizing the involvement of the Church( hierarchy, clergy and laity) in every dimension of human activity to help ensure that the ‘kingdom of God’ here on earth. Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical ‘Caritas inVeritate’ puts it rather strongly, “ Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace”.
In November 2013, in his first Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (the Joy of the Gospel) Pope Francis says,“an evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.”
He further goes on to emphasize some of the challenges of today’s world. He categorically calls every disciple of Jesus to say “no” to an economy of exclusion; “no” to the new idolatry of money; “no” to a financial system, which rules rather than serves; “no” to the inequality, which spawns violence. At the same time, he calls for greater inclusion of the poor in society, the need for religious freedom and above all, the need and importance to take a stand on anything that is wrong and unjust in society.
Pope Francis bluntly states, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” …“The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction….The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”
Pope Francis speaks about our prophetic role, “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure, which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle, which others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.”
In his Encyclical Letter ‘LaudatoSi’ (May 2015) Pope Francis goes a step further, “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudiumit demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.”
Church teaching is not merely unequivocal it makes it imperative for a true disciple of Jesus to do all one can to help alleviate the poverty, sufferings and injustices that today has become the lot of millions.Archbishop Ferrao’s letter and those of Archbishops Couto and Macwan are factual. They refer to no political party or to any other group. There is however, enough in the public domain today to show what is happening in the country: of attempts to change certain sections of the Constitution, of how human rights are being trampled upon and how the poor are becoming poorer every day. The only plausible reasons for the ‘hullabaloo’ is that these pseudo-nationalists are either too afraid or too ashamed of the reality. Of course, they would also like to defocus from the reality and in a typical Goebbelsian manner they would ‘tell a lie a thousand times’, till people believe it is the truth’; they are adept at this, given the amount of lies foisted on the nation these past four years.
The Church (hierarchy and laity) in India must not fight shy of the person and message of Christ and for all that he embodied. The life of Jesus was of the Crib and the Cross-and the fact that “Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. In keeping with their 2012 and 2014 and other Statements, the Bishops of India are duty –bound to accompany the millions of Indians in their yearning for a better India. They need to come aloud and clearly in support of the poor and marginalized, the excluded and the vulnerable; to speak out against every form of human rights violation and above all, to defend the sanctity of the Indian Constitution. The Joy of the Gospels needs to be lived in India today!
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights activist; contact firstname.lastname@example.org )