This “practical” letter is a natural consequence of various pastoral letters issued by the archbishops of Gandhinagar, Delhi and Goa. These pastoral letters have been portrayed as innocuous appeals for prayer for the country, its secular fabric and protection of its Constitution. Some respondents have gone to the extent of hailing them as prophetic, a bold need of the hour. Critics within the Church (count me in) have expressed dismay at such ill-timed and ill-advised diktats that made pointed references to forthcoming elections and only attracted negative media publicity.
Adversaries of the Church, on the other hand, went to town alleging no less than a Vatican – Italian – Sonia – Congress conspiracy to defeat Narendra Modi’s BJP Govt in 2019. The Vatican certainly doesn’t have a hand in it, but the concerned bishops do have a finger in the pie! There is an element of truth in all three positions. I have already written two articles in response to the “pastoral” letters, hence will not repeat what I have said earlier. I dare not call this a pastoral letter because I do not have a pasture where I graze sheep. I believe in interacting with rational adult human beings, not dumb sheep or innocent children.
This letter is addressed to my Beloved Brother Bishops. Am I mad to be addressing bishops as brothers, instead of Lord, Grace, Eminence etc? Firstly, I do not subscribe to such worldly honorifics rooted in medieval Europe and not in the soil of Palestine where the Son of Man ploughed his lonely furrow. Secondly, neither Scripture nor contemporary church teachings support such honorifics. Of Jesus it was said that “It was essential that he should in this way be made completely like his brothers” (Heb 2:17). The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the numero uno of the 16 documents of Vatican II, has this to say, “By divine condescension the laity have Christ for their brother … They also have for their brothers, those in the sacred ministry” (LG 32).
The same paragraph has this beautiful quote from St Augustine of Hippo, “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian. The former is a title of duty; the latter one of grace. The former is a danger; the latter salvation” (Ibid). When 2500 bishops from across the world sat in a synod for three years, and endorsed the words of St Augustine, I can do no better than to repeat them.
I have a great devotion to St Francis of Assisi, also known as the “alter Christi”. He never became a priest. He named his companions Friars Minor, identifying with the Minori, the oppressed and depressed dalits of his time. For those of you who may not know me personally, my name itself is the Hindi translation of Friar Minor. I have always been inspired by God’s mission to Francis, “Go and repair my church”. He did not pursue the path of Revolution, as did the French; or that of Reformation from outside as Martin Luther did; but chose the path of Renewal from within, by a vigorous practice of the Gospel values. His identification with Jesus was so total that he even received the Stigmata in his own body.
So Beloved Brother Bishops I too, like St Francis, have been striving for the last 42 years for a return to Gospel values; a spirituality based on Sacred Scripture and the wished for renewal of the Catholic Church as envisaged by Vatican II. In 1979 the bishops of U.P. had appointed me as the Founder Secretary of the U.P. Regional Youth & Vocations Bureau. From 1990 – 1994 I was the National President of the All India Catholic Union, and later a Resource Person for the CCBI Family Life Commission. So I have had much interaction with you Beloved Brother Bishops. Besides, through my various activities and writings (hundreds of articles and four books, including one on the Trinity and another on Christology) I have constantly strived to live my Christian and Franciscan vocation. I have scrupulously avoided any dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
As such, I hope and pray that you will heed the voice of a “citizen” of the Church. Over the last 50 years of lay ministry I have at times been labelled as “anti-clerical”, because of my strong views. Let me clarify that they are based on sacred scripture, Vatican II documents, Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the lives of great saints. I am not anti anybody. I am pro veritas, pro caritas and pro ecclesia, as this title states. I must simultaneously admit that I am a college dropout, with no formal religious studies either.
I was thrilled when a Jesuit chose the name Francis when he was elected Pope. I see it as a perfect blend – the spiritual discernment of the Jesuits, meshed with the down-to-earth simplicity of the Franciscans. “How lovely on the mountains” it would be if we had more Beloved Brother Bishops like Pope Francis. Sadly, if you pay scant heed to Gospel values and Vatican II teachings, how can we expect you to follow in the footsteps of our beloved Pope Francis?
It does not prevent me from recalling to mind some of his “practical” wisdom and orthopraxis. Firstly, as when he was a cardinal in Argentina, he does not live in the Vatican palace, but in two small rooms in St Martha’s Guest House. He had appealed to his Beloved Brother Bishops to do likewise. A couple in America and Europe have followed suit. But I have not heard of a single one of you Beloved Brother Bishops in India leaving your palatial residences for a humble tenement. He said that it was a crime to be flashing around in luxurious cars. When he visited the U.N., the small Fiat car that he sat in could hardly accommodate his big frame. What about you? Had the over one lakh bishops, priests and religious opted for Tata’s smallest and cheapest car – the Nano, it would not have been a marketing disaster. But you, like your fellow Indians, prefer big cat SUVs. The Pope also asked religious leaders to cycle. The only bishop that I ever saw cycling was the late Bp Patrick Nair of Meerut.
When faced with moral, sexual, matrimonial and complex ethical issues Pope Francis has often said, “Who am I to judge?” How empathetic are you to divorced and remarried Catholics, among other things? He has advocated that sermons be not more than 10 minutes. Are you keeping a timer while sermonizing? If not, should I enlighten (not betray) you with a KISS – an acronym for “Keep it short stupid”. No offence meant.
While researching for this practical letter I discovered that the word “bishop” is not found in the Bible! It is derived from the Greek word episkopos that etymologically means a municipal inspector or a temple supervisor. Imagine anybody bowing, scraping and kissing the ring of a municipal inspector. So haven’t you Beloved Brother Bishops gone overboard with the medieval European honorifics, including the denigrating practice of kissing your rings? The “Dictionary of the Bible” by J Mckenzie SJ clearly states that “the institution of the monarchical episcopate, in which each church is governed by a single bishop, does not appear in the New Testament” (Pg 97). So why should bishops have a Coat of Arms, again a medieval practice?
The New Testament does, however, refer to “elders” in the Church. But they don’t function in autocratic isolation. They work in a group of presbyters, from which the English word “priest” is derived. It is indicative of a collegial approach, what we today call the presbyterium. Do they actually function, or are they a group of sycophants (a term used in one of the pastoral letters)?
If today’s bishops claim that they are indeed the “elders” referred to in the New Testament, then let us see what it says about such elders. “To want to be a presiding elder is to desire a noble task … have an impeccable character, husband of one wife, he must be temperate, discreet and courteous, hospitable and a good teacher, not a heavy drinker, nor hot tempered, but gentle and peaceable. Not avaricious, a man who manages his own household well and brings his children up to obey him. How can any man who does not understand how to manage his own household take care of the Church of God?” (1 Tim 3:1-5). Are we then to presume that bishops were married family men, who attained maturity through family life; and not distanced celibates as we now have?
Paul’s advice to Timothy is not an isolated instance. He has similar words for another “bishop”, Titus. “He must be a man of irreproachable character, husband of one wife, and his children must be believers … never arrogant or hot tempered, nor a heavy drinker or violent or avaricious, but hospitable and a lover of goodness, sensible, upright, devout and self-controlled” (Tit 1:6-9). Lofty ideals. I would ask just one question – how many of you are teetotallers?
Let us move to the Vatican II “Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church” – Christus Dominus (CD). It states that a bishop must stand in the midst of his people as one who serves (CD 16a, cf Lk 22:26-27). Are you servers or rulers? From a layman’s perspective I find it further exhorts bishops “to recognize their duty and right to collaborate actively in the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ” (CD 16e). “They should be invited to join or assist the various works of the lay apostolate” (CD 17). The laity should be on the diocesan curia and pastoral councils (cf CD 27). How many lay people are there on any diocesan curia? Canon Law even recommends that the laity be involved in the selection of bishops (Can 377:3). Nobody has ever consulted me. It has not prevented me from writing to the Nuncio recommending names for vacant sees in my area. In papal elections too I have sent my suggestions to the cardinal electors.
In 1976, in the course of one of my gospel journeys (without any money) Bp Patrick D’souza of Varanasi asked me to address his clergy meeting, wherein he distributed the book “Christ’s Idea of Authority” by the great exegete Rev JNM Wijngaards MHM. He must have wanted his priests to follow it. I too got a copy that I treasure to this day. It has some interesting observations.
“Church history confirms the influence of secular kingship ideas on ruling on the church” (Pg 2). “The instruments of secular authority are money, weapons and force. Jesus denies these to his disciples” (Pg 3). “You know that the kings of the nations exercise authority over them. This however is not the way it shall be among you” (Mat 20:25-26, Pg 4). The clergy, and more so the bishops, were “considered part of or parallel to the nobility. Most vocations would come from this group and becoming a priest was not therefore considered a loss in status” (Pg 15). Let alone honorifics for bishops, even calling priests as “Father” has “very slender support in Scripture” (pg 29). In fact nowhere did Christ claim to be the father, nor did he even describe himself as Father” (Pg 30).
Drawing from the Transactional branch of psychology that divides a person’s relationships along Parent, Adult and Child egos, Wijngaards says that “a person in authority would be greatly mistaken if he were to think that he always has to act as a father” (Pg 31). “Christ’s way of dealing with the apostles was not paternalistic. He moved and acted as one of them. He showed himself not like a father, but a brother” (Pg 32). This is the fraternal, or adult to adult approach. Further, in “secular society the principle often holds good that who has the money, has the power … It would be a terrible thing if leaders in the church were to handle money with the same purpose” (Pg 37).
So Beloved Brother Bishops I have not expressed my own subjective opinion. I have objectively placed before you what the church itself says, together with the “practical” advice and example of our beloved Pope Francis. As a “citizen” of the Catholic Church in India I make this humble prayer to you:
1. That you implement the ecclesiology of Vatican II, especially that of a participatory peoples’ church as envisaged in Chapter IV of the “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church”.
2. That you implement the provisions of Canon Law pertaining to the Temporal Goods of the Church (Book V, Can 1254-1310).
3. That you establish authentic and democratic (not sycophantic) diocesan pastoral councils, parish councils and finance committees as laid down in Canons 511-514, 536 & 537.
4. That you involve competent laity in the selection process for Episcopal appointments.
5. That you exercise a preferential option for the poor, especially in education (cf Can 794:2).
6. That you exercise great prudence while making public statements, especially if they have a remotely political connection.
7. That because of the so-called vocation crisis you should not sacrifice quality for quantity, bearing in mind “rightness of intention and freedom of choice” (Optatum Totius No 6).
8. That you abjure all honorifics, including kissing of rings.
9. That you learn to trust the laity and interact with them as intelligent sisters and brothers.
10. That you learn from the heroic virtue and exemplary lifestyle of Pope Francis. If he is a moral force in the world today it is not because of the position he holds, but because of the positions he takes and the life he lives, with no dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
Beloved Brother Bishops I love the Catholic Church. In 1965 both my parents received papal honours from Pope Paul VI; my father with the Knighthood of St Gregory, and my mother with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal. I do not seek any honours from you, but I do seek an honourable place for the laity in the Church. I earnestly hope and pray that all of us live authentic prophetic lives, like God said to Jeremiah. “I have put my words into your mouth. Look today I have set you over the nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10).
In the English language the words “prophet” and “profit” sound the same, though diametrically opposite in meaning. I believe that you Beloved Brother Bishops are called to be prophets, and not to hold offices of profit.
* The writer is the National President Emeritus of the All India Catholic Union.