IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AT THE CROSS ROADS? FR. GEORGE PALLIVATHUKAL

Introduction:
 
Pope St John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council “to breath in some fresh air” into the Catholic Church. Among the many important teachings of the 2nd Vatican council two of them revolutionised the church, namely
1)       The Church is a community of believers in Christ
2)       The Centrality of the Paschal mystery or the death and resurrection of Christ is the core of Christian faith. The life of the church flows from the Cross.

It is now 50 years since the Second Vatican Council. But unfortunately no organised efforts have been made in the church to bring the message of the council to the vast majority of the laity at the grass root level who form 99% of the Church. All what the leaders of the Church could do was to translate the liturgical texts into the vernacular. However liturgy still remains a mystery for the ordinary believer because of the lack of adequate catechesis. The church leaders have not felt that the adults in the church also need catechesis. How can the people translate the teachings of the church into their lives “unless someone tells them” (Acts 8:31). This is the fate of most of the church teachings. The documents of the church remain a subject for study, research and seminars among the elites and the intellectuals, mostly among priests and religious and a few lucky and enlightened laity. Meanwhile the ordinary people are busy with some prayers, devotions and novenas which they can understand and experience since they are connected with the life situation of the people.


 
A NEW TREND IN THE CHURCH TODAY
 
Shrines and centres for novenas and devotions dedicated to saints and Mother Mary are mushrooming in the church today, the most popular among them being St. Anthony the Wonder worker, St. Jude the patron of hopeless cases, Our Lady of Velankanni, of Lourds and Fatima, Infant Jesus etc. Big crowds gather in these shrines while participation in the Eucharistic celebration and Eucharistic Adoration seems to be declining. People want favours and relief and they flock to these shrines as though the saints and Mother Mary are more powerful than Jesus himself. Crowds fight for a piece of St. Antony’s bread but there are few takers for the Eucharistic Bread .This is due mainly to lack of adequate catechesis. This leads to idolatry. The leaders of the church, especially the priests, promote this kind of devotions exploiting the ignorance of ordinary believers because devotions bring in a lot of money. Their interest is in collecting money rather than in promoting and deepening the true faith of people in Jesus who is the only Saviour and who alone can help them in their sorrows and sufferings. We Priests are guilty of misleading our simple believers into such erroneous practises without their knowing it. This will eventually destroy the very fabric of the Catholic faith. There is no difference between the devotions promoted in our Shrines and the worship that takes place in the nearby temple.
 
ONE EXAMPLE
 
There is a hospital run by a congregation of religious in North India and the hospital has a chapel right at its main entrance. By building a chapel at the entrance the founders of the hospital might have meant to proclaim to those who come here that Jesus is the Chief Healer in this hospital. They believed that we are continuing the healing ministry of Jesus through our hospitals and health centers. It is truely Jesus who heals the sick .We are only instruments in His hands. No wonder such hospitals are crowded with patients.
 
In the chapel of the above mentioned hospital the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration round the clock. The stand holding the monstrance is kept on the right hand corner of the tiny chapel. In the left corner of the chapel a lifesize statue of Mother Mary is prominently displayed. But at the centre of the chapel, on the altar on which the Eucharist is occasionally celebrated a beautiful statue of Infant Jesus is placed and luxuriously decorated. The eyes of any one who enters the chapel first fall on the Infant Jesus because this statue occupies the most prominent place in the chapel. This infant Jesus has eyes but cannot see, has ears but cannot hear, has mouth but cannot speak, has legs but cannot walk and has hands but cannot bless.
 
Go and sit in that chapel for one hour. You will see many people, both catholics and noncatholics coming in and praying. But the most striking thing is that most of the people as they come inside the chapel go directly to the statue of Mother Mary and pay their respects to her and then go to the Infant Jesus, kneel down and ask for favours. Once their prayers are over they get up and walk out.
 
You will not find even 5% of the people coming inside the chapel going and praying in front of the Eucharistic Lord who is alive and who can hear them and cure them. He alone is compassionate to those who are sick and suffering. What message are we giving to the noncatholics and to our catholics of little faith? We teach that saints are more powerful than Jesus. There are complaints that people do not frequent this hospital as they did before. How could they come when we have pushed the one who has the power to heal to a corner and placed a dead statue in the place meant only for Jesus our Saviour. People will learn from us when we stop our superstitious practices and start believing in the one who is full of compassion and love.
 
A LAME ARGUMENT
 
It is argued that the people of all faiths come to our hospitals and health centers and they visit our chapels (churches) too. We have no right to force the noncatholics to go to the Blessed Sacrament and worship. They are used to worshipping statues. So they go to the statues prominently displayed in our chapels (churches) and pray. What is wrong in that?
 
We have no right to force anyone, catholics as well as noncatholics to go to the chapels (churches) and pray. They do it on their own free will. We catholics have a faith. We believe that Jesus Christ is our only Saviour. “He cured us through the shedding of His Blood” (1Peter 2:24). We are firm in this belief. We proclaim this faith in time and out of time to whoever wants to listen to us. We do not force our faith on to any ones throat. Through the Eucharist Jesus is present to us. We pray to him. We tell those who come to the chapel that they also can pray to Him. He will heal us. This is not forcing anybody to pray our prayers. Those who come to our chapels (churches) are free to pray with us. However we do not make any arrangement in our churches for the noncatholics to pray in their religious culture. We do not make any compromise on this matter. We are firm in our faith. We have one God, one Saviour and healer Jesus Christ. In him we believe, Him we proclaim everywhere, in our chapels and churches and our institutions.
 
We are missing a beautiful opportunity to tell the people who Jesus is for us, what he did for us, what he can do for us today.  This is a way of evangelization. Pope Francis says “Donot prosylitise but attract people to our faith by our lives”.  We are meant to be witnesses of Jesus in any situation in which we work. Be compassionate as Jesus was compassionate. Be kind to the poor. Blessings will flow in abandance. 
 
There are many right thinking people and priests in our midst who practise the traditional teaching of the church regarding worship and who are disturbed about the erroneous practises gaining strength in the church today. Fr. Dr. Jose Maniparampil, a leading and popular Bible Scholar of Kerala, India speaks out  his mind when he writes about the kind of popular devotions that take place in the catholic church today, in a book titled – The story of the Cross, heart of St Paul’s spirituality. “There is another type of idolatry growing in our parishes and shrines. I am afraid that the day is very close when we might hear that Blessed Virgin Mary divorced St Joseph and married St Anthony. Crucified Jesus would not be of any value for a section of people including religious since they thrive on and carried by fabricated signs and hallucinatory wonders even that appear in T V Serials. Most frightening is the strange fact and fate that priests and nuns are behind the promotion of such superstitious cults for the sake of petty financial gains at the expense of the great values of the Crucified Messiah. Religious people seems to have lost their discerning power. Philosophical training during the priestly formation seems to be futile. It is high time that the church takes very serious steps to rein in on such idolatrous practices and bring original worship consistent to the inherent character of Gods  relation with human family”. (Story of the Cross – Page 75).
 
Fr.Maniparampil wrote the above when he was commenting on the experience of St Paul in Athens. Athenians believed in a multitude of gods. They had altars built and dedicated even to unknown gods who were not on their list. St.Paul was disturbed because “an idol represents a value and different idols signify differing and competing values”. Paul was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. (Acts 17:16).
 
A SECOND TREND IN THE CHURCH
 
In the past our pastoral ministry was people oriented and people centred. Our aim was the integral development of the people. And we spent whatever we had to achieve this aim. Today there is a shift in our pastoral approach. Today we are institution oriented and institution centred and our aim is collecting money. In the past our educational, medical and social apostolates were to assist the church in her pastoral ministry. Today they have become business centres and there is much competition in the market. When we are haunted by greed for money we are never satisfied with what we collect. We want more and more money no matter how we get it. Many Priests prefer to work in institutions rather than in parishes. The most unfortunate truth is that many bishops responsible for the building up of the Kingdom of God in a given situation want their priests to work in the institutions of their dioceses because money is attractive for them also. Mammon has replaced God in the Church.
 
Greed for money has demoralised the church. Corruption is increasing in the church. Life style of priests has changed. They go for more luxuary. Immorality and dishonesty among priests are widely known. They even murder each other. Relatives of priests benefit more from their priesthood than the church. So much so an Indian bishop lately had to appeal to his priests in the following words – “I beg you fathers, do not snatch away the bread from the mouth of our poor children and give it to your relations. They will be never be able to digest it. Besides the cry of those children will reach the heavens and fire will come down on all those who robe the poor.” The anguish of this saintly bishop is evident from his words. Priests have lost their credibility and respect. Even those priests who want to live an honest priestly life are not trusted and they too have to put down their heads in shame because of their fellow priests. People just tolerate the priests. Many are disillusioned by what is happening in the church and leave the church. What the church needs today is a radical conversion. Will Pope Francis succeed in bringing back the church to its original purity.
 
A NEW CRAZE
 
A new Craze has come up in the church of late, namely building of multicrore cathedrals and churches, as well as palatial residences for bishops and priests. Sometimes strong structures which could have served the faithful for another centuary are pulled down, sometimes even by using  dynamites  and build new ones. The parish priest has to do something to perpetuate his name after he will have gone from that parish. The ordinary faithful are taxed mercilessly to carry out the idiocyncracy of the priest. Anybody will agree that a modestly decent and functional structure is needed for worship and for accomodating the clergy. But luxurious and extravagant accomodations for them are a scandal while many of our faithful live in utter poverty and most of them do not have even a toilet for their use. They have to go to the open fields or forests to answer the nature’s call. Church needs money. It is the wrong way of appropriation and misuse of money that are resented. Already from the Apostolic times collections were made in various churches to help the poor churches in their midst. But the apostles never handled the church money. They knew that their role in the church was to preach the gospel, to teach and to guide the faithful. So they entrusted the management of the money and church property to honest lay people. Money of the church belongs to the people because the wealth of the church does no come from the priests but it is the contribution of the people through their sweat and blood.
 
In our own times no other missionary in India received so much donations as Mother Teresa. Anybody would help her. Even the Marxists of West Bengal were ready to help her because people knew that the money given to her would reach the needy. Her life was an open book for the public and the people trusted her.
 
EXHORTATION OF ST.PAUL REGARDING POSSESSIONS IN THE CHURCH
 
Dr.Jose Maniparampil highlights in his book – “The story of the Cross” the exhortation of St.Paul to the leaders of the church to be aware of the dangers of possessions “The truth of the Word about God’s grace is tested in the real world by whether or not the handling of our goods is also gracious rather than greedy. One of the reasons for the irritation against christians in recent times is the huge missionary castles, “the cows of Bashan” to use an Amosian phrase (Amos 4:1) and mansions that frighten the sensibilities of people of other faith. It is no more “a vow of poverty “that leads to the religious commitment but “love of property” There is hardly any effort or struggle to be poor and struggle for the poor. It has become very expensive to live a modest life. Today hardly any religious men or women take “a vow of poverty” with the holy intension of eradicating the misery of poverty. Church and its missions has become more of a financial project than a spiritual edifice” (The story of the cross – Page 76).
 
THE BRICK BATS
 
It is expected that there shall be severe criticism both positive and negative regarding what is written above. The fact is that nobody in the world today wants to speak the truth. Nobody wants to listen to the truth. Nobody dares to speak the truth because if anyone dares to speak he should be prepared to be a martyr. Prophets of the Old Testament times say that people want to hear only what is pleasing to their ears. Many prophets were murdered for speaking the truth Read Isiah and Jeramiah. Prophets spoke to the people, from the king to the last subject that they should give up their evil practices, namely, Idolatry, adultery, immorality and other vices. They said that Jerusalem with its temple would be destroyed and they would be taken prisoners in exile if they did not stop their vices. History tells us what had happened to their prophecies and to the prophets. Modern prophets can expect the same fate.
 
This write up is meant to provoke criticism both positive and negative. Unless we have a serious dialogue we cannot bring about awareness among our people and come to the right decisions. At any rate a radical change in the Catholic Church is the need of the day.
 
CHURCH AND POPULAR DEVOTIONS
 
Popular devotions have their own place in the life of our faith. Pope Paul VI calls popular devotions “the religion of the common man”. Theology is beyond the competence of common man. He needs something simpler and experiential to come to the knowledge of God and to live the life of faith. Popular devotions can help us in this process. We examine the lives of Mary and our favourite saints and see what great things the Almighty has done for them. We learn from them how they walked on the heals of Jesus, who was Jesus for them, what they believed, how they lived their lives of faith, how they celebrated their faith in and through the sacraments and especially the Eucharist, how they prayed. Because of their life in and with Jesus they are today sharing in the glory of Jesus in heaven Mary and our saints are our heroes and heroins. They are our models, from them we learn how to follow Jesus. They are the friends of God and they are our friends too. Therefore they can intercede for us and they can help us. According to St.Edith Stein, “A saint is the tool of the Lord”. She writes “if any one comes to me I want to lead them to Him”. 
 
Whatever Mother Mary and the saints are, they are because of Jesus, because of his death and resurrection. They are human beings like us. They have no divine powers in them. Whatever we attribute to the saints are done by Jesus. We pray to the saints. They intercede for us and Jesus does the favour for us “By his wounds we have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). These facts we should learn and teach when we gather together to express our devotion to our favourite saints.
 
The church gives correct teaching regarding all aspects of our faith .It is the duty of the priests and the bishops to see that the church teachings reach the people who form 99% of the church. Popular devotions are the most appropriate forum to impart adult catechesis to our people, to teach them the basic teachings of the church regarding faith. Popular devotions should lead the faithful eventually to christian worship offered on the Altar. Any devotion that does not lead people to the Altar should not be permitted in the church. Inside the church the focus should be on the Holy of the Holies, the sanctuary or the altar and the tabernacle which are the symbols of God’s presence. As one enters the church his eyes should fall on the altar. Statues should never be placed in the sanctuary. The statues placed in the church should be given less prominence.
 
Mother Mary has a unique place in the church. She is the mother of God and our mother too. Mary is the woman who offered a body to Jesus which he offered on the cross for us. She cooperated with Jesus in the act of our redemption. She is the first fruit of the death and Resurrection of Christ. She is our powerful intercessor .Jesus will listen to her on our behalf as he did during the marriage feast of Cana. Mary is not a goddess. She does not have any divine power. Mary was the first one to realise this. That is why she went and told her son Jesus to help the family of Cana who were in trouble. She directed the people to Jesus and told them to do whatever he told them. Jesus not Mary changed water into wine. Mary being our Mother is sensitive to our needs and she being a powerful intercessor tells her Son to come and help us.
 
USE OF ICONS IN THE CHURCH
 
We catholics place images in our churches. This is a very ancient practise. Christians of other denominations accuse catholics of idolatry because of the statues and pictures we keep in the churches. God in the ten commandments had forbidden the Israelites of two things.
 
1)       That they should not make the image of God and worship since God has no form or body
2)       That they should not make the image of any created thing, place it in the place of God and worship it. 
 
This is idolatry. However God has not forbidden the production of images of creatures for any other purpose. God ordered Moses to make the image of a serpent and lift it up on a stick so that those who were bitten by snake in the desert could look at the image of the snake and save their lives (Numbers 21:4-9). God directed Solomon to make two carvings of Cherubim, draw pictures of trees, animals and birds to decorate the sanctuary (holy of holies) of the temple of Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:23-36). Those who accuse the catholics of idolatry in their churches need to know that God forbade only the making of a visible image of the invisible God and worshipping the image of a created thing in the place of the Creator.
 
In the early church there was the custom of drawing images on church walls or of making icons and keeping them in churches to use as visual aids for teaching catechism to people who could not read and write. We also keep statues and pictures of saints to remember and honour them as they are our heroes, heroines and models. As long as the use of images remains within this limit and as long as we do not attribute any divine powers to them, it is permissible. It is even helpful in increasing the faith of our people.
 
THE CHURCH WILL STAND FIRM FOREVER
 
There are aberrations in the church, because the church is both divine and human. The secular  media give full publicity to them and tarnish her image. They predict the downfall of the church. They are expecting a civil war in the Catholic Church after the last Synod. That is how the media understood the openness of the participants of the Synod  in their discussions which was encouraged by Pope Francis himself (Read Deccan chronicle dated November 11,2014 page 11). These are all wishful thinking Jesus has assured that the church built on the rock of Peter will never fail.  We christians are a people or a product of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The message of Pascha is HOPE. We are a hopeful people. We hope that there shall be a calm after the storm, a joy after pain, a smile after tears and a resurrection after death. Jesus promised to be always with his church even to the end of the world. As a gift of the Pascha Jesus has given the church the Holy Spirit. The age of the church is the age of the Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit is always active in the church and the spirit will never allow  the church to fall.
 
There have been crises in the church in the past too that threatened the existence of the church. Many thought in the past that the church was finished and they got disappointed. The Lord sent persons like St Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Sienna to protect the church. The church on her part need to be vigilant and watchful. The church cannot afford to be  complacent but has to deal with weaknesses existing in the church firmly. In the past prophet Elijah complained to God that he alone remained faithful to the Lord. The rest of the Israelites had forsaken the Lord’s covenant, that they destroyed the altars erected for the Lord and killed the prophets of Israel. Elijha said that he was the only one prophet left in Israel and they were seeking for his life too. God told Elijha not to worry because he had preserved seven thousand people who had not bowed their heads before the false god (Baal) and there were prophets among them (1 King 19:14-18) God knows how to look after his people without our assistance. When we fail God He finds somebody else to continue His work. God saves man through man. God’s salvific work will continue forever.
 
The church is hopeful because there are still many honest and committed priests in the Church. Priests will always be in the Church. Without priests the church cannot survive. The Church and the Eucharist are interdependent, one cannot survive without the other. The church needs the Eucharist and the Eucharist needs  the church. Who makes the Eucharist present in the Church?  The priest. The priest is in the church to recreate the word and the deed of Christ , the head.  His role in the church is unique.
 
The church is hopeful because the Bible has reached the hands of the laity. Bible was a forbidden fruit in the past. But the Second Vatican Council has opened this treasure to the people of God .Thanks to the charismatic movement, the people as a whole are taking a lot of interest in the word of God. People have come to realise that the bible is their book, that  “the word of god is the light to their feet”. They have realised that “the Word of God is active and living, sharper than any two edged sword”. All have received the anointing of the Spirit and the Word is being proclaimed by priests and laity alike by their lives of witnessing.
 
The Spirit is active in the church. Under the guidance of the Spirit new movements like the “Jesus youth and Small Christian Communities(SCC)” are emerging in the church. These bring much hope to the church. Jesus Youth Movement started in India is spreading to other countries. We read in the acts of the apostles (Chapter 8) that when the Judeo Christians were facing persecutions in Jerusalem they fled to other countries and they took along their new found faith in Jesus crucified and risen and shared their faith with others and formed new faith communities. Likewise Jesus youth go to other countries for employment and they take along with them their new found movement and make others members of the group and spread the name and glory of Jesus. Jesus youth study and live the values of the Bible, frequent sacraments, share their faith in groups, support the faith of others and help the needy. They always remain united with the mother church and seek guidance from elders.
 
SMALL CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES (SSC)
 
Originally started in Brazil and later developed into the present from in Lumko, South Africa the SCC are a gift from the Holy Spirit to the church. Believers of the neighborhood assemble in small groups at the grass root  level once in a week or once in two weeks. The Christian families listen to the Word of God, interpret the word according to their life situations, find inspirations from the word for their lives and act accordingly. They find solutions to their problems and plan their activities in the light of the Word of God. SCC are not one of the many associations of the church. “SCC is a new way of being the church” as the Asian Conference of Bandung, Indonesia, defines it. This movement is spreading into the countries of Africa and Asia. SCC are strong believing, praying, serving and witnessing communities. This movement is helping families to be “Domestic Churches” and the neighbourhood to be fellowship communities. People show concern for each other and assist in each ones needs as the Christians of the first centaury “were of one heart and one mind” and were sharing whatever they had with each other. This new church will have a non dominant leadership. Each member of the church will feel responsible for the on going growth of the church. Yes, the Catholic Church is a hopeful Church and she will stand firm forever.

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