The National Consultation “We Too Are Church” has appealed for the convening of Vatican III. In an era of breaking news, and shifting goal posts, it is not enough to hark back to Vatican II that concluded 54 years ago. It is now time for Vatican III to address the rapidly mutating issues faced by the church in the modern world.
This was expressed by the 60 participants from 15 States of India at the consultation held from 9th to 11th February at Proggaloy Pastoral Centre, Kolkata. This gathering of lay leaders, clergy and religious was a collective response to the various political and moral crises that the church finds itself embroiled in, without an adequate or credible response. Various “Pastoral Letters” issued by three archbishops, referring to elections, and the frightening Franco Mulakkal fiasco have been attracting a hostile press. To rub salt into the wound, the bishops of Kerala in a recent statement have labelled those raising their voices as “enemies of the church”!
Such a situation cannot be perpetuated, nor can such a grievous accusation be left unchallenged. This consultation had chosen the title “We Too Are Church” to gel with the “Me Too Movement”, the voice of the voiceless. However, the participants now chose to affirm that “We Are the Church”, an integral part of it, not just an appendix. This consultation was the brainchild of Swami Sachidananda Bharathi, also known as Air Force Baba, chhotebhai, the former National President of the All India Catholic Union, and Isaac Gomes, Associate Editor of Church Citizens’ Voice.
It was inaugurated by Prof Maria Fernandes, former Chairperson, West Bengal Minorities Commission, and now a member of its Women’s Commission. She said that she had learnt the art of politics from the politicking within the Catholic community! She recalled how she had once received gunshot injuries on a political stage from adversaries; but that did not deter her. She appreciated the title “We Too Are Church” and said that the time had come to assert ourselves, and also to insert ourselves in mainstream politics. Today all national institutions are being targeted by the Central Govt and the country is heading for a dictatorship. The community cannot be a silent spectator. Here in West Bengal the Chief Minister, Mamta Banerjee, prepares a roster of Ministers who are directed to attend Christmas midnight Mass at various churches. That is why all religions feel safe here.
chhotebhai gave the keynote address on “Vatican II – Renewal or Betrayal?” The house agreed with him that except for cosmetic changes in the liturgy and clerical dress, the deeper attitudinal changes envisaged by Vatican II had not really happened. We cannot allow this drift; else we may end up with empty churches as in Europe. It is already happening in the metros, and our adult offspring no longer feel drawn to the church. The speaker drew special attention to the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (LG), more particularly Chapter IV, that deals with the role of the laity. It is called to speak out and fulfil its prophetic office. Unfortunately a clerically dominated church has stifled that voice.
He said that in the 54 years since Vatican II one may have heard 54x52 = 2808 Sunday sermons. How often was Vatican II mentioned, he asked? If the scales are tipped in one direction, parity should be restored by either reducing the weight in one scale, or increasing it on the other. He advocated the second approach through formation and empowerment of the laity.
Swami Sachidananda, in his presentation, focussed on the mission of the church in India. He opined that men had made a mess of the world and it was now the hour of women to sort things out. A committee of women, however, cannot deliver a baby, so there is a need for strong leadership to bring about change. Quoting Albert Einstein he said that “the solution for a problem cannot be found at the same level of thinking that had created the problem”. So there was a need to think out of the box, as expressed by this consultation. His organization, Disciples of Christ for Peace, was committed to the establishment of a true Bhartiya Dharam Rajya (Kingdom of God).
Challenging the established order he said that India was the only country where Christians enjoyed Minority Rights. When he told some bishops that such rights should be abolished they hit back at him saying “That is because you have nothing to lose”! Could this then mean that the Catholic Church in India suffers from the problem of plenty? Gandhiji, the naked fakir, was a truly Indian Christ, who used the principles of the Sermon on the Mount to defeat the greatest “Christian” empire, and win us freedom. We should learn true discipleship from him.
Dr Salam Irene, former Head of the Department of History, Manipur University, spoke on the status of women in the church. She said that rape was a heinous crime, and rape victims relive the trauma every night. She felt that Franco Mulakkal, if found guilty, should be incarcerated in a high security prison, and a resolution to that effect should be sent to the Nuncio. Coincidentally, the news of the stalling of the transfer of the five nun witnesses in the case, by Bp Agnelo Gracias of Jalandhar, had just broken, and was joyously acclaimed by the gathering. Dr Irene said that in many places women who marry outside the community are forced to accept the religion of their husbands. Mixed marriages are not addressed with empathy. There is a crying need for competent women counsellors to help women in distress, crisis or abuse situations.
Referring to Manipur she said that back in 1998 the Kuki Baptist Church had ordained its first woman pastor, but now there is a growing resurgence of patriarchy. The house came out in strong support of women’s ordination, as it was only the priests that wielded power and decision making. On a lighter note a religious sister said that at Vatican III priests would come with their wives, at Vatican IV priests would come with their husbands, and at Vatican V they would address Her Holiness!
High Court Advocate Kirit Macwan of Ahmedabad addressed the issue of “Participatory Structures in the Church”. This again was an area where the hierarchical church had almost completely stonewalled the provisions of Canon Law, based on Vatican II teachings, as expressed in Canons 208-231. The provisions for Catholic Associations are covered by Canons 321-329. Diocesan Pastoral Councils are provided for in Canons 511-514 and for Parish Councils in 536. Finance Committees are covered by 492-494. Unfortunately, when these participatory structures are packed with sycophantic nominees then their very purpose is defeated. As with Vatican II here too the people feel betrayed.
Percival Holt from Faridabad, the National President of the Indian Catholic Youth Movement, and a delegate to the recent World Youth Synod in Rome, spoke on “Youth Aspirations & Expectations”. He also shared his experiences of Pope Francis, a man who carried his own briefcase and umbrella, something our Indian bishops don’t. His video of the Synod was expressive of the joy and intensity of the event. Even there, of 270 delegates there were 18 bishops that were opposing the Pope.
Percival said that “Youth are like fire. We flame, we bring light, give warmth, but are also under the threat of getting extinguished. Today we are flickering; we may either blow off into the darkness or blow up into wildfire to burn down everything. The church needs to kindle these sparks into flames”. He said that youth are not lost, they want to belong, and a greater effort must be made to win them over. They want to be heard and not marginalized. They also seek a coherent church that has cogent answers, and a credible church devoid of hypocrisy. He rued the decreasing educational goals of Catholic youth. This is ironical, given the church’s huge investment of money, personnel and infrastructure in education. As per a survey conducted by the CCBI, 44.5% of the youth are unemployed, an alarming statistic.
Rev Dr Subhash Anand, professor emeritus of the Papal Seminary, Pune, spoke on the burning issue of “Conversions” the perennial bugbear of our fellow Indians. He quoted Gandhiji saying that a rose could spread its fragrance without the need to shout. He gave an in-depth analysis of how sacred scripture has evolved, and how the command in Mathew 28 to baptize all nations was an addition made in the 2nd century, and not something that Jesus himself said. Most liturgical texts are more metaphorical than literal.
Referring to his 35 years of experience in seminary formation he rued that the level of spiritual, emotional and intellectual maturity of those aspiring for the priesthood was going down by the day. Priesthood is now seen as a job, that too a very secure one, with all its attendant perks and status. He said that a celibate clergy did not understand the problems of married people. He was categorical in saying that the laity is ignorant of Vatican II because nobody talks about it, especially the priests who are afraid of losing power, prestige and funds.
David Lobo, agro-industrialist, philanthropist and management guru from Bangalore spoke on “Crisis Management and Damage Control” in the church. It assumed greater urgency today because of the deafening silence of national level Catholic organizations, be they lay, clerical or episcopal. He opined that the Catholic Church is the biggest organization in the world, but it is woefully lacking in both crisis management and damage control. Crisis management is preventive, to foresee or forestall a crisis; whereas damage control is a rapid response to an event that occurs unexpectedly, despite preventive measures. A crisis is different from a problem, in that its redressal cannot be deferred, as in the case of a fire.
Lobo felt that most of the crises facing the church today were rooted in excessive clericalism. Subhash Anand intervened to say that the more we depend on the clergy for non-essentials, the more we perpetrate clericalism. Lobo continued that in Pope Francis we had the best opportunity to reform the church, it should not be wasted. The media, as also the social media, were the best tools for bringing about change.
Rev Devraj Fernandes, editor of the Herald, one of the oldest English language weeklies, spoke on the media as an agent for transformation of the church. He gave a detailed analysis of how the church has interacted with or kept the media at bay over the centuries. Of late the church, both universally and in India, has been under intense media scrutiny. By its very nature the media is both adversarial and sceptical. In the past the Church’s normal response was to clam up in secrecy. There has been a gradual change, beginning with Pope Pius IX who leaked information to his supportive press, to Pope Pius XII founding La Osservatore Romano for dissemination of information.
In contrast, Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical “Pacem in Terris” stood for freedom of speech. Vatican II deliberations also began with leaks that soon turned into a torrent. Fernandes said that most Catholic publications were confined to religious matters, and were either owned or controlled by a status quoist hierarchy. In recent times though, the church has opened its windows to the media. He exhorted the participants to encourage the reading habit. The organizers had arranged for copies of leading Catholic journals like Indian Currents, The Herald and the Voice of the Faithful, to be distributed to all participants. Jude D’souza of Vadodara made a pertinent observation that pulpit power or hegemony is used to obstruct lay initiatives. Hence the laity had no alternative but to use the media for dissemination of information, even though it is much more costly and time consuming.
After three days and nine topics of intense deliberations and prayer, the participants now focussed on The Path Ahead. Because of the leadership vacuum in the church they decided to constitute themselves into the “Indian Catholic Forum” (ICF), a platform that would act as a moral force in the country, to take forward the message of “We Too Are Church”, to reform the church and speak up for it on critical issues in the media. It would also formulate a Citizens’ Charter for the Lok Sabha elections 2019 that would be sent to all major political parties. It elected a Core Team with chhotebhai as the Convenor, Swami Sachidananda as the Co-Convenor, and Isaac Gomes as the Secretary General, together with 8 others from across the country. Rev Subhash and Percival also accepted to collaborate as Spiritual Advisor and Youth Animator respectively.
The goal of the ICF is to bring about the wished for renewal of the Catholic Church in India as per the teachings of Vatican II and the provisions of Canon Law, with special emphasis on the role of the laity in secular or temporal affairs. It calls for collaborative decision making in the church, transparency and accountability in public dealing, special protection for vulnerable women and children, and avoiding all forms of ostentatious celebrations by both the institutional church and the laity. It therefore makes a clarion call for the convening of Vatican III, with adequate numbers of the laity, clergy, religious and youth, so as to be fully representative of the universal (catholic) church.
It also calls for the establishment of arbitration and conciliation boards as per the provisions of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act of 1996; to be established in all dioceses and church related institutions, for conflict resolution and grievance redressal. It will strive to use the media; print, electronic and social, to disseminate its views, thereby transforming through informing. It hopes to collaborate with Catholic Church Reform International, an international body that has already been engaged in dialogue with the Vatican. In India it will seek support from change.org, a social site that organizes public interest petitions worldwide.
The participants expressed their gratitude to Rev Shyam Charan Mandi, the Director of Proggaloy, for his kind co-operation and accommodating nature.