Report by Philip Matthew, Matters India reporter, Indian bishops to seek Church response to current challenges
The General body meeting of the Catholic Bishops conference of India (CBCI) is a two-yearly happening. The participants in this meet are the bishops of the three different Rites – on it there are still many unresolved questions — like Latin, Syromalbar and Syromalankara.
More than 180 bishops from these Rites (right or wrong) have already started their week-long session on Feb.2nd. Its theme is “The Response of the Church in India to the Present Day Challenges.” It stands out for two distinct features: 1. Presence of Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington is the invited Chief Guest. Similar was the presence of President Obama for the Republic day. 2. The invited Justice Cyriac Joseph gave the keynote address. Lack of due advance publicity, we already noted, was a flaw on the part of organizers. Why?
Our stress is on due publicity, that is, publicity the event deserves.
As for publicity it used to be much better organized in the Church in India in older times. I can give many examples as I used to be an invitee to report more than one CBCI meets. Just one here for information sake. It is about the CBCI meeting in Kolkata in the 1970ies under Cardinal Pichachi. This scribe was the invited Editor and manager of the then New Leader (NL) of Chennai to report on the proceedings without any let or hindrance. The meeting was announced in all Catholic publications with all relevant details to get people’s participation in discussing its theme. The theme was collegiality, co responsibility, subsidiarity etc. as I can recall from my fading memory. The CBCI meet those days meant the gathering of the whole Church in India, the people of God, not just bishops, archbishops, clergy and a sprinkling of the religious.
As a dutiful editor I gave the widest publicity in the then New Leader and got the theme discussed threadbare. One month before the Kolkatta meet, the editor sent out an SOS to all the NL readers, that is, an earnest appeal to speak up their mind to their bishops about what they expect them to do at the CBCI meet. Their responses were to be printed in the letters to editor page, under the caption: “SPEAK TO YOUR PASTORS THROUGH YOUR PAPER!” That meant all interested readers had to send in their requests and suggestions as letter to the Editor. And letters came pouring in. Before going to report to Kolkatta, I got made a special issue of the weekly, then in semi-demmi size, with more than two full pages of letters with the banner head: Speak to the pastors through your Paper.
Cartoon ‘Oh! Kolkatta!’
There was also a telling cartoon on the front page named: “Oh Kolkatta!” which was the name of a famous loose film, which I have heard about but not seen. The Cartoon showed a huge crowd of bishops and cardinals in their colourful regalia dancing around a fire-ball (the theme of the meet) up in the sky like huge kite with a string held by a lay person on the ground shouting: “Please come down”. It meant to tell the bishops not to keep their discussions up in the clouds but to make them down to earth, understandable to any tom, dick or harry.
On arrival in Kolkotta, the most important person to meet me was Cardinal Picachi himself who thanked me profusely for the wide publicity and months-long herculean task done by the New Leader and said in public to those gathered around: “I thank you publicly because New Leader has done a great service, far better job than our own diocesan paper, Herald. NL is the real Family Paper which deserves to be promoted by all. This is not my personal view, but that of my Vicar General, Henry D’Souza who is a very perceptive person etc.”
And the shockingly surprising event happened at the inaugural Key-note address given by the then Vicar General Henry Desouza himself, who later became the Archbishop of Kolkatta. In Bangalore the Key note address is given by Justice Cyriac Joseph from outside the Hierarchical clerical class. In Kolkatta it was given by the celebrant of the Inaugural Mass with all bishops and it was done by Msgr. Henry Desouza himself. What did he do? After the Gospel he came to the podium, not with a Bible in Hand to preach but with the latest copy of the New Leader which made me stare at him in wonder. Opening the middle page, he showed the audience the banner headline: SPEAK TO YOUR PASTORS THROUGH YOUR PAPER!
His first sentence to the tense audience was the following in substance: “What is it that the people in India, the Church in India expect from all of us here, from each one you? I am presenting you that, all are written in these pages by the readers of New Leader. We are here to execute, not any cherished agenda of ours, but the pleas, wishes, yearnings and to soothe their sorrows and grievances….” Henry D’Souza was speaking like our Pope Francis today. You can verify all these things with retired Archbishop Henry, who is still alive and from whom I still get occasional letters.
Question to Readers
My question to you readers is this: Where on earth and how on earth is this (Sensus Ecclesiae) sense of the Church which included all people of God and not just the clerical class get lost? From when one has the Church in India, stopped being the people of God and started becoming a secret society of the Bishops of India? If they are responsible persons, the bishops and organizers of the Bangalore meet should come out with a public answer. All important articles of this nature are also sent directly to all bishops, besides publishing in the CCV. Some acknowledge receipt most don’t. One bishop who acknowledges always (automatic reply I guess) is Bishop Pauly of Irinjalakuda.
Another bishop who writes to me once in a way and reminds me, not to forget to put him in my mailing list is Bishop Alex Dias of Port Blaire, a missionary like St. Paul cutting across the fury of the wind and waves on his pastoral tours from Island to Island. He happens to be the only bishop who happened to come out in public, in one of his articles in Indian Currents, asking, never to address him with any honorific titles like Bishop, Your Excellency, and Lordship etc. but if possible just call him by his first name or pet name: “Alex” only. In response I wrote an article addressing him: Dear Alex, in the Indian Currents, Delhi which became a hit. In spite of all that we have never met personally, although he invited me several times to Port Blair through his emails. Yet he seems to know more about me from New Leader times than I know about him only through internet. Yes, know your bishops, they are no heavenly creatures, but very frail earthly humans like you and me. Only you may find no one daring, honest and courageous enough to publicly affirm: “I am a sinner” as shown by our very dear Pappa Francis.
Besides there are any number of added reasons why the Biennial CBCI meets should not be like closed door plotting sessions against the laity or any other imagined enemies of the Church. If the Catholic Church is Catholic, it should not have anything to hide. In this it has to follow the example of one whom they proclaim to be their leader and role model: Jesus who said: Palam locutus sum; “I have spoken openly for all the world to hear, I have said nothing in secret, ask my hearers what I taught, they know what I said.” Jn.18, 20-23.
Again look at the way Pope Francis conducted the two family synods in Rome, some of which were noted for thunder and lightning due to explosive debates. And what did Francis instruct the bishops to do while sending them back after the first session in 2014 to their dioceses: “to duplicate such discussions on the diocesan level, with priests, sisters, brothers, and parish representatives on all unsettled issues at the first session.” Only bishops in India, it seems, did not give too hoots to that instruction, at least I have not heard of any bishop in India having done that. In other countries they did. The same thing happened in India in the case of family survey ordered by the Pope as well.
Obey or disobey, not to Counter-witness Jesus?
The serious question it raises is this: Should the laity, who are now called Church citizens equal to any in the Church including the Pope, obey Bishops’ orders, since these Bishops don’t obey Pope’s instructions? In many instances it becomes the duty of Church Citizens to disobey the orders of bishops, the substance of which they themselves don’t practice. Why? Because in such cases obeying them will amount to bearing counter-witness to Jesus and his example. That is why there is a mass exodus from the Catholic Church in many parts of the world, also here in India, especially in Kerala. Many thinking sections are beginning to think with their feet.
Again decentralization and open dialogue were the central themes of the historic and momentous speech of Francis on Oct.19th 2015 on the Synodality of the Church. The central idea driven home was that the Catholic Church, especially the hierarchical church should stop being a pyramid and start becoming an inverted pyramid imitating the foot-washing ministry of Jesus. But who is bothered about it except on Holy Thursdays for public exhibitions and photos in Church publications? In that speech ‘Francis placed himself one step below the ordinary faithful, to rightly deserve the title: “Servant of servants.”
Synodal Speech & woes of Mt.23
The question is how many in India have made a public study of that precious speech in India? It has met the fate of Mathew Chapter 23, never read, studied, meditated or preached in the Church. If Mt. 23 is the most hated, least meditated and not discussed in the Catholic Church, it is because it is a downright indictment of the Catholic Hierarchical structure from start to finish full of “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees. You hypocrites, white washed sepulchres, brood of vipers etc.” Jesus of course was addressing the Jewish hierarchical structure. Today the Catholic Hierarchical structure has become just that. So they can’t read it without getting piercing pin pricks of self-condemnation at every verse and so they never read or discuss it. To read and meditate it honestly would be to force one to change radically his life style. None of them want to change their royal life style and so they don’t read it.
Similar is the case with the historic speech of Oct.19th on Synodality, decentralization and inverted pyramid Church. None of them want to come down from the high thrones on which they are seated as Beatitudes, Eminences, Graces, Archbishops, and Bishops Etc. Just think of at least two Indian Bishops who cling on to their to be called “Archbishop” and justify it on some flimsy ground, since the real solid basis is to have a suffragan diocese under them, which they don’t have. Compare them to the self empting demanded of them and all of us by St. Paul (Phili.2.6-12). As for them let them at least listen to the call of Jesus to Zacheus: “Come down from the tree top if you wish salvation for your house hold.”
Listen to Cardinal Newman
Still if you need more arguments to be convinced, please recall Cardinal Newman and his teaching on the development of doctrine and the role of consulting the faithful on matters of faith. And I had the temerity to choose “The Doctrinal Mission (teaching mission) of the laity in the Church,” as the topic for my doctoral dissertation in Rome. Have the laity in Francis’ Church any role in the teaching authority? There was when I did the dissertation under Pope John XXIII. What the Bangalore Meet teaches is that the Indian Bishops don’t believe they have anything to learn from the laity on matters of faith.
The theme of the conference is said to be: “The Response of the Church in India to the Present Day Challenges.” Who in India is in the thick of the battle with these challenges and fully aware of the socio-economic, religio-cultural and politics for profit or common good issues? The man on the street (lay people) or clergy in their rectories and Episcopal palaces?
It is something like old celibates discussing sexuality in the family and of the newly wed. Yet how many lay experts in various secular issues are attending this meeting? It is an open secret that 99 % of the clergy stop reading and studying after their ordinations. They assume they are good for any post — which some interpret to mean “good for nothing” — and they make a mess of any office where expertise and professionalism are needed. Where are lay experts at this meeting? What are the identified Challenges in the Church in India today? At least half a dozen of them they could have named. We have not heard what challenges they have in mind because you can’t jump on a horse and gallop in all directions but only in one predetermined direction.
Why no Press allowed in?
There are many more things to be discussed in connection with the CBCI meet. Why for example the press is not allowed entry to report, not even the so-called Catholic press known as the “Masters’ Voice” or the “Caged Bird”. During the New Leader times of old it was allowed and it was always a free bird, never a caged one, nor a Master’s voice. Was the Church in India wrong then and right now ever since the notorious CBCI meet in Palai?
People hide things only when they have things to hide, when they have shameful things (bedroom scenes are not for public display) or criminal scheming and plotting to harm or exploit people. Still a lot of sexual exploits of Red hats as well as money laundering and profiteering by them are on public display now. We read today about the over 300 saintly love letters of a Pope John Paul II. Some are racking their brains to find the distinction between his relationship to a married lady which described them as “more than friends and less than lovers” and why those letters were sent through courier sisters and had to be purchased at a price with seven digits. One good thing he did was delivering Poland from Communism, but people are wondering how much money he had to pump in and where he got those huge sums.
In any case Bishops in Bangalore are not indulging in any such things for certain. The open door policy of Pope Francis and the closed door policy of Indian bishops cannot long survive in today’s world of instant internet connection, trans-national dialogues and transparency international.
Francis’ pet comparison of the Church today has always been to a field hospital after a bloody murderous war. His pastors – bishops, priests, sisters, brothers etc – are supposed to be busy with saving the dying and mortally wounded. Looking at the Bangalore CBCI meet, it looks like a meeting of Generals, without any army at their command. What can these Generals alone do in the battle field? So let us sing with gusto the song: “Generals in their cosy comfort must ‘reason why’ while foot soldiers (laity) in the rough and tumble of battle field must do and die daily like flies in the fire.” Sorry for you Laity, though you are today going around sporting the honorific title: “Church Citizens,” all thanks to Pope Francis.
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Shri Isaac Gomes from Kolkatta wrote:
Regarding the 180+ Bishops holding closed-door meeting totally excluding the Laity except Retired Justice Joseph Cyriac, the fact is as rightly pointed out, the Indian Bishops are absolutely arrogant and care two hoots about the Pope who shouts from the rooftop for CONVERSION. I do not know whether the Pope realises that Conversion is first needed among his Bishops and Cardinals who are stone-deaf to the Laity.
Dr Kottoor is right in saying that time has come for the Laity to say no to the Bishops just as the Bishops are continuously saying no the laity.
The British did not relinquish power or independence to the Indians because of Gandhiji’s non-violent methods. It was Subhas Chandra Bose’s direct action coupled with the revolutionary methods of the Bengal Movement that shook them from the core and forced them to agree to India’s freedom. Similarly, all the pleadings to the Bishops / Archbishop’s will fall on deaf ears only. We know from our experience in the Archdiocese of Calcutta where not a single pressing issue has been addressed by the present Archbishop. Everything has been swept under the carpet, with the support of a crony laity leaders who are put on all committees (whether it is the Catholic Teachers’ Guild or Catholic Association of Bengal or Women’s Group) to ensure that the Laity is maimed and made lame.
The Archbishop does not even care to respond to emails or correspondences. The same behaviour is replicated by almost all bishops and you have a CBCI which though it prides itself in having a Social Communications Commission, in effect does everything to BLUNT communication.
No wonder, Laity is kept out of the latest deliberations and because it believes in being too polite and civil (unlike the Bengal revolutionaries), they are left with nothing but lick their wounds!
Will Justice Cyriac do some little justice by telling the Bishops without Laity participation such high power deliberations are meaningless and will turn into powder (ash) soon!!
(Note: It is the Biennial meet of all Catholic Bishops of India, which includes all three Rites: Latin, Syromalabar and Syromalankara. Together they make up 170 dioceses. Since the number of bishops are made up of retired and auxiliary bishops, total number of bishops exceed 180 in number. The report says more than that number is meeting in Bangalore from March 2 to 9. The main theme of the meeting is: “The Response of the Church in India to the Present Day Challenges.” One of the out-of-the-ordinary happenings at this conference is the invited presence of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington as the chief guest on the occasion and Justice Cyriac Joseph to give the keynote address. They are welcome developments. The rather unwelcome aspect seems to be lack of advance publicity not given for such a national Catholic event in the country. Await more comments on: “why and how?” james kottoor, editor)