Time Church opened its heart and purse to Ockhi victims
By Ajith Lawrence
Thiruvananthapuram: The sound of wailing and weeping of thousands of Latin Catholics now fills the coastal areas of India’s southern peninsula where the Ockhi Cyclone wreaked havoc recently.
More than 50 fishermen, almost all of them Latin Catholics, were killed and nearly 300 went missing even a week after gale and rain ravaged the region on November 30.
Overnight, thousands of fishermen’s children have become destitute and many women widows. The children’s education has stopped abruptly. Besides the loss of lives and livelihood, many fishermen hamlets have been washed away. The few that remain are uninhabitable as they are irrecoverably damaged. Families are forced to seek shelter at government schools after losing houses and belongings
Various estimates put the loss suffered by the Kerala fishermen at more than 2 billion rupees. The worst affected are the poor fishermen who are members of the Latin Catholic Church.
So, this is the time for the Church in India, especially in Kerala, to walk its talk of charity and service. But unfortunately, the Church leadership has failed to rise to the occasion.
Most affected areas are under the Trivandrum Latin archdiocese. It is true that parish priests of the affected areas led by the archdiocese’s vicar general now bargain with the federal and state governments for enhanced compensation for the victims.
When the cyclone hit Kerala, Archbishop Maria Calist Soosa Pakiam of Trivandrum was on a visit to United Arab Emirates to open a branch of the Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council there. So, the vicar general assumed the role of the spokesperson for the poor fisher folk who have lost their relatives and livelihood in the cyclone.
However, it seems none from the victims’ families or their community leaders had asked the Church leaders to solicit for them with the governments.
While the priests bargained with the governments, the fishermen lamented that none of the wounded in the devilish tide were admitted to the archdiocese’s super-specialty hospital situated hardly 5 km from the coastal area.
Cardinal Baselios Mar Cleemis, head of the Syro-Malankara Church, visited some cyclone affected areas and expressed concern for the victims. The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC) organized a condolence meeting for the dead and express concern for the missing. A requiem Mass for the cycle victims was offered at the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Ransom, Vallarpadam, Kochi. There ended the gestures of sympathy from the ecclesial section for the fishermen community.
The general public who have visited the affected areas to express their sympathy dismiss the Church leaders’ pressure tactics and threats against the governments as just ‘crocodile tears.’
If the Church hierarchy were sincere to the fisherfolk, they say, it would have reached out to the victims through distribution of food packets, finding alternative livelihood means for them or releasing funds to recover the loss and repair damaged fishing equipment.
What the hierarchy now does is to make demands to the governments and threaten to take out protest marches in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram.
What is ironical is the Church’s reluctance to open its heart and purse strings to help the Ockhi Cyclone victims.
At the time of writing this – nine after the cyclone — the fisher community is starving. The survivors say no aid has come from the Church in the form of material or comforting words.
It’s high time the Church reversed its “Pay-and-Pray” policy applied to the faithful until now. Before seeking funds from the government and other sources, let the Church open its collection bags and donation boxes for the cyclone survivors.
Only the naïve will believe the Church in Kerala is poor. Majority of its faithful may be poor, but the institutional Church has immense wealth in the form of bank balances and assets. What is the use of such wealth if the Church does not use it for its suffering people?
Is it too much to make such a request? No. After all, the wealth that the Church now possesses has come from its faithful. The people, mostly poor fishermen, contribute generously for the upkeep of their ecclesial leaders. When they are in need, the men in habit do not bother, they now bemoan.
It is a fact that the poorest among the Catholics in Kerala is the fishermen community. Compared to other Christian communities, both Catholic and non-Catholic, the Latin Catholic church is reckoned to be poor.
However, it has like other Christian communities aided schools and colleges and super speciality hospitals and self-finance colleges, besides various profit making institutions.
This is also time for other Christian communities to show that they care for their ailing Latin Catholic brethren. The Syro-Malabar and Malankara Catholic Churches that are powerful both financially and politically would set a great example if they come forward to do the charity they preach. Such a gesture would go a long way to restore lost the lives and livelihood of the suffering poor fishermen community.
Roy Mathew, a senior journalist who has visited the cyclone affected areas, says if such a mishap had happened to other rich Christian denominations in Kerala, all bishops and priests would have stood up together to raise maximum support to their people.
Mathew recalled a 2014 case involving a finance company belonging to a family of the Orthodox Church. The company was accused of constructing a hospitality resort in Alapuzha district at the cost of 2 billion rupees after reclaiming a lake. The Supreme Court found that the construction was done in blatant violation of environmental laws, and ordered its demolition. To circumvent the apex court order, around 25 bishops from various denominations, along with some political leaders, pressured the federal and state governments to waive the court order under some pretext or other. The involvement of bishops raised the question why the celestial authorities were interested in a private individual venture.
Whenever natural calamities hit farmers engaged in rubber plantation and agriculture cultivation bishops issue pastoral letters to consolidate the faithful to demand compensation and stage protests. Even KCBC has issued letters read in all churches, including in Latin rite, that appealed for help for the farmers who claim to be high caste Christians.
But no such move has happened so far in the case of the poor Latin rite fisherfolk.
Their incessant wailing and sobbing rise to heaven but fall on ecclesiastical deaf ears.
(Ajith Lawrence is senior journalist based at Thiruvananthapuram)