By Jose Kavi
Kochi: The Church in India heaved a sigh of relief on March 23 when the bishops and priests of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese in Kerala agreed to resolve their differences amicably.
A controversy over the sale of Church land pitted Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, against the priests of the Ernakulam archdiocese. Kerala, where the Syro-Malabar Church is based, witnessed scandalous incidents such as lay people approaching courts for the cardinal’s arrest and priests in their cassocks demonstrating in streets. The priests accused the cardinal of lack of transparency and misleading the Presbyteral council.
The controversy also went beyond the confines of the archdiocese threatening to polarize the Oriental Catholic rite into pro-cardinal and anti-cardinal groups. The warring groups finally agreed to peacefully settle the matter after the heads of two “Sister Churches” in Kerala — Latin and Syro-Malankara rites – volunteered to mediate. Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, head of the Malankara Church, and Archbishop Maria Calist Soosa Pakiam, president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, met with the two warring groups five times to reach a solution.
Matters India spoke to Father Paul Thelakat, editor of the Sathyadeepam weekly and one of senior priests of Ernakulam-Angamaly, about the controversy.
MATTERS INDIA: What happened at the meeting with Cardinal Cleemis and Archbishop Pakiam?
FATHER PAUL THELAKAT: Since the archbishop [Cardinal George Alencherry] has taken a positive and confessional attitude on the issue, the priests have welcomed it and took a forward step to march together. It does not mean that all problems are settled but we will go forward and try to settle issues together. What the heads of the Sister Churches proposed and suggested, we did not want to reject. They have really understood the ground realities and the permanent synod [Syro-Malabar Church] has taken steps in view of the things happened. The Presbyteral Council did not want to punish any one. Insisting to reject the proposals will become an attitude of animosity and rancor which will not be Christian at all. We are not led by animosity. We are a family and will settle issues as such. We have apprehensions but we must go forward.
Has the land sale row been resolved? Will there be peace in the archdiocese?
I hope that we are on the path of resolution and peace.
How will this controversy impact the Church’s mission in India?
It concerns the participatory dimension of the Church. The leaders of the Church have to heed to the voices of the stipulated councils and bodies while taking decisions of governess of the Church. This is a lamentation of a situation where there was not only great loss of wealth but also loss of communion within the Church. It was a struggle to establish a participatory Church; it applies to everyone in the Church. The Church cannot be reduced to hegemony of one language or one voice but a communion of different tongues and languages. God came down to Babel not to establish monological system but a polyphonic way where there is dialogue creating understanding and agreement ending up in communion
How long will it take for the Church to recover its lost image?
Internal crisis and conflict of ideals do not make a tragedy. It was an incident where the priests and people wanted a theologically founded worldliness. It was call and cry for value-based dealing of secular affairs of the Church. The churning within the Church has come to an understanding of the importance of confession within the Church. It is ending in re-establishing the communion with Christ and His gospel upheld. We are a confessing Church — always sinful and always reforming.
Will this churning help the ancient Church emerge as the real body of Christ?
In a Church, mutual understanding and communion is created by celebratory dialogue which allows for unusual combinations of the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid. The laws of the Church pave the way for such communion of understanding of each other. All understanding is a fusion of horizons: Understanding is primarily agreement. We expect a more transparent Church emerging in dioceses, parishes and monasteries.
Do you see any significance that the controversy was played out during Lent?
Lent symbolizes temptation of the ego and the finding within the abode of Christ. The retreat is a matter of daily examination of conscience. What has happened is a friction within communion, it was not a rupture. St Augustine said, “If I fall, I am.” Only in sin the ego exists as independent, otherwise there is agreement of understanding in communion which comes from confession.
How will this controversy impact the move to make the Church patriarchal?
The incidents in the church need not any way interfere with patriarchal status and the procedures.
Last question: Why did the Ernakulam priests take out a protest rally in public? Didn’t they lose many sympathizers after they came to streets in cassocks?
As I understand the priests gathered in St Mary’s Basilica Hall and after a prolonged discussion came to the church, prayed for the assassinated priest Father Xavier Thelakat. Then they simply went to the archbishop’s house. There was no shouting of slogans or carrying of banners or anything. Unfortunately the media branded it as protest march. In fact they had concluded to present two demands to the bishop. One: conduct an inquiry on the circumstances of the murder of Fr. Xavier in Malayattoor and the character assassination that followed in social media. Second, the cardinal step down until the court cleared him.
Accordingly, the secretary of the Presbyteral Council conducted a press conference in the Archbishop’s House. I understand that the priests in general were upset on the propaganda that those who raised the issue were rebel priests, but the fact is that except a handful of priests the vast majority of priests were of the same view. The walk proved it. But such a walk to the archbishop’s house was interpreted as protest march.
How many protest marches were seen in Kerala’s streets by priests in cassocks, may be against liquor policy, to protect rivers, on human rights violations, against attacks to Christian institutions. A public criticism against a cardinal really shocks the faithful for it breaks a revered idol. It is also very painful for priests as well. A prophetic protest also has its place when closed door dialogues fail to address the issues. When silence and secrecy suffocate truth there will be lamentation in the streets as Jesus on the way of the cross.