By Jacob Peenikaparambil
When BJP conquered the North Eastern states of Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya in the assembly elections, I had written an article in the Indian Currents in March this year under the title, “Reinvent or Become Irrelevant.”
After watching on TV the humiliating scenes after the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal in Kochi in a sex abuse case, I felt ashamed of the nauseating image of the Church. Is not the Church in India racing towards irrelevance because of its omissions and commissions?
When Bishop Mulakkal was brought to the government thaluka hospital, Thrippunithura in civil dress, hundreds of people gathered there shouted at him. They were venting their anger not only against the bishop, but also against the mute and insensitive Church leadership. When a bishop visits any parish in Kerala he is welcomed like a king. The contrast between the two scenarios reflects the change of perception of people about the Church.
For more than two weeks the media, especially TV channels in Kerala, aired people’s anger against the Church leadership’s lethargy and wilful silence and the Kerala government’s slowness in handling the case. One particular channel described the silence of the bishops, archbishops and cardinals as a crime. Because of their silence they were siding with the accused, it said.
Many intellectuals who spoke on the occasion pointed out the reasons for the dirt within the Church. The Church has been focusing on building opulent worship centers, palatial houses for bishops and clergy and starting commercial ventures under the guise of service institutions. In this process it forfeited its patrimony, spirituality and the legacy of Jesus Christ. One TV anchor said, “If Jesus comes today he may take something else in his hands instead of a whip to cleanse the Church.”
What was witnessed in Kerala during the last two weeks was a people’s movement against gross injustice to womanhood. People of Kerala have proved again that they can transcend the barriers of religions, caste and class and work together not only for flood relief, but also to fight against injustice.
It was really amazing to see ordinary citizens, film stars, social activists, journalists, lawyers, priests and nuns supporting the protest by the nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus Congregation for protecting the dignity of their sister who was abused, harassed and persecuted. Seven persons voluntarily took to fasting as a part of the protest to express their solidarity with the victim of sexual abuse. They fasted not for themselves but for the cause of a woman who was abused and they are genuinely spiritual persons.
Why are the members of the Church, particularly nuns, forced to approach the civil courts of the country? Why is not justice available within the Church? The Njarackal sisters failed to get justice within the Church, but the judicial system of the country delivered justice to them. The nun of MJ Congregation failed to get response from the Church authorities, although she had approached a good number of them, including the nuncio, Pope’s representative in India.
The Church has a governance system in which the legislative, executive and judicial powers are concentrated in the same person, the bishop. There is no apex body in India to which the members of the Church can appeal. One has to appeal to Rome and Rome moves very slowly when a lay person, or priest or a nun approaches it. Even getting an acknowledgement of a complaint to the Vatican is very rare. Such a system cannot deliver justice. It has to change.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India is to be reorganized with representatives from all stakeholders of the Church and strengthened in such a way that there should be an independent body under it to receive and decide on complaints against the bishops and major superiors of religious congregations in India.
The governance at the diocesan level is to be made participatory, transparent and accountable. The bishops are to be made accountable to the Pastoral Councils, consisting of the representatives of lay women and men, priests and women and men religious.
Similarly the apex bodies of the Church at the regional and national levels should have representatives of lay women and men, priests and women and men religious. There has to be a movement on the part of the laity to transform the Church into participatory Church. Lack of transparency and accountability often leads to corrupt practices in any organization. The early Christian community had participatory readership. The Church has to go back to its roots.
The most important reason for the woes of the Church and the increasing number of scandals is that bishops, priests and women and men religious have drifted away from the way of Jesus. Jesus has called them to become his disciples by following his way of an all- inclusive love and service. They are called by Jesus to become servants and stewards; but unfortunately they have become owners and masters.
Secondly, instead of following Jesus, they made him an object of worship and built around it a very complicated system that is exploitative, oppressive and commercial. Religiosity, consisting of rituals, prayers, devotions, pilgrimages has replaced spirituality that focuses on the practice of values and teachings of Jesus.
The mushrooming retreat centers are enslaving the innocent faithful with the drug of religiosity and in this process their creativity and scientific temper are destroyed. Guilt and depression, blind obedience and superstitions are promoted by the aggressive preachers of these centers. The capacity and courage to question injustice and discrimination on the part of authorities are being killed by the religiosity injected by these centers and their preachers.
The bishops and major superiors of religious congregations not only encourage priests and women religious to participate in the retreats conducted by these centers, but also often compel their subjects to frequent these centers.
What is urgently required is returning to the way of Jesus rooted in forgiveness, reconciliation, justice, equality, freedom, compassion and creativity. Let the leaders in the Church listen to Prophet Amos and follow what he says:
“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let Justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” (Amos 2: 21-24)
As one understands from the Gospels, Jesus went to pray to the mountains and lonely places and not to the temple or any worship center. In fact, he had an appointment with God, the Father and himself. That is how Jesus discerned the will of God, got inspiration, insights and courage.
The leaders as well as the members of the Church also have to resort to contemplation instead of routine prayers and complicated rituals that do not help one to grow in spirituality.
Reinventing the Church by following the way of Jesus and bringing about a paradigm shift from religiosity to spirituality is urgently needed to restore its credibility and make it relevant.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)