By Varghese Alengaden
Indore, Jan. 7, 2019: Whenever I speak about Father Augustine Vattoly, a vast majority of nuns and priests react very negatively. They say that he is a rebel priest who made a group of young nuns to come out of the convent walls to protest in the street against a bishop who allegedly raped a nun for several times.
The nuns opted for public protest when all their efforts to get justice from the Church authorities failed. Father Vattoly led the protest which was supported by several groups of activists from all walks of life.The protest continued until the police arrested the accused bishop and sent him to jail.
The argument of priests and nuns, who neither know the authenticity of Father Vattoly nor the realities behind the case, is that he made the young nuns to expose the Church and its internal conflicts to the public. None of these nuns and priests are aware of the numerous appeals the victim made to the various Church authorities explaining the minute details of the repeated rape and atrocities by the accused bishop.
Without knowing the facts priests and religious judge the victim of exploitation and oppression. After studying the case with all aspects, Father Vattoly made a prophetic and proactive response risking his own security.
I had the opportunity to meet and work closely with many fearless and radical social activists in different parts of our country and many priests and nuns who work with the poor and marginalized sections of society. They are sincere in their efforts to build a society where everyone enjoys freedom, justice and human dignity.
Some of them involve in people’s struggle and were arrested and imprisoned several times. Yet neither politicians nor police could destroy their indomitable spirit and passion for their mission. When I came to know Father Vattoly I was wonder struck by his commitment, clarity of mission, courage and deep spirituality.
Like Jesus he challenges political and religious leaders of their corruption, immorality and exploitation of the weaker sections. I have not seen a spiritual and prophetic Catholic priest who can match Father Vattoly in his clarity and total commitment to his mission — the mission of Christ, whom he follows.
During the interactions I made an effort to know more about this extraordinary prophetic priest and the secret behind the clarity and courage which he speaks and acts. His vision of life and spirituality emerged from direct experience of socio-political context and constant contemplation based on the life and teachings of Christ.
He encountered God in the oppression and exploitation which the weaker sections of the society suffered at the hands of those who controlled political and economic structures. Seeing the poor in the slums and villages he asks, ‘Who made them poor?’
He questions the development at the cost of human beings and destruction of nature. He also realized that the religion which is expected to protect the poor and the exploited only add their burden.
He was clear about his role as a disciple of Christ to “be a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:4) to “bear lasting fruits” (Jn. 15: 15). He was clear that Christ neither founded a cultic religion to drug people with numerous rituals nor an imperial institution with a hierarchical structure to brain wash and enslave them.
Rejecting all the cultic practices and oppressive laws of the institutional Jewish religion, he established a spiritual movement with one law of “loving one another.” He envisaged a society without distinctions where everyone enjoys freedom, equality, justice, dignity and peace.
Prophets are not born. They are made, often self made through personal efforts responding to the grace of God. Born of pious Catholic parents in Kadukutty village in Kerala on July 21, 1971, Vattoly studied in an ordinary village school. He was not an extraordinary student.
He had his seminary studies in Kerala, Poonamallee (Chennai) and Aluva. As any other young priest he did pastoral works in parishes after his priestly ordination in 1998. He opted to work in Attappady, a remote hilly tribal area in Palakkad district for two years before taking up the office of coordinator of ‘Sarathi’, an organization of taxi drivers from 2002 to 2006.
Right from his days in the seminary, Father Vattoly was inspired by the teachings of prophetic personalities who made a difference in society. Not satisfied by the routine pastoral and social activities, he looked for more challenging and meaningful mission. After eight years of routine priestly ministry, he decided to travel and learn from the book of life.
The turning point in his life was when he opted to travel across the country to know about living conditions of people in the villages and slums of India in 2006. It was a journey to discover the soul of India.
During those three months, he stayed 22 days in Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai, the biggest in Asia. Seeing the poverty and misery of people there he questioned, “Who made these people poor?” He moved on to experience the life of people in the interior villages of northern India. He stayed in the villages of Madhya Pradesh for 23 days. He also visited all the Northeastern states and learned the living conditions of people there.
Although initially he was inclined to opt to work in the North Indian missions he was not fascinated by the life and work done by the clergy and religious. He had the opportunity to meet and live with prophetic persons like Swami Sadanand and DayaBai.
After returning to Kerala he plunged into social movements and started taking part in the struggles and strikes to protect the rights of the marginalized people and environment. The first among them was Moolampally protest in 2008 where government was displacing 326 families to construct Vallarpadam container terminus, for railway line and road construction.
His sustained effort to the struggle made the archbishops and priests of Ernakulam-Angamaly and Verapoly to intervene in the issue. The United Democratic Front government declared the “Moolampally package” as a result of the struggle which secured the evictees the value of the land, alternate land in the district and other benefits.
Struggle for land rights for Dalits in Chengara
The second struggle was in Chengara in Pathanamthitta district. It was for the land rights for Dalits. Around ,7000 Dalits were mobilized for this one year long struggle by Laha Gopalan. Though many social organizations expressed their solidarity none of the political parties came to support the dalits.
The landless Dalits were demanding their right to live in a large area of government land which was allotted to a private company and was unused for a long time. They organized several welfare programs such as organic farming in that land.
At last, the government was forced to allot the land for five hundred Dalit families, each getting an acre of land for cultivation and livelihood. Thus the one year struggle of landless Dalit families resulted in success. Father Vattoly was highly instrumental in bringing the struggle to the public attention. He also provided support in mobilizing food items, medical aid and financial help to the Dalit families at Chengara.
Koodamkulam (Tamil Nadu)
Father Vattoly did not limit himself to Kerala alone. He reached out to all places where people fought for their rights. He joined the struggle of people at the site of the nuclear power plant at Koodamkulam in neighboring Tamil Nadu. It was a fight against the displacement and security of 30,000 people. It was a fight against the securing life of people, sea, air and land from nuclear pollution for thousands of years. Although the project could not be stopped assurance was given not to start any such nuclear projects anywhere in the country.
NBA in Madhya Pradesh and IromSharmila (Manipur)
Father Vattoly also reached Barwani in Madhya Padesh to express solidarity with Medha Patkar and thousands of villagers during the 25th anniversary of ‘Narmada Bachao Andholan’ in 2008. He travelled with 150 people from Kerala to join this event. He also reached Manipur to express solidarity with the activist Irom Sharmila,when she entered the tenth year of fasting against the military atrocities.
This was against the multinational company Coca Cola which had polluted the wells and rivers with chemical waste. Water in several wells and rivers nearbywas polluted. The company was consuming 1.5 million liters of water a day, which was more than the permitted quantity. Although the plant was forced to close down in 2004, Fr. Vattoly led the struggle for getting compensation to the affected people.
When the government was not listening to the demands of people they encroached the land of Coca Cola company. Police arrested 22 people including Fr. Vattoly and they were sent to jail. They fasted for three days in jail. This forced government and political parties to discuss and settle the issue before it escalated.
Adivasi Nilpu Samaram 2013 (protest of tribals by standing at the Kerala state secretariat)
This was a struggle to get the forest right act of tribals (PESA) implemented. As per Indian Constitution, tribals have the right to administer their area. But it was not implemented by any government. The struggle was organized by Adivasi Gotra Maha Sabha.
Fr. Vattoly joined them and helped to organize the struggle in all parts of the state. A group of 25 people stood full time in front of the secretariat. This continued for 162 days, different people taking turns. In different parts of the state, large number of people stood in solidarity with those who stood in front of the state secretariat.
Keralites living in other countries also stood in solidarity with the tribals. The solidarity of people standing in different parts caught the media attention and support for the struggle.
The struggle tasted victory when the government accepted all their demands. Several welfare activities were organized for the tribals such as non formal education centers in different tribal settlements, medical camps and other activities. A trust, Aadisarga, was formed for the sustainable development of tribals.
Father Vattoly was instrumental in getting the support of Cardinal Alencherry and other bishops extending public support to the struggle. Church officials, priests, religious, seminarians, artistes, youth and students took part in the protests held in various parts of the state.
Padayatra from Kasargod to Thiruvananthapuram
This was a long walk through the whole of Kerala state to create awareness among people and farmers in the western ghat area about the environmental damage as per Gadgil Committee report. The report was opposed by a group of people. A group of fifty people always walked. Thousands of people joined at different places. The Church personnel also joined the walk and supported the efforts of Fr. Vattoly. The long walk succeeded in creating awareness and remove misunderstanding of people and anti-people forces working in government departments.
Protest against Periyar river pollution
This struggle was against the industrial pollution of river Periyar, the source of water for 3.5 million people. More than 240 factories were polluting the river. The industrialists were furious. Their argument was that the factories provide jobs for people and generate revenue for the state. They did not realize that due to pollution more than 20,000 fishermen lost their jobs since steep downfall in fish catch.
Father Vattoly led the protest march of more than 10,000 people in Ernakulam city demanding the closure of more than 80 odd red category factories which caused the worst water pollution. Cardinal George Alencherry inaugurated the weeklong protest strike at Ernakulam, while Archbishop Joseph Kalathiparambil inaugurated the concluding function at the Marine Drive. Irom Sharmila was the chief guest for the function.
This protest not only created awareness against industrial pollution but also the industries were forced to mend their ways. This struggle was led under the banner of an organization CORAL (Collective for Right to Live).
Prophetic stand against corruption within the Church
Father Vattoly had full support and blessings of the Church authorities when he was leading various protests against injustice done to people by the government and industries. The priests and bishops spoke with great pride that one of their priests was doing a prophetic mission for the people.
However, when he started his prophetic mission against the corruption inside the Church they labeled him a rebel. Together with several priests in Ernakulam–Angamaly Archdiocese, Father Vattoly confronted Cardinal George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church and archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, about the financial irregularities in land deals. It was a matter of loss of several millions of rupees in a shady sale of land belonging to the archdiocese. Despite producing documents of sale of land and loss of millions of rupees neither the cardinal nor other bishops were humble to accept the mistakes.
Instead, deliberate plans were made to defame Father Vattoly and his team through social media by a group of people loyal to the hierarchy for their vested interests. As prophets are not afraid of any consequences, Father Vattoly and team succeeded in convincing the Vatican, which acted against the cardinal.
Even though Cardinal Alencherry’s wings were clipped, he does control with remote control. A lobby is active to spread negative publicity against Father Vattoly and team to create confusion among laity and religious. Innocent Catholics and ignorant women religious consider the cardinal as a martyr and Father Vattoly and his team as villains.
That is the plight of any prophet who stands for truth. Genuine prophets cannot be silenced. People who are intoxicated with power and wealth do not realize this truth.
Protest by nuns (Save Our Sisters – SOS)
The public protest in front of the High Court of Kerala by five nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus, crying for justice and dignity was a land mark not only in the history of the Church in India, but of the whole world. It is common for priests and nuns to publish books criticizing corruption and scandal in the Church after leaving their consecrated. What the nuns have done is to protest in the street, while remaining within the convent, against the sex crimes of a powerful Catholic bishop.
It was unfortunate that the helpless nuns were forced to go to the police and protest against a bishop, because they were denied justice by Church authorities. Those who accuse the nuns for going public should find out how many times the victim of sexual abuse knocked at the doors of various Church authorities. Their indifference and inaction forced them to report the matter to the police. Due to political influence and money power when the police was not acting fast, some lay activists motivated the nuns to protest in public.
When Father Vattoly who was alerted about the issue, he realized that the nuns’ genuine struggle could be misused by vested interests. It was then he got involved in theprotest. As a prophet who does not count the cost, he joined the nuns’ struggle. When a Catholic priest with credibility like Vattoly took up the leadership of the protest, several organizations and activists from all walks of life and faith came expressing solidarity.
The protest was named, ‘Save Our Sisters’-SOS. As the protest progressed, large number of women and men from all walks of life, came expressing their solidarity with the nuns. Some persons voluntarily started indefinite fasting at the protest stage. More than 200 people were present at the protest site at a time. There were social activists, Catholic priests, nuns, men and women from all faiths, film actors, lawyers, authors, journalists and a retired high court judge.
Media, both national and international, were present full time covering the events. The public protest of a group of nuns caught the attention of the whole world.
Everyone had one single question: How did the nuns who are usually silent, obedient and suffering silently all kinds of oppression became bold to come out to raise their voice against a powerful bishop in the Catholic Church?
This has never happened even in Europe or America where feminism and women empowerment movements are active. The nuns who were protesting belonged to a small diocesan congregation completely under the control of the accused bishop.
The nuns and priests who doubt the genuineness of the case and defend the bishop do not make any serious analysis to know the truth behind the issue. The journalists, retired judges and activists did not spend their time, energy and money without studying the genuineness of the whole issue.
The depressing fact is the silence of the bishops of India. None of them have the prophetic courage to speak out. Some are defending the accused bishop. Some popular retreat preachers, who run the ‘religious industry’ in the Church, have gone all out to defend the accused bishop. They present the whole issue as deliberate attack on the Church by evil forces and present the accused bishop as a living martyr. Some dioceses and institutions have printed full size photo of the accused bishop on their publications.
The Church authorities who were earlier proud of Father Vattoly now started issuing warning letters to him threatening punitive action. Father Vattoly who is rooted in Christ and his mission was not afraid of any consequences. He is preparing himself for bigger struggles.
The media and people who know the sincerity of this saintly priest are standing firmly behind his prophetic mission. “We need to pay the price and go ahead without looking for fruits. God will do the rest,” are the words this prophet repeats often.
The Church leadership which has drifted away from the way of Christ cannot see the dangers ahead of them. They travel to Europe often, but have not learned lessons from the empty churches and convents there. They fail to understand the meaning of what Jesus said two thousand years ago, “Put the new wine in new wineskins; if you put the new wine in the old wineskin, the wineskin will be broken and wine will be wasted.”
Those who preach repentance to simple people refuse to repent and return to the way of Christ. Instead of acting as good shepherds, they become thieves and remain stumbling blocks in the way of God’s mission.
Father Vattoly usually works behind and do not wish to get publicity. Only during the protest of nuns he led the struggle from the front to give a message that a Catholic priest is in the front line in the fight against a bishop.
This gave greater credibility to the protest because there were many agitations in the past against the Church by many secular people and political organizations. Father Vattoly deliberately took the risk with clear conscience to give a clear message. The Church has to be cleansed by prophets from within.
The Church needs many more prophets like Father Vattoly to liberate people who are oppressed and exploited. When will the consecrated men and women in India who are more than 100,000 in number awaken to their genuine call of God and act to reform the Church?
(Father Varghese Alengaden is the founder of the Universal Solidarity Movement of Value Education for Peace, an NGO centered on developing enlightened leadership, responsible citizenship, and promoting harmony among religions and ethnic groups.)