By Jose Vallikatt
Dear Bishops and elders of the Christian churches of India,
While in this week the Catholic Church is commemorating the feast of its great saint Francis of Assisi, the prophet of peace, I am more compelled than inspired to write this letter to you with an undying hope that you would do something urgently.
It was spiritually disturbing to see church circles fuming by the alleged news of Christian girls being allured by some boys of another religion through feigned love. It’s our great pastoral responsibility and challenge to keep the flock undispersed and feed them with the best spiritual and material food so that they would joyfully sing and worship our Lord’s magnificent work done for the humanity as well as for themselves.
Church’s daring witness
In a very globalized and multi-cultural world, where the purpose and the efficacy of religions are questioned day by day, I believe that our living witness to the person of Christ in the Church he purchased paying his own blood, has inspired millions of people to find solace and consolation at the face of despair and disasters.
Church has been a harbour of hope for many, a haven for the distressed, and a spot to shed all their anguishes and anxieties of daily life. Thousands of people from other religious affinities have also perceived Christ and church as a refuge where they can unpack their metaphysical and existential worries. This has always been the esteemed tradition of the Church over the past 2000 years.
Nonetheless, it is well known that Christianity did not have a smooth journey. Right from its inception church had been targeted physically and ideologically. It had been thrashed in the apostolic times, in the early centuries, during Islamic conquests, and even in modern periods.
The 20th century witnessed great physical and ideological persecution under fascists and communist regimes. The Nazis suppressed the Church in Germany and Catholic Poland while the Communists repressed Christianity in Eastern Europe. Christianity is still being persecuted in Communists countries such as North Korea, and China; Islamist regimes such as Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Our own country India is also not so amicable to Christianity. Some of the severe most violent persecutions against Christians have been recorded in some North Indian States.
However, what differentiated Christians from other religious traditions across the globe over these 2 millennia was that they endured the persecutions by absolutely relying on the protection and providence of God rather than retaliation in the same tone.
Although hundreds of people were butchered and still continue to be in various parts of the world, they demonstrate great resilience as well as authentic witness to Christian Way during tribulations.
Pastoral care and encouragement
Troubles did not deter Christians to abandon the path they had chosen. Paul reminds of the apostolic times that his imprisonment and suffering did not hinder the gospel, instead furthered it (Phil. 1:12-26). In the early centuries many people, Justine the martyr and Polycarp for instance, defended the church risking their life.
The role of pastors during the times of tribulations was emulating. They held the flock together in love, and encouraged them to hold on to faith. The apologists defended its foundations with superb biblical, theological and moral articulations. The believers overcame the persecutions through their unsurpassable witness to love, mercy, forgiveness and suffering.
We thank God for choosing us to be born in this most beautiful land and bestowing us with the Christian call through the apostolic work of St. Thomas and later through other missionaries. Christian strongholds in South India and North East have been extremely safe for Christians as the larger community is erudite, and promote social cohesion and harmony. God blessed the church to play a greater social role especially in the areas of education, health care and social empowerment through works of charity and mercy.
There is no reason to fear any organised and violent attack on Church with the intention of destroying it, though the community was morally and socially targeted in the recent decades. Christian institutions were pressurised by its jealous counterparts such as the materialists who dreamed of its extinction.
In such situations the Church had responded to these situations with great sense of solidarity, faith in the democratic systems and through Christian approaches. To my knowledge it never lost temper.
Imagined fear and illusory enemy
The developments and responses in the recent times nevertheless, are very disturbing and alarming. The hierarchy and certain section of priests and laymen, it seems, are intimidated by the reactions and responses emerging in the socio-cultural sphere.
The hierarchy fears that it has been targeted by the rationalists as well as the atheists, and the extremist elements in other religions. It also has alienated the media as they highlighted some unbecoming developments within ecclesial establishments.
It has gone to the extent of calling these elements as anti-Christian. The communiques from the office of the hierarchy allege that the Church is under constant and coordinated attack creating an atmosphere of suspicion, fear and threat.
What surprises me is that in defending the church, the hierarchy and some lay people who hold key positions in the church have terribly been panicked and lost their temper that they constantly use the language of animosity, fear and otherness.
The most recent trend is to spread hatred on social media, without being critical as to how these messages would be read by people. Indeed, the hierarchy is fighting the enemy which is not. It is unbelievable to see that the hierarchy has lost their faith in the God who said, “Fear not” (Is. 43:1; Jn. 14:27) “I am with you” (Is 41:10; Mt. 28:20; Cf. Jn. 6:20).
Mission to persecutors: The Christian way
Christ must have been fed up with at least three things of his times: the cultural hatred and the social stratification between the Palestinian tribes, clans and other sections of society, the reduction of Jewish religion to mere pseudo-religiosity, and the political and economic oppression of the Romans.
However, unlike Barabbas, Jesus did not want an armed liberative movement; unlike Nicodemus, Jesus believed that religiosity resides not in legalistic and literal interpretations of Tora but in renewing oneself in spirit and truth.
The antidote he prescribed was love, mercy, and inclusion. Redefining the Old Testament law he suggested people to respect and love the other and to follow the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. About persecutions (Mt. 5:10-11) he exhorted to pray for God’s grace for persecutors and to give testimony to them (Mt. 5:44, Lk. 6:27-28). The Christian way culminates on the peak of Calvary as Jesus prayed to have mercy on his persecutors (Lk. 23:34). Stephen, the first Christian martyr prayed the same words (Acts 7:60).
It is the power of prayer, authentic witness, trust in the promises of God and resilience that simply shattered and collapsed the Communist strongholds. Similarly, there had been examples of people of other religions who preached against Christ and media professionals who were hostile to church later becoming followers of Christ when they really encountered him.
Pastors need to perceive persecutions as an opportunity for internal renewal as well as a mission to the oppressors. It is when our faith is challenged that we strengthen it. When our faith is strengthened our enemies are defeated.
Moreover, our task is not to hate the oppressor but to bring them also to the love and mercy of Christ. History has proved that the Christian prayer of forgiveness has great power as it really converts the persecutors and embrace Christianity (Lk 23:47; Acts 9:1-18). The Church has its own examples, the most familiar one is of our contemporary Fr Tom Uzhunnalil.
A humble appeal
History has taught us that the world has not gained from wars, violence, hatred and grudge. Our contemporary Indian history also teaches that hatred can tear people and communities apart beyond repair.
I humbly appeal each member of the hierarchy to take urgent action to discourage and condemn any scornful and vilified messages spread publicly in the name of the church as anti-Christian.
While it is our responsibility to guard the flock, it is also our duty to work for social cohesion and to assure the world that the Christian way is not of hate and violence, but of peace, reconciliation and love.
Saints like Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa have given us examples of peace building. People like Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln have proved that Christian way is the best way to peace and harmony.
Popes in the recent times have been strenuously working for religious harmony. Three decades ago Saint John Paul II urged those gathered to pray for world peace to become “artisans of peace.”
On July 28, 2016, Pope Francis addressing the young people in Poland said, “You must decide, in life: either I will make bridges or I will make walls. Walls divide and hatred grows. Bridges unite, and hatred go away.”
Dear Bishops, it is your duty to urge the people of your care that the only armour a Christian should have is Faith, Hope and Charity; Faith and hope will help us endure temptations and persecutions. Charity will help us appreciate people. Anything less than establishing peace and reconciliation is not Christian.
[Fr. Jose Vallikatt, a member of the Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle, currently works in the missionary front in Punjab. He holds a Ph D in the interdisciplinary area of Media-Religion-Culture studies from RMIT University Melbourne. He actively writes about the social and cultural transformations in media, politics and religion, and authored a couple of books including ‘Communicating Mercy (2016).]