By Varghese Vayalamannil Devasia
Jolly Joseph is a member of the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church who was recently arrested for killing her husband and five other members of his family over a period of 14 years.
The disclosure of the killings through cyanide poisoning has shocked the Kerala society with many struggling to understand what prompted a village housewife to become so diabolic. In this article, Varghese Vayalamannil Devasia, a former professor and dean of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, tries to analyze the Koodathai killings.
Jolly whole-heartedly participated in the activities, programs, festivals, and celebrations in her parish. There are reports that Jolly was a catechism teacher, a member of the women’s group in the church, and a leader of the ward prayer group.
She was regular in spiritual retreats, reciting the rosaries, and listening to sermons and homilies given by well-known preachers. Jolly never missed her Sunday Eucharistic celebrations. She projected the persona of an ideal Catholic, who was much admired and envied by her neighbors and fellow Catholics.
Then, why did Jolly kill her husband, his parents and three others in the family? Was there something seriously wrong with her in internalizing the religious doctrines? The teachings of scores of priests, preachers, and bishops fell futile. Was there something really wrong with the role model of the male-dominated hierarchy of the Syro-Malabar church?
The Church in most countries in Europe has vanished. Even in Italy, Spain, Portugal, its influence is waning fast. The existential philosophy of Camus, Sartre, Kafka, Nietzsche, and the post-modern literature in Spanish, French, German and English, the latest findings of the Quantum Physics, scientific and technological developments have pushed the church in the margins of history.
In Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Austria, Canada, Australia and New Zealand people don’t talk about religion anymore, or en masse become atheists. The Catholic antecedents of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and the support given to these fascists by the Catholic Church have become unacceptable.
In India, the Syro-Malabar Church is in deep crisis, as its moral uprightness has become a black-hole.
Rape of a nun by a bishop, impregnating an adolescent by a vicar, sex scandals involving married women, money laundering among the higher echelons, unethical dealings, bribes, illegal money transactions for teaching jobs, and admissions to students in educational institutions, low salary paid to nurses and other employees in hospitals have severely dented the image of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Some decades ago, in almost all parishes, the educational institutions and landed properties belonged to the members of the local parish, as they who raised the institutions with their own effort and money.
But on a Sunday morning, all the assets including institutions of the parish, carefully, intelligently and wickedly transferred to in the name of the bishop and a group around him, and thus, he became the legal owner.
Even in the parish cemetery, nowadays, the burial of a believer costs not in thousands, but in lakhs. Bishops are eager to participate in a wedding or a funeral if bundles of currency were paid. The Church has turned into a marketplace of money exchangers in a big way.
A large number of priests are upright individuals, and among them, many are highly talented visionaries. There are philosophers, theologians, social activists, social workers, doctors, engineers, litterateurs, authors, poets, musician, painters, and scientists among the clergy.
Kerala adores the cherished memories of Arnos Padiri, Benjamin Bailey, Hermann Gundert, Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara, and Father Joseph Vadaken.
In recent days, the church has almost lost its glory, except the right name of Pope Francis, because the Church has forgotten the teaching of Jesus.
One day, as usual, Jesus was in the countryside with his disciples, and a man came and asked him: “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered: “Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not cheat, honor your father and mother,” Then the man replied: “I have obeyed all these commandments since my childhood,” Then Jesus looked steadily at him; he then said: “For you one thing is lacking, Go, sell what you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.”
The basic tenets required to be a disciple of Jesus was non-possession of material wealth. Jesus was asserting that a person with money could never be his disciple. Hunger and poverty are a product of amassing wealth, and it is the denial of justice and human rights. Jesus believed in the fair distribution of wealth and the abandonment of wealth by his disciples.
In other words, richness blocks the way to Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor.” Here, he was speaking about the attitude, as there is a need to have empathy with the poor, sharing the wealth with the poor, and being with the poor. Experiencing the pain, sorrow and anxieties of the poor is essential for a fruitful Christian life, and only such acts can lead to “eternal life.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, an astute observer can find humanism in its fullness. Jesus was humanist par excellence. Humans are created by God, the Church upholds, and if so, all humans deserved the care and protection of the Church. Being with the poor is the fundamental teaching of Christianity.
“The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of men of our time, especially those who are poor, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well,” says the Second Vatican Council.
In this juncture, it is interesting to reflect on how the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala looks at the wellbeing of the poor.
For example, on July 4, 2010, Professor T J Joseph was returning from Sunday Mass. Suddenly, a group of eight Islamists attacked him and cut off his hand at the wrist. His elderly mother and sister were with him. Hearing about the incident, his wife and children were in deep pain and shock. Joseph was the only earning member of the family.
Joseph was a Malayalam lecturer at Newman College, Thodupuzha, an institution managed by the Syro-Malabar church, where the salary paid by the Government of Kerala. Joseph had set a question paper for the undergraduate students in which a passage was quoted from a lecture by the Malayalam film director P T Kunju Mohammed.
The same quote was also included in a book written by Kunju Mohammed, which was published by Kerala State Institute of Languages. So, the passage quoted in the question paper was not only valid but also an authentic reproduction from the book written by a Muslim and published by an authority in languages. But the Islamists believed that the quote taken from the book was a blasphemy.
On September 4, 2010, instead of standing with Joseph, helping him to recover from his agony, providing him good medical, psychological and emotional care, supporting him financially, the Catholic management of the college terminated him from services with immediate effect. Joseph and his family could not bear the callous, inhuman and ruthless action of the Catholic Church.
On March 19, 2014, Joseph’s wife Salomi was found hanging. It is said that she could not recover from the agony. Professor Joseph, Salomi and their children deserved to be treated with dignity, but the Church abused them brutally by violating their human rights.
Two sets of questions emerge from these incidents: How relevant is the love preached by Jesus to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and why the Church did not show a readiness to stand with Joseph and Salomi, in the time of their pain, sorrow, agony a financial need? The second: Is the Syro-Malabar Church authentic, if not, is it fake? And if it was fake, why does the church preach Jesus?
In March 2013 Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit from Argentina, became the Pope. Speaking to a large gathering of journalists, he explained how he came to choose the name Francis: “Then, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. He was a man who gave us the spirit of peace, He was with the poor. He was poor. I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.”
It was the true Ignatian spirit, the principles enunciated by the founder of the Society of Jesus, a religious congregation known as the Jesuits. The Jesuits are one of the few religious organizations, like the Capuchins, and the Dominicans, in the Catholic church, who stand with the poor and are not mired in opulence, corruption and sex scandals.
It seems, the Syro-Malabar Church has forgotten the principles highlighted by the Pope, which are the teachings of Jesus. Many years ago, a young man in his early twenties, holdings his certificates and diplomas tightly, walked about five km to take a bus to the town about 55 km away to meet the manager of the educational institutions under a Syro-Malabar bishop.
The manager’s office was situated in the bishop’s house. As he reached the bishop’s house, he told the gatekeeper that he wanted to meet the manager, who was a priest and waited outside, under the shade of a tree. After about one hour, a middle-aged priest came and standing on the veranda he asked the young man: “Enthada?” meaning, Hi, boy, why did you come?
The young man folded his palms, and replied: “Father, I am qualified to be a teacher in the primary school.” “So what?” the priest asked arrogantly.
“Father, please appoint me as a teacher in any of the schools within the diocese,” the young man pleaded, touching his forehead on the tip of his own fingers. “Tell your father to pay 40,000 rupees. You need to appear for a catechism test. When you come for the test, bring the money,” said the priest.
The young man was a catechism teacher for the previous three years in his local parish church. He knew the Bible thoroughly and could quote from the Gospels effortlessly, New Testament was read by him every day, during the family prayers, when his parents and sibling assembled before the dinner. But to make a sum of 40,000 was a herculean task. With a heavy heart, he returned.
It was dark when he reached home, ensconced by the hills. His mother, father and siblings were waiting for him anxiously. “Did you meet the Father,” his mother wanted to know. “Yes,” he replied.
“So, what did he say?” his father queried. “The manager wants 40,000 rupees,” the young man replied. He could see the frightened expressions of his parents and siblings. “Why? But the salary is paid by the government,” his father questioned. “But that is the law of the bishop,” the young man replied.
“We can sell eight acres of our land, out of a total of fifteen. It will fetch five thousand each per acre,” his father added. “No,” his mother reacted, followed by a heart-wrenching sob. Whether any Syro-Malabar bishop in Kerala has the moral courage and ethical honesty to vouch for the no-money-transaction in the appointment of a teacher or lecturer in his educational institutions is a valid issue in this context.
For Immanuel Kant, telling the truth is a categorical imperative and truth is unchallengeable.
The young man knew that his parents came from Travancore to Malabar to escape hunger and poverty wrought by the Second World War. They had no other asset than the barren land they purchased and selling a chunk of it was suicidal. The young man could not sleep properly that night as whenever he closed his eyes, the agonizing look of his mother appeared before his eyes. He decided to study further and was fortunate to get scholarships from the Tata and the UGC.
Years later he was invited to assume the post of the head of a prestigious college in central India. One day an archbishop visited him in his office. “I need three seats in the MSW class. I am ready to pay any amount,” he said. “We don ’sell seats to students and jobs to lecturers. Students are admitted based on their merit and the vision and mission document of the college. Teachers’ salaries are by the government. The college does not indulge in corrupt practices. We respect human dignity,” the head replied.
He did not tell the archbishop that the foundress of the organization which managed the college had worked with Mahatma Gandhi, and the college was started by a group of women who belonged to the Congress and the Communist Party of India. They were all Hindus and authentic to the concept of duty, nishkama karma, envisaged in the Bhagavad Gita.
Unfortunately, the Syro-Malabar Church is different. And it is not surprising that characters like Jolly, Franco and Robin emerge from such sub-culture.
(The author is former Professor and Dean, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; former Principal and Director, MSSISW, Nagpur University, Nagpur. He gained his Certificate of Achievement in Justice from Harvard University, Diploma in Human Rights Law from National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, MA in Social Work, specializing in Criminology and Correctional Administration from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; MA in Sociology from Shivaji University, Kolhapur; LLB and PhD from Nagpur University.)