Absurd! This is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. How can one be both a Catholic and a Pentecostal? When we use caps to denote Proper Nouns then it may seem contradictory. But if we use small letters to denote adjectives, then the apparent contradiction is removed.
Catholic, as we know, means universal. It was initially used as an adjective to describe the church and to distinguish it from some divergent groups in the second century, by bishop and martyr St Ignatius of Antioch. It is only centuries later that it assumed the form of a Proper Noun to denote the church headed by the pope, who now resides in Rome. In like manner, pentecostal is also an adjective to describe the events of the first Pentecost. It is only about a century ago that certain evangelical churches began to call themselves Pentecostal, apparently after one Agnes Ozman began to speak in tongues on 1st January 1901 in Kansas, USA. Be that as it may, my choice of these words is as adjectives, describing something, and not as Proper Nouns denoting something.
In Kashmir, the chinnar leaves fall in autumn, before the onset of winter, making a brilliantly hued carpet of brown, yellow and red. It is precisely because of this natural phenomenon that this season is called the Fall in many countries in the north western hemisphere. However, where I live in north central India, this fall occurs after, not before, winter. It is a herald of spring. In my garden I have several Ashoka and Neem trees. Just after winter, they start shedding their copious canopy of leaves, forming a thick yellow and brown carpet on the ground. This season also has another natural phenomenon – strong gusts of wind. It is nature’s way, because without a powerful wind the dead leaves won’t fall, and the tender new shoots will not be able to emerge. This is the same phenomenon that we see in the life and mission of Jesus, and thereby of his church.
Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth was very close to nature. Hence he could talk in an idiom that resonated with fisherman, shepherds and farmers. That is why he said to his listeners, “You know how to read the face of the sky, but you cannot read the signs of the times. It is an evil and unfaithful generation” (Mat 16:3). He was reprimanding them because they could not see the obvious. In a post Covid 19 scenario many writers have talked about a new way of being church. Others have felt that if these Houses of God could not protect them from the virus, then how efficacious could they be in healing society? Perhaps the Holy Spirit is using the virus as a strong breeze to remove the deadwood, or rather the dead leaves form organized religion. Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, require this periodic shaking up.
When Nicodemus had approached Jesus, he was told that “You must be born anew. The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes from, or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:7-8). I have always been moved by this interaction. In the present context it assumes greater significance, because we don’t know how Covid began, or how it will end. We can only see its effects.
As we approach the feast of Pentecost, perhaps we should pray for a fresh out pouring of the Holy Spirit, to lead us in ways that we many not yet know. Is the Spirit knocking at the doors and saying “He who has ears let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:22).
Sixty years ago Pope John XXIII heard the Spirit speaking to him, to renew the Church, as in a new Pentecost. He convened Vatican II, to radically change the thinking of the church. It was a watershed moment in the life of the church. Unfortunately, insecure humans are afraid of change. They don’t want to move out of their comfort zones. They resist deeper attitudinal changes, while readily embracing cosmetic changes like replacing genuflection with bowing, incense with agarbattis, and habits with saris.
The church in India has never really been challenged nor systematically persecuted. So it remains in its comfort zone of institutions, novenas, holy hours, processions and pilgrimages. Even within the church community, it has not been challenged to implement the deeper attitudinal teachings of Vatican II. This is because of an awe inspiring hierarchy, a yawning lay leadership, fawning feminists, and pawning youth. With a few exceptions, lay leaders are simply too lazy to study scripture, church teachings and claim their rightful place in the church. They are quite happy just being elected to some august body without asserting their autonomy. The same goes for women’s leadership. Both Mao and the Mahatma believed that no revolution was possible without the involvement of women. But our womenfolk seem to lack the fire in the belly that brings about change. Our youth have pawned their revolutionary idealism. Earlier they were sent to Taize in France, which was a great attraction, to make them fall in line. Now leading the choir or a procession is as far as their leadership aspiration goes. Idealism has been replaced by pragmatism, a desire for jobs and careers.
Even the present pandemic has not really tested the church. We read of a bishop in Telengana building a poor man’s house with his own hands, of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai converting its dormitory into a respite centre, the bishop of Darjeeling and the Salesian novitiate there making their premises available, some distributing dry rations or cooked food and water to the migrants. All noble efforts indeed; not to be discounted. However there was no concerted response from the Catholic Church. Had there been a planned and co-ordinated effort it would have been far more effective. Our response was the dispensing model, just like that of the Governments’; the buns and bandaid type.
Mother Teresa had said to give from what hurts, not from our abundance. I don’t think that the church felt the pinch. The only pinch it is now feeling is the risk of becoming redundant or infructuous. If the “faithful” could manage for three months without communion and confession, then what need of such rituals?
So maybe the Catholic Church in India needs a new Pentecost “like a rush of mighty wind” (Acts 2:2), to fulfil the prophecy of Joel “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophecy” (Acts 2:17). Earlier God had said to Jeremiah “I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” ( Jer1:10).
As in spring, unless the old leaves are removed the new shoots cannot appear. For that the role of the strong wind is crucial. Is it already upon us? Time alone will tell. Till then, let us all be catholic pentecostals, universal and open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
(The writer is a staunch advocate of Vatican II reforms)(Published on 1th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 23)