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A Theology With Smell of Life

Jacob Peenikaparambil Jacob Peenikaparambil
13 Nov 2023

Many students of theology think that theological study is a requirement to get ordained as a priest or pastor. They also hold the view that much of what they learn in theology classes may not be of much use when they enter their chosen ministry: education, social work, pastoral care etc. The writer of this article had the opportunity to be one among a three-member team entrusted with the task of evaluating a major seminary in India. I was surprised to hear from one of the interviewers, “I am preparing some sermons in order to avoid unemployment in my future life”. One of the major findings of the evaluation was that theological studies did not help the future priests to evolve a theological vision for their life and mission, a vision based on the core teachings and values of Jesus. From the evaluation I got the impression that theological studies in many seminaries in India are more focused on the Ecclesiology and other related subjects than on the life and teachings of Jesus.

There are a good number of subjects to be covered during the four-year theology study in many Catholic seminaries and the students have to score at least pass mark to be qualified to get ordained. These subjects include some issues/topics which are very relevant to today’s context of India like inter-religious dialogue, ecumenism, ecology etc. Unfortunately, by the time the seminarians are ordained what many of them carry with them are mainly rituals, canon law and some dogmas. Some of them even become fanatic about the way the rituals are to be performed and highly legalistic in their approach to the faithful.  

Recently a statement of Pope Francis was circulated on social media. “It is painful to find in some parish offices the “price list” of sacramental services in the manner of a supermarket. Either the Church is the faithful people of God on the way, saint and sinner, or it ends up being a company of various services. And when pastoral workers take this second priority, the Church becomes the supermarket of salvation and the priests, mere employees of a multinational corporation”.

The reason for the Church becoming a “supermarket of salvation” could be the failure of the Church leaders (clergy and bishops) to evolve a theological vision for their life and ministry. A theological vision helps a priest or anyone who studies theology to respond to issues and challenges in their personal and social life creatively from the perspective of the Gospel values. A theological vision motivates a person to be proactive, compassionate and courageous.  A theological vision urges a person to be prophetic and to become a voice for the voiceless. A theological vision liberates a person from the demon of routine by being creative. A theological vision prevents a person from becoming a fundamentalist and a fanatic ritualist.

On November 02, 2023, Pope Francis released a “Motu Proprio” through which he updated the statutes of the Pontifical Academy of Theology.  It briefly explains how to do theology in the modern context. Through the document titled Ad theologiam promovendum Pope Francis has said unambiguously that theology must interpret the Gospel for today’s world. It must no longer be from a “desk” and must no longer be merely “abstractly reproposing formulas and schemes of the past”. Pope Francis has given certain guidelines through this document to make theology related to everyday life of people.

First of all, theology should be “fundamentally contextual”, “capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live daily, in different geographical, social and cultural environments.”  Instead of making Gospels an object of worship taken in procession with decorations, one must ask the tough question “what does the Gospel passage tell me to do in the context in which I live today?”. If he/she is able to derive an answer to this question, then the word of God becomes alive in his/her life. Theologizing helps a person to draw insights from the Gospels and apply them to day-to-day life of an individual and community.

Secondly, theology must be able to dialogue with different traditions and disciplines. Theology must develop in a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different disciplines, between different Christian denominations and different religions by engaging openly with all believers and non-believers alike”.

Regarding the interdisciplinary approach, the document says that theology must “make use of new categories developed by other forms of knowledge, in order to penetrate and communicate the truths of faith and transmit the teaching of Jesus in today’s languages, with originality and critical awareness”. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to impact human life in a huge way. Catholic theology has to respond to this challenge by disseminating norms or dos and don’ts based on the Gospel values. 

Thirdly, theology should have a pastoral stamp. Theological reflection must be directed "to the open wounds of humanity and of creation and within the folds of human history, to which it prophesies the hope of a unique fulfilment". Pope Francis writes in the document, “Do not settle for a desk theology. Let your place of reflection be the frontiers. Good theologians, like good pastors, also have the smell of the people and the street and, by their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounds of men.” A contextualized theology will focus on the issues and challenges faced by people and try to respond to them from the perspective of the teachings of Jesus as reflected in the Gospels.

The Second Vatican Council was a watershed in the history of the Catholic Church, as it initiated revolutionary changes in order to transform the Church as  ‘salt’ and the ‘light’ of the world. As a consequence of Vatican II, the Catholic Church opened its windows onto the modern world, updated the liturgy, gave a larger role to laypeople, introduced the concept of religious freedom and started a dialogue with other Christian denominations and other religions. Contextualization of theology and liturgy was given prominence. Liberation Theology was the result of Christian theologians responding proactively to the socio-political situation in the Latin American countries in the light of the Gospel teachings.

In the context of India, “All India Seminar: Church in India Today Bangalore”, was a landmark in the renewal of the Indian Church. Emergence of an Indian Theology and Indian Liturgy in the 1970’s and 1980’s was the offshoot of revolutionary changes that took place aftermath of the All-India Seminar. A renowned Indian Christian theologian D S Amalorpavadas espoused in his theological writings triple dialogue: dialogue with the poor of India, dialogue with Indian religions and dialogue with Indian cultures. Inculturation of liturgy was of his special area of interest, study and contribution. Many prominent theologians like Raimond Panikar, Samuel Rayan, Sebastian Kappan, George Soares Prabhu, Kuncheria Pathil, Antony de Mello, Francis Vadakethala etc. contributed to the emergence of an Indian Christian theology and spirituality.

Unfortunately, in course of time, especially during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, reforms in the Catholic Church, particularly in India, took a backseat. Terms like ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, Indian theology and Indian liturgy etc. have almost disappeared from the theological discourses and the documents of seminars and general and provincial chapters of religious congregations. As a result, the Indian Church is clueless on the face of the onslaughts by the Hindutva forces. The Indian Church still carries the image of videshi and imperial trappings from the perspective of Hindus who constitute about 80% of the Indian population.

Against this backdrop, the document of Pope Francis, "Ad theologiampromovendum", is an opportunity as well as an incentive for the Catholic theologians and the leaders of the Indian Church to make theology related to the life of people and to respond to various socio-political challenges from the perspective of the Gospels. Indian theologians and Church leaders have to respond to some crucial issues affecting the people of India like imposition of Hindutva and violence on Muslims and Christians, increasing divide between the rich and the poor, atrocities on Dalits, growing gender discrimination, large scale displacement of tribals on the pretext of development etc.

Indian theologians and Church leaders can take their cue from Pope Francis’ encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’. Instead of focusing on any dogma of the Church, Pope Francis responded to the most significant challenge the world faces today: climate change and the impending environmental catastrophe. As the leader of 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, he told the world leaders about the urgent need for taking measures to reduce the factors that contribute to climate change and to adopt development strategies that are sustainable and not harming the environment. During his visits to different countries of the world he invariably emphasizes the need for peace, and understanding and harmony among different faiths.

India is going through the most critical period after independence. The Constitution of India which is the foundation of a pluralist democracy, which guarantees justice, equality, liberty, fraternity that ensures individual dignity and unity of the nation, is in great danger. The Indian Constitutional values are nothing but the values of the Kingdom of God or Reign of God. If the mission of the Church is establishing the Reign of God, it has to transcend the narrow identities of rite and rituals, caste, language etc.  and focus on upholding the core values of Jesus and of the Indian Constitution. Catholic theologians have a great role in educating the bishops, priests, the religious and lay people about their responsibility at this crucial juncture. Let the theologians come out of their narrow confines and make the members of the Church aware of their prophetic role- what does it mean to be a Christian in India Today? 

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