Is the Church in India Prophetic?

Cedric Prakash
19 Oct 2020

Pope Francis has challenged Bishops and Priests to defend the poor, the excluded and the oppressed; he has spoken bluntly and directly to repressive regimes, which do not respect the dignity and the rights of every human

Jesus was not afraid to take a stand against the Herods and Pilates, the scribes and pharisees of his time- they represented an unjust system and all that was wrong in society.

Is the Church in India Prophetic?

The Church in India is clearly not prophetic and desperately needs prophets today, endowed with the vision and mission of Jesus, who get out of their comfort zones and are not afraid to speak truth to power!

On 12 March 1977, Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande was killed by the regime of El Salvador. Presiding over the funeral Mass of his dear friend, Bishop (today a Saint) Oscar Romero said, “The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician or a subversive element when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good;” brazenly adding,” Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me. If they killed Rutilio for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”. 

Read More: A Smokescreen to Crush Dissent

Three years later on Sunday 23 March 1980, in a powerful homily, Romero minced no words as he castigated the Government and the military of his country, “Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own ampesino brothers and sisters. No one has to fulfil an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!” Romero was assassinated the very next day!

Comparisons are always odious; Fr Stan Swamy is different from Fr Rutilio Grande – though both are/were Jesuits with a tremendous passion and commitment to the poor and the excluded. And Romero? There certainly does not seem to be one on the horizon in India. Yes, but there are striking parallels which one should not lose sight of today!

Late night on 8 October, 83-year-old Jesuit Fr Stan Swamy was taken into custody by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) from his residence in Ranchi and to an undisclosed destination. According to his colleagues, the NIA did not serve a warrant on Fr. Stan and that their behaviour was absolutely arrogant and rude. The next morning, he was forcibly flown to Mumbai, where he was immediately produced before a special court and then sent to the Taloja Jail just outside the city. Fr Stan is sickly and feeble; according to reliable inside sources, for more than a week after his incarceration he was not given a cot to sleep on, a chair to sit or even a walking aid; besides he was kept in common barracks together with several other prisoners. This is inhuman besides being totally deplorable. 

Fr Stan is charged under the draconian UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) for his ‘apparent’ involvement in the Bhima- Koregaon violence of January 2018 and participating in the Elgar Parishad earlier. Fr Stan ehemently and unequivocally has denied the allegations. Recently, the NIA released a 10,000-page charge sheet regarding the incident with fresh names, including that of Fr. Stan who it is alleged conspired to take on the Government of India by means of armed militia, along with him being connected to the banned left-wing terrorist organisation, CPI (Maoist). It makes Fr Stan the oldest person to be charged with terrorism in India. 

The others charged under this draconian law without any justification and are languishing in COVID-ridden jails include Sudha Bharadwaj, (human rights lawyer and activist from Chhattisgarh),Varavara Rao (78-year-old Activist, writer and poet from Andhra Pradesh; he is currently very sick),Anand Teltumbde (70-year-old Dalit scholar and activist),Arun Ferreira(advocate and human rights’ activist from Mumbai),Vernon Gonsalves (civil rights activist and former professor at Mumbai University),Sudhir Dhawale (writer and Mumbai-based Dalit rights activist),Shoma Sen(professor at Nagpur University),Surendra Gadling (a UAPA expert and lawyer from Nagpur),Mahesh Raut (a young activist on displacement issues from Gadchiroli),Rona Wilson (Delhi-based prisoners’ rights activist),Gautam Navlakha (Delhi-based journalist and civil rights activist) and at least five other members of the Kabir Kala Manch troupe.

Fr Stan’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment has made national news and has even been covered by some international media. After a long time, several Catholics and other Christians (justifiably so) are out on the streets (there was a massive silent protest in Ranchi on 16 October) and on the web - protesting against the arrest of Fr Stan and the inhuman way he is being treated. 

Strangely enough, the CBCI has also issued a very carefully-worded statement condemning the arrest. A lead article in ‘The Telegraph’ (11October) entitled ‘83year Priest's arrest unlocks Church Voice’ in a comment on the Bishops statement said, “The statement from the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), the apex body of the Catholic Church in the country, stood out for two reasons. One, there has been a perception that sections of the Church establishment have been somewhat reluctant to speak out of late because of the Narendra Modi government’s crackdown on foreign sources of funds. Two, the CBCI statement focused only on the priest, although 15 other rights activists, lawyers, academics and writers have been imprisoned in connection with the probe into the same case”. A sad commentary from one of the most respected, secular English dailies of India; its online edition is apparently read by thousands the world over!

Jesus’ life, message and mission are clear. He is no ‘political’ messiah; he is the Saviour who came down to earth to prepare his people for eternal life. Jesus however showed to people that the ‘Kingdom of God’ is in the here and now! 

He takes sides with the poor, the marginalized and the excluded.  He invites all to embrace his vision and mission. However, he is not afraid to take a stand against the Herods and Pilates, the scribes and pharisees of his time- they represented an unjust system and all that was wrong in society. Jesus ultimately had to pay the supreme sacrifice. The Prophets before him did the same and so did countless others after him. 

Since May 1891, Catholic Social Teaching, with the Encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ has been consistent on being a voice for the voiceless; in speaking truth to power. Vatican II highlights several of these dimensions. St Pope John XXIII in his 1963 Encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ highlights four non-negotiables for Peace: Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty. Over the years, the Church has taken visible and vocal stands against Communism. 

It is no state secret of the role St Pope John Paul II played in the dismantling of communism in Eastern Europe. In his social Encyclical Letter ‘Caritas in Veritate’ (July 2009), Pope Benedict XVI states, “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.”

Pope Francis has been consistent with his teachings. He has challenged Bishops and Priests to defend the poor, the excluded and the oppressed; he has spoken bluntly and directly to repressive regimes, which do not respect the dignity and the rights of every human. 

In ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ Pope Francis says, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” Ultimately saying, “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure, which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle, which others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.” A similar chord is struck and re-echoed right through ‘Laudato Si’ and in his latest pathbreaking Encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’

In keeping with the prophetic ministry of the Church in India in February 2012, at the 30th CBCI Meet in Bangalore on the theme ‘The Church’s Role for a Better India’, the Bishops said, “We sensed in our hearts our country’s yearning for a Better India. Our country has been noted for its deep spirituality, its saints and sages, its rich diversity of cultures and religions. People yearn for the ideal enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India of a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic which will secure for its citizens Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. But this yearning has remained largely unfulfilled. Economic development has brought about increasing inequities, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor with consequent tensions spilling over into violence. We see around us a betrayal of the poor and marginalized, the tribals, dalits and other backward classes, women and other groups who live in dehumanising and oppressive poverty. We witness rampant exploitation of children. There is disappointment with those in public life for whom ethical concerns matter little. The Church does not wish to rest on her laurels. She recommits herself to being a prophetic Church, taking a decisive stand in favour of the poor and marginalized “We envision an India with more attributes of the Kingdom of God such as justice and equity with its consequent fruits of love, peace and joy.”

ALSO READ| Arrest of Fr Stan: A Call to Speak up for others

Eight years later, the scenario today is far worse! One wonders why and how the Church in India has lost the plot; why have our hierarchy been a betrayal to their own lofty words? why has that commitment to Christ and his message been lost in the fear of the fascists who rule our country today? Why does one forget the words of Jesus “fear no one!”? 

The Church in India is clearly not prophetic and desperately needs prophets today, endowed with the vision and mission of Jesus, who get out of their comfort zones and are not afraid to speak truth to power! Every disciple of Jesus is not only invited but also challenged to do so! Do we have the faith and courage to respond to that prophetic challenge today? 

Grande and Romero paid the price of being prophets in their time. In an interview on 8 April Pope Francis said, “ Let us dare to dream of a better world, and let us go forth , when we are able , to fulfil our mission as a prophetic people – not only with optimism, but  with faith, joy, hope and great creativity!” 
Fr. Stan did exactly that; but is today paying the price, languishing in jail because like a true disciple of Jesus, he was courageous and prophetic accompanying the excluded and exploited of our country! May we do so likewise!

*(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact cedricprakash@gmail.com)

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