As the Emeritus Bishop of the diocese of Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, now residing in my home-diocese, Goa, I was privileged to take part in the two-day pre-Synodal meeting of this Archdiocese. The Archbishop of Goa, Most Rev. Filipe Neri Ferrao, recently nominated to be elevated as Cardinal, in the forthcoming Consistory of the 27th of August, 2022, was kind enough to invite me to participate in the meeting of the Archdiocese, preside over the Holy Eucharist on the 2nd day of the meeting, and to preach the homily at the Mass. I proudly possess a Certificate given to all the participants, at the end of the meeting.
As I reflected with the Clergy, Religious and the lay people of the Diocese, on the program set forth for us by Holy Father Pope Francis in this Synodal journey, I could not help reflecting on the greatness of the Pope, and his eagerness to make the Church what she is meant to be -- a Sacrament of Redemption for the world. Having also been a member of one of the workshops, at the meeting, I knew of the richness of experiences that would emerge from this pre-synodal journey. We were living with one another, praying with one another, sharing with one another, talking to and listening to one another. What would come out from all these would certainly have to be a treasure of experiences resulting from the praying together, questioning, answering and sharing with one another.
The question uppermost in my mind was how to make this richness percolate down to every single member of the Church in Goa. If that did not happen, then the entire exercise of the pre-Synodal meeting would be nothing else but an exercise in futility. I hope that each one of the participating members will play their part in doing this. And then, of course, our reflections will be shared with the Universal Church, and we will wait for the final message which will come to us from the Holy Father and the Synod.
Given our human weakness, which we may sometimes consider our strength, taking short-cuts at anything we do has become our way of life, I was afraid this whole exercise could be forgotten and swept under the carpet of oblivion, and sacrifices on the altar of our short-cuts, turning it into water on duck’s back. Has it not happened in the case of the II Vatican Council and its 16 precious Documents? How many of our Catholics have heard about the 16 Documents of the II Vatican Council, leave aside reading and studying them? I can think of, and name some members of the clergy, who are not even aware of these Documents. And then, what about internalizing their teachings?
I remember a man who is holding a high responsibility in the Universal Church, who was talking so disdainfully about our Indian non-Christian religions, gods and goddesses, as if he had never read “Nostra Aetate”, which is the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions, a precious document which teaches us to respect all faiths. It exhorts us to “prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture” (Nostra Aetate No. 2). To say the least, I was scandalized by this man’s attitude!
As I said earlier, we proudly claim to belong to a “fast” culture. And short-cuts have become our way of life. I think one of the biggest short-cuts in our lives of faith is to try to fulfil our Sunday Mass obligation, while forgetting that we are Christians for the rest of the week, too. Sometimes, it does not really matter to us about how we participate in that Sunday Mass. Important is that we fulfil the obligation! So we while away that one hour or so in the Church, thus setting ourselves and our time “free” for the rest of the week. What we derive from the Sunday Mass, what we understand by it, is immaterial. The obligation has been fulfilled. What Pope Francis tells us, namely, that there are no “part-time Christians”, does not matter to us. We end up becoming Sunday Christians. Sadly, how distant we are from the understanding of the Church as a Journeying-together Church, a 24x7 Church. I am reminded of a certain Mr. Jones, who went to Church faithfully every Sunday but, when he died, he went to hell for what he did on Mondays!
The Real Church
Pope Francis has set before us a goal, which we must always strive to reach and attain. In fact, it is not Pope Francis who has set this goal for us to attain. It was always the mind of Jesus that we should be a Holy Church, conscious of the fact that we are His. He has given us His Spirit in whom we form one Church, and in Christ we cleave together and become Church. While we stumble through life, we need to be always aware of the fact that we are the pilgrim church. We are united to those members of ours who have been purified, and are in glory contemplating “in full light, God Himself, Triune and One, exactly as He is” (1 John: 3.2). There are other members of the Church, who have died and are being purified before they attain their goal in Paradise (Cf. Lumen Gentium No.49). They and we form one Holy Church.
When we strive to celebrate this special Synod, and reflect upon the call given to us by Pope Francis, to be a journeying-together Church, we need to think not only of the pilgrim Church but also of the Triumphant Church and the one that is being purified in purgatory to enter into the Eternal Beatific vision. And, in fact, we need to also think about the Heavenly Courts, all of whom are united with us as they await our arrival in Heaven. What a union that will be, the union of the Mystical Body of Christ with the Angels and Saints in Heaven.
It is high time, therefore, we give up our narrow thinking and short-cuts, and strive full throttle to join the Triumphant Church, conscious of the fact that they are interceding for us. Let them be our example in their way of life, our fellow pilgrims on our way.
As I write this, I realize how far I myself am from reaching the goal Jesus set for me. And I am pretty sure that most of us will feel the same, and realize that our short-cuts are, often, a wrong route to heaven. There is no point being on the fast track, if we are not on the right track. If we stick to our short-cuts, we may miss the route to the destination which the Lord has set for us.
In the last 4 months, we have been deploring the war between Russia and Ukraine, while wondering how people can spill one another’s blood, forgetting the fact that we are all children of one God, and consequently, brothers and sisters to each other. We are, and we should all be, and we should all continue praying that better sense may prevail in the minds of the leaders of these nations, and that they may stop this senseless war and the destruction of lives and assets it is causing.
However, only praying will not be enough. We need to, first and foremost, put our own house in order. And Pope Francis is calling us precisely to do this with his clarion call to the Church to be what she is expected to be – a Synodal Church, which moves forward together with a strong sense of Communion, Participation and Mission.
We have been praying for the success of the Synod. A special prayer is recited at the end of every Mass in the parishes. At least I hope! But that alone will not be enough. Right from the beginning, the Pope has been calling for a Church which recognizes herself as a Church which is wounded, and in need of conversion. Each one of us, without any exception, must have this conviction. We have often erred in our short-cuts, in the past. May the Lord bring us back onto the right track, even if it is a slow track. Together we will walk hand in hand, and get to our destination. And we will be the Church the Master wants us to be.
(Bp Alex Dias is the Emeritus Bishop of the diocese of Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands)