This title could be shocking. Is it some kind of Agatha Christie “who dunnit”? But such an event did take place about 1000 years ago when St. Thomas Becket was murdered at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral, of which he was the Archbishop, on 29/12/1170. This was at the behest of King Henry II, who wanted to have absolute dominion over the church.
Nevertheless, at this time I am reminded of an Agatha Christie murder mystery “Murder on the Orient Express”, a 2017 movie based on Christie’s 1934 novel by the same name. It is about a man who is stabbed to death on a moving train. There were eleven knife marks with different degrees of ferocity and at different angles. Agatha Christie’s famous Belgium detective Hercule Poirot, who was also travelling on the same train, concluded that eleven different people, who were seeking revenge from the victim, each had a hand in the murder. Each one had his or her own motivation.
I was also reminded of the Bob Dylan song “Murder Most Foul” that he had composed at the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963. All these murders were premeditated. What if we take the lives of others without actually intending to? Listen to this observation by Chief Justice Sanjib Bannerjee of the Madras High Court on 30/4/21. While holding the Election Commission of India (ECI) singularly responsible for Covid deaths in Tamilnadu during the State Elections it had made an oral remark that ECI officials should “Probably be booked for murder”. This set the cat among the pigeons, because it was probably the most scathing remark of a senior court against any Government officials.
Taking a cue from the Madras High Court, the U.P. Teachers’ Association claimed that 700 teachers had died during election duties during the recent Panchayat elections, for which they were on duty.
Social media was aflutter with images of a sage (but not sagacious looking) Prime Minister, permitting super spreader events like the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar, where, as per mela records, 9.1 million had congregated. TV images showed the world how careless and callous we have been about Covid. The PM was crisscrossing the country for election rallies and boasting of the crowds present. Again, it was only at the fag end of the Bengal elections when the Calcutta High Court reprimanded the ECI that it put restrictions on political rallies. By then the damage was done. I won’t add to multiple political commentators saying that for Modi, elections mattered more than human lives. Should he be called the Butcher of 2021?
Covid became very real to me. Five of my immediate neighbours died. My wife’s niece, a 41 year old architect, died in Pune, just three days after being admitted to hospital. Both her parents were in intensive care, in the same hospital and were only told of their daughter’s death after they had sufficiently recovered.
I myself developed a slight fever and cough on 23rd April. Fortunately I got timely Covid treatment through a family doctor friend. I also had the support of my wife and son; plus the urban luxury of having oxygen bearing Ashoka and Neem trees in my compound. They helped me pull though in two weeks, though I am still very weak.
However, I wish to focus on the stories of those who were not as lucky as me. A family attended the Holy Week services. Shortly after Easter Sunday (4th April) and a crowded church service, one of the priests in the parish died of Covid; and our friends’ two daughters have had to undergo home isolation.
In my hometown Kanpur, I kept warning our priests that they were not following Covid protocols. My pleadings fell on deaf ears. The only restriction imposed was to not touch the cross during veneration on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday one parish priest was boasting about how many were attending the service (in a poorly ventilated church). A few days later the assistant contracted Covid, and he himself was put on a ventilator. Some of the parishioners did die of Covid. Another parish had organized a charismatic healing retreat just before Holy Week. That church is also poorly ventilated, like most modern “match box” churches. The charisma did not work. Both the priests and several parishioners got infected.
The moot question is, “Who is responsible for these deaths?” Is it not murder at the altar, slightly different from that of St Thomas Becket? Is it not like Murder on the Orient Express, with eleven stabs wounds of varying intensity? Is it not Murder most Foul? Let me now come to the tragedy that hit me the hardest.
Some twenty years ago I had helped a childless couple adopt a child from Mother Teresa’s orphanage. His father never wore a mask. We last met in church on Easter Sunday. As usual he was without a mask. When I reprimanded him he laughed saying that there was no need of a mask in Church. The priest standing by said nothing. Two weeks later this couple had succumbed to Covid! The young boy was orphaned again! An army officer, who was standing by when I was reprimanding this friend, phoned me the day he died, “Remember what you said to him, but he did not listen. What a tragedy”. If this is not murder at the altar pray what is?
Often my wife and I were the only members in the church wearing masks. Some even made fun of us behind our backs. The familiar refrain was “We have come to church, nothing can happen to us”. I kept telling people that this was the sin of presumption. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) terms it a sin against the very first commandment (cf CCC 2091) It further states “There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, hoping to save himself without help from on high, or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy” (CCC 2092). The best way to put it is to jump in front of a running train, proclaiming “God will save me”.
This was the very temptation (trap) which Satan tried against Jesus. When Jesus countered Satan with scripture quotes, Satan resorted to scripture itself, saying “If you are Son of God throw yourself down from here for scripture says – He has given his angels orders about you, to guard you ... They will carry you in their arms in case you trip over a stone (Lk 4:9-11). Jesus counters Scripture with Scripture itself “Do not put the Lord you God to the test” (Lk 4:12). He was quoting from Deuteronomy 6:16.
Unfortunately, it would seem to me that many of us have put the Lord our God to the test, by our highly irresponsible acts. We cannot bring back lost lives, but we can learn some lessons, to save those still standing. Let us not be accused of murder at the altar.