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Prelates, Be Prophets: Role of Shepherds in India Today

P. A. Chacko P. A. Chacko
12 Jun 2023
The way matters are shaping up in India is not only worrisome, but it is also indicative of the greater calamities in store.

Our church leaders, such as bishops, religious superiors and those who occupy coveted positions like principals, deans, directors, administrators etc., are expected to have the guts to put their foot down when it comes to defending the Church and Christians in the face of mindless attacks on Christian devotees and destruction of Christian worship places. These persons are placed in those positions in the name of God’s people as shepherds, as prophets and as guardians. 

The way matters are shaping up in India is not only worrisome, but it is also indicative of the greater calamities in store. The latest are two incidents in Delhi and Haryana where saffron-clad Hindu fundamentalists not only disrupted prayer service of Christian community but also manhandled the priest in charge. 

Hooligans, law unto themselves, are on the rampage, with benediction from their political bosses, to attack minorities and minority institutions. Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, to a lesser extent Jharkhand, and Manipur are clear examples of vandalism against Christians and Christian institutions. 

It is baffling to note that even a Court is not willing to grant anticipatory bail to a bishop and a teacher who were falsely implicated in a conversion case. About the gruesome incidents in Manipur, the Supreme Court deprecated the Manipur High Court judge for having given the ‘go ahead’ for a proposal in favour of the Hindu majority Meitei community. What followed were disaster and killings, burning of churches and church institutions and large-scale violence bordering on ethnic cleansing in the BJP ruled state.

In the midst of all these calamitous trends, we see often our prelates and bishops standing with the Prime Minister or Home Minister for photo ops. Do they genuinely represent the woes and agonies of the Christian community before these government officials?  Or get satisfied with pushing a memorandum and uttering bleats like ‘lambs being led to slaughter’? Can’t they put their foot down and state their gut level reactions to say enough is enough and that the victimised Christian community shall not tolerate it any more. 

Come election time, the government VVIPs are at the door steps of the minority VVIPs to beg, promise and cajole them into vote-promising gymnastics. The way our prelates and pundits have responded to such theatricals has been nauseating. Recently, Cardinal George Alenchery of Syro Malabar rite  stated that Christians are safe under the BJP government.  Another bishop of the same rite bargained people’s votes for extra few coins for rubber.  If conscious critics have termed their statements as preposterous, there is nothing to be surprised about.

The point is that our priests, prelates, men and religious personnel, religious superiors and those who occupy the chair of Moses have a guiding, inspiring and prophetic role to play.  If they are afraid to put their foot down and express their gut level reaction against increasing atrocities against Christian community, they are cowards and compromisers, and they cannot be trusted. 

The prophets of the Old Testament did not mince words when they guided and inspired Israelites or stood against oppressive administration or corrupt judges.

Moses rebelled against Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites and the attempts of ethnic cleansing, and led the people towards liberation. The courageous lady Miriam, who stood with her brother and joined the revolutionary movement, should be an example to all women religious. The way the religious sisters came out to the street in large numbers to protest alongside the striking wrestlers is a fitting life witness.  We see Deborah in the Old Testament who was a prophetess and a judge. When her own military leader Barak was unwilling to face the Canaanite army, she led Israel’s tribal militia into battle for a just cause.

A prophet of courage and inspiration, Elijah stood against the 450 prophets of Baal! He represented the finest traditions of moral teaching and called for those in power to acknowledge the needs of the poor and vulnerable. He is known for promoting ‘a radical sense of social justice faithful to the spirit of the covenant.’

Isaiah took stock of the political situation of the kingdom of Judah in times of wars, exile and restoration. He is known for imparting comfort and inspiration to those who returned from exile. Similarly, Jeremiah’s words brought comfort and inspiration to those who returned from exile. Remember,  Jeremiah was thrown into a well by his enemies because his speaking  pricked them. 

Micah is considered ‘the most vocal in his demands for justice for the poor and oppressed.’ He lashed out at greedy judges who made money from unjust judgements.

These prophets had a sense of the ground-level perception of their people. They had nothing to lose when they stood up firmly and spoke up courageously. They had no quality institutes to think of ‘security’, or sprawling mansions and vast estates, or high-level connections to boast of. Rather, as Pope Francis understands, they were men who, as shepherds, knew ‘the smell of the sheep’ and, hence were able to speak for them against oppressive kings, judges, court officials and even against false prophets.

Where is the prophetic sharpness of the Church today? Where do we come out to stand with the poor, downtrodden or unjustly treated whether they are Christians or non-Christians? It appears that the Church has safely kept the justice and human rights aspect in a corner to be looked after by a few priests and religious who are in the outer lane. 

The inner lanes are occupied by ‘option’- seeking institutes, church mansions, princely officials, and wheeling and dealing religious superiors for whom the safety of their institutions is the priority. I dare say this because this trend exists. Even one or two media channels that are prophetically carrying out their mission for truth, justice and democratic principles are not in the good books of bishops and some prelates.

Some option-promoting prelates ask: “Can we go that far? Can we take to the streets that easily? How can we close down our institutions symbolically even for a day? Will we not be misunderstood? Can’t we have other options?” Yes, there can be. We can churn out memoranda from our air-conditioned rooms. We can present such memoranda that do not have the smell of the sheep. We shall be safe. Our institutes and properties shall be safe. We may not even expect a midnight knock.  At the same time, we can have cosy coffee table discussions about the bulging statistics of Christian institutions all over India, colleges, universities, hospitals, schools, and technical and social institutes to prepare executives for Adani-Ambani projects.  

We are afraid of a situation where our organisations, our institutes, our schools and even parish centres may come to a standstill due to external pressure or the diktat of a fascist government. The fear of becoming unemployed or losing our coveted positions of power in the course of our service can be very depressing.

It is good to remind ourselves that Jesus Christ did not sit over a large empire of colleges, universities, institutes and even worship places.  If at all, such instruments of service have come up over centuries, they were meant for the service of people, to defend the defenceless, and to speak up and stand for truth and a just world. And, if we are not able to use these instruments for such purposes, then we are giving counter-witness to the life and values of Jesus Christ. If we are not able to defend our Christian fraternity when they are attacked, killed or made victims of displacement and ethnic cleansing by a majoritarian bulldozer regime, then it is time to stop being prelates and preachers. Time to roll up our mats and go!  

Maybe, it is time to get out of our prestigious premises and into the streets, lanes, slums and villages with the Constitution of India and the gospel principles tucked under our skin in order to let people know that we stand for truth, justice and democratic principles. Such a proposal looks scatterbrained, is it not? 

I conclude with a recent incident in a newly started English medium school by the Jesuits in my vicinity in Jharkhand. No crowds came with swords and Trishul to destroy the school or attack the young principal.  There came an RSS man with two kids for their admission and queried if he could have concession for the second child. Then came the real diktat: “You church people should concentrate on how you can provide quality education for our kids. Forget about your Church prayers and preaching.” Indications are that this school will be a vantage point for the RSS community that has the majority population in the nearby town.  

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