The Indian Church has about 1,30,000 consecrated persons, diocesan priests and religious women and men together, while the RSS has only 2,500 full-time Pracharaks. The late Fr. Varghese Alengaden used to ask, “What is the impact of 1.3 lakh fully dedicated persons, who provide 24x7 free service to the Church, on the Indian society and how are they influencing the people of India?” If they are not producing “lasting fruits” in proportion to their number, the reason could be their failure to understand the significance of their call, vision and mission as “prophets to the nations.”
The call of a consecrated person is to become a prophet to the nations. “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born, I set you apart and appointed you as my PROPHET TO THE NATIONS. (Jer1:5)”. It is God who has chosen and called a person to consecrated life. The call given to a consecrated person is universal and he/she must transcend the identities like rite, religion, caste, language, nationality etc. Hence, the vision of a consecrated person must be the vision of Jesus, the Reign of God. It is a situation in which God is accepted as a loving father and all human beings as brothers and sisters. The vision of a consecrated person must be broad, inclusive and lasting. Limiting oneself only to a particular group of people goes against the call and vision of a consecrated person.
The mission of a consecrated person has various dimensions as reflected in the life of Jesus and prophets of the Old Testament. A prophet is one who stands for truth and justice. He/she has the courage to speak truth to power, as John the Baptist did with Herod. In the socio-political context of today, a consecrated person cannot be silent when he/she sees suppression of truth by spreading fake and fabricated news, when innocent people are lynched, being falsely accused of killing cows, when social and political activists and journalists are persecuted and imprisoned, branding them as anti-nationals.
A consecrated person must function as the conscience of society. His/her speaking may be a cry in the wilderness, but he/she must speak and should be ready to suffer the consequences, as Jesus and John the Baptist did in their times and Fr. Stan Swamy in recent years. Some of the recent statements of the top leaders of the Catholic Church in India, appreciating and justifying the policies of the BJP government at the Centre, appear to be emanating from fear and the desire to protect their personal interests. As their statements are contrary to facts and truth, they are betraying their people. It is reported daily the increasing hate speeches against Muslims and Christians by the Sangh Parivar members, including Union Ministers, and attacks on Christian communities and institutions by the right-wing organizations with the connivance of the police and other state authorities. Against this backdrop, how can the top leaders of the Church say that Christians are feeling secure under the BJP rule?
Bearing lasting fruits is another dimension of the mission of a consecrated person. “You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit, fruit that will last,” Jesus said to his disciples (Jn 15:16). What is meant by lasting fruits? It is creating a lasting impact and leaving a legacy. The late Fr. Varghese Alengaden in his talks use to give an example: If an alumnus of a Catholic school gets recognition at all India level for his/her contribution to the nation/world and he/she in turn recognizes the role played by the Catholic school in making him/her what he/she is, then it is a lasting fruit. How many of the consecrated persons in India can claim that they are producing lasting fruits.
To be the light of the world is another aspect of the mission of the consecrated persons. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples and the role of the consecrated persons is to enlighten people. In order to become ‘light’, they themselves have to become enlightened persons through constantly enhancing their knowledge, learning from the book of life and setting an example to inspire and lead others.
Becoming salt of the earth is an important aspect of the mission of the consecrated persons. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus told his disciples (Mt. 5:13). The functions of salt are giving taste to food items, preserving food items from corruption, healing wounds and nurturing plants by becoming a nutrient. In the same way, through their presence and various interventions the consecrated persons are expected to add taste to life of the people of God, preserve them from corrupting forces and heal the wounds created through discrimination, hate speeches and violence.
A small quantity of salt is needed to serve its purpose. No one adds one kg of salt in one kg of vegetables. In the same way, Jesus wants quality rather than quantity. Unfortunately, in the race for increasing the number of consecrated persons to cope with the unbridled institutional expansion, quality is often compromised. As salt loses its identity and becomes part and parcel of the food items, the consecrated persons must identify themselves with the people of God by shedding their egos and aloofness. If they remain in their comfort zones away from the people, they will not be able to influence people.
Jesus had warned his disciples of the danger of salt losing its saltiness. “But what good is salt if it has lost its flavour? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot”. The implication of Jesus’ warning is that the lapses and scandals on the part of the consecrated persons become serious obstacles in functioning as transformative agents in society. They will not be able to become a moral force in society and challenge injustices as the prophets in the past did. Some social activists who are put behind bars, being accused as anti-nationals, can be counted as genuine prophets.
In order to fulfil the functions of a prophet, the consecrated persons have to become Good Shepherd leaders after the model of Jesus. Jesus has briefly described the qualities of a good shepherd leader in the Gospel of John, chapter 10 verses 1 to 18.
The good shepherd leaders lead from the front by becoming excellent examples and role models. There is no dichotomy between what they speak and what they do. They are able to say as Mahatma Gandhi said, “My life is my message”. They are people with courage, clarity of vision and conviction. As a result, they can give proper guidance to the people whom they are leading.
Good shepherd leaders have personal touch with the people whom they lead. Calling by name indicates that the leaders know personally whom they lead; they know the strengths and weaknesses of their people. They are able to understand their people and as a result they are able to appreciate, encourage and support them in times of difficulties.
Good shepherd leaders are ready to take any risk for the safety and security of their people. They are servant leaders, being available at the service of their people. They do not behave like kings and emperors.
Crisis is part and parcel of consecrated life, as the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus had to face crisis in fulfilling their mission. Jer 1: 18 is applicable to the life and mission of the consecrated persons. “Listen, Jeremiah, everyone in the land -- the kings of Judah, the officials, the priests and the people -- will be against you”.
St. Paul in the second letter to Corinthians, chapter 11: 23 to 28 narrates the crises he had to undergo. “Are they Christ’s servants? I sound like a madman, but I am a better servant than they are! I have worked much harder, I have been in prison more times, I have been whipped much more, and I have been near death more often. Five times I was given thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; Three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. In my many travels I have been in danger from floods and from robbers, in danger from fellow-Jews and from Gentiles; there have been dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and dangers from false friends. There has been work and toil; often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing. And not to mention other things, every day I am under the pressure of my concern for all the churches”.
Jesus had the same experience of being left by everyone at the end of his life. The people who had received many benefits from him shouted, ‘crucify him’. One of his disciples betrayed him and most of the disciples ran away because of the fear of the Jewish authorities. He was alone during his suffering and death.”
At the same time, consecrated persons who have deep faith in God will experience the presence of God in their crisis. They are able to see God’s hand when a crisis appears. That is why St. Paul could say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:13).
India is undergoing a tectonic socio-political change which can be disastrous not only for Christians but also for people of all faiths, including the majority community. The implementation of Hindutva ideology by the BJP governments at the centre and in several states is resulting in the persecution of minorities, blatant violation of fundamental and human rights and wanton destruction of democratic institutions. In the words of political analyst Christophe Jaffrelot, India is increasingly becoming an “electoral autocracy”.
The police in a central Indian state are after a Catholic bishop to arrest him on the basis of false cases filed against him. It is time for the 1,30,000 consecrated persons in India to become alert and exercise their prophetic role of speaking truth to power, when their top leaders are being hoodwinked by the right-wing political leaders who spread hatred and violence against Christians in the North and Central India. If not now, when?
(Most of this article is based on a talk given by Fr. Varghese Alengaden under the title, “Call, Vision and Mission” during the Christo Centric Leadership Retreat.)