We are witnessing increasing number of eulogies of the ruling BJP by some bishops, particularly in Kerala, and in the national capital. Basking in the oxygen of instant publicity and short-lived fame, these shepherds tend to ignore the larger picture of the situation in the country and the carefully drawn game plan of the BJP. Are these shepherds listening to the bleating of the lamps?
It would be suicidal to ignore the vast data available on the atrocities on Christians across the country. Even as the ruling BJP is making overtures to woo the Christian community in Kerala to gain political mileage, there is no word of regret, no remorse, no warning against the foot-soldiers who are wantonly attacking the minorities with impunity. There are many meetings, protests (as the one in the national capital recently) against the growing incidents of violence unleashed against the Christians and other minorities. For those who are still not convinced should read numerous well researched studies published in India on the ideology of the RSS and the Sangh Parivar and their long term agenda.
The BJP which is in power at the centre and several states are fully in sync with the Parivar agenda of tampering with the educational system, rewriting history, renaming roads and monuments, temple-building spree and even interfering with free functioning of the judiciary. How can our highly educated church leaders like bishops fail to see the writing on the wall?
It would be foolhardy to be carried away by the BJP’s game plan to woo the Christian community in Kerala through visits to the Bishops’ Houses and Easter greetings on the one hand and the visit of the Prime Minister to the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi on Easter Sunday, on the other. The church leaders meeting the Prime Minister or other ministers and civil leaders are in order.
In a democracy we should show respect to the elected leaders and there is nothing wrong in allowing ministers and elected representatives to grace public functions of the Church. But allowing them to convert such platforms for divisive politics and vote-garnering should not be acceptable. I remember watching the installation ceremony of Archbishop Joseph Pamplany. An invited BJP Minister used the platform to bash the Muslim community and speak about love-jihad and pledge the support of his party for the Christian community. That was evidently a misuse of the occasion he was offered to felicitate the newly installed Archbishop.
But many Church leaders seem oblivious of the attacks unfolding across the country against the Christians and other minorities. They have a moral obligation to use every occasion, every meeting as an opportunity to draw the attention of those in power of their duty to maintain peace and protect every citizen irrespective of religion, caste or party affiliation. They should not be afraid to voice the concerns of their flocks under duress in various parts of the country. They should at least refrain from singing their praises and doling out good certificates. Mutual admiration and adulation and basking in the instant publicity and photo-ops will only be short-lived. Failing to utilize the opportunities to remind those in power of their raj dharma and calling their attention to the insecurity and fear in which the minorities live across the country, is tantamount to betraying the people whose shepherds they claim to be.
Are not the bishops who feel cozy and comfortable with Modi and his government, complimenting him and giving out good grades seriously failing in their duty to be prophetic. If they are not aware of what is happening to the minority communities in other parts of India, they should engage knowledgeable persons to get briefed before meeting with political leaders and making statements which are contrary to the facts.
We do not lack examples of courage in the universal Church. Look at the Nicaraguan bishop Rolando José Álvarez of Matagalpa sentenced to more than 26 years because of his refusal to leave Nicaragua. Alvarez was convicted of treason, undermining national integrity and spreading false news and deprived of citizenship. But the courageous bishop refused to leave the country to go to the United States along with other others charged with treason by President Manuel Ortega. Alvarez who chose to stay back and face the jail term rather than seek asylum, like another courageous hero of South America, Oscar Romero, has won the admiration of the whole world, and received appreciation from Pope Francis.
Recently someone cited the example of the then Archbishop of Bangalore, Bernard Moras, pointing out how he took on the BJP strongman in Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa, when he, as the Chief Minister, came calling on the Archbishop. Those who watched the video images will still remember the angry Archbishop not mincing words in telling then Chief Minister of his state on the growing atrocities against Christians under his watch and calling for action.
Who can forget the 2019 Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka which claimed hundreds of lives? I was part of a media team that visited Sri Lanka a few months after the event. At the St Sebastian’s Church in Colombo we offered prayers and paid tributes to the dead, and then called on Cardinal Malcom Ranjit, Archbishop of Colombo. The Cardinal had stood like a rock in confronting the authorities to demand a thorough investigation and appropriate action on the terrorists and the networks that carried out the attack. He did not mince words in demanding security for his people.
The Cardinal told us that when he demanded protection for his people, the government promptly sent him a bullet proof car and a large pose of security forces to guard the archbishops’ house. He told us that he angrily turned down these and demanded security not for himself but for his people. This fearless Cardinal has, even four years after the incident, continued to persist in his demand on a thorough investigation and punishment for the culprits. He has not been afraid to question his country’s government.
I was told by reliable sources that Pope Francis on his visit to Myanmar in 2017 refused to meet with the Military Junta. But when they pressed for a meeting only to greet him privately at the Archbishop’s House in Yangon, where the Pope stayed, they were permitted to greet him briefly. There was one condition that there would be no photographs. However, while greeting the Pope, some of the military leaders tried to take pictures using their mobile, and the Pope’s security immediately stepped in and stopped them. The Junta leaders wanted to show the public that the Pope had given them audience and that they enjoy cordial relationship with the Pope. The Vatican diplomats knew well the ploy and would not let the brief meeting be exploited by the dictators to show that the Pope was endorsing them. The mighty military rulers were not allowed to have their way. This shows that the Church has brave leaders and experts in dealing with even the most difficult situations. Of course, one must have courage and a will to stand up against any unjust force or power.
I have doubts about the impact of the injunctions of bishops and other religious leaders on the electorate on issues such as casting their votes and choosing candidates. I am afraid ‘the rubber price for vote’ challenge of Archbishop Pamplany will meet the same fate. It was at a farmers’ rally in Alakode (which incidentally is my hometown) that he threw the gauntlet down the BJP. But my own gumption is that even if the BJP government meets with his demand, the Archbishop may not be able to redeem his pledge of getting a candidate elected for the party in his archdiocese or in other parts of the State.
That the endorsement of the church means little when it comes to elections was proved again and again. One glaring example was the Presidential elections in the Philippines held last year. I live in Manila and have been keenly following the high decibel, American style Presidential election between Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and a non-corrupt, credible former vice-president Leni Robredo. In spite of the fact that most of the clergy openly backed Robredo and even converted church premises into campaign arenas for her, Marcos Jr won by a huge margin. This is not the first time that the Filipino voters have rejected clerical appeals to vote against specific candidates. This reveals a disconnect between church leaders and ordinary citizens regarding assessing political candidates. There is a clue that the church leaders in India should learn from the predominantly Catholic country with 84 per cent Catholics, where the candidate widely supported by the clergy lost the election.
Even practicing Christians do not usually consult their bishops and parish priests on whom to vote for, nor follow their diktats for political choices they make. Indian voters have made their choices on their own, whether they are highly educated and politically astute people or simple and uneducated rural folks. One must not overestimate the influence of religious leaders on the outcome of elections. Sometime they have only been counter-productive as the Philippine elections have shown time and again.
So the bottom line is that endorsements by some bishops for the BJP or other political parties may not be transformed into votes in their favour. The well-calculated plans of the BJP have floundered even when they put up highly commendable and deserving candidates who would probably have won if they were to contest as independents. Dr Bhupen Hazarika, the icon of Assam and nationally known singer, was defeated on a BJP ticket in the 2004 Parliamentary elections.
Something similar happened in Kerala’s Palghat where the BJP was sure to capture a legislative Assembly seat in 2021 when the party fielded the popular metro-man E. Sreedharan. Many people felt that he would have won the seat if he were to contest as an independent candidate rather than of the BJP.
These instances show that voters may not go by what the bishops say. But shepherds of the Church should be the voices of the people. They should hear the bleating of their sheep. Any form of leadership calls for courage to stand for the people one represents. Bishops in India who are vacillating on their ideologies will do well to read about a fellow bishop in Germany during the Nazi era. His name is Bishop Clemens August von Galen. He was consecrated Bishop of Münster in 1933 during the Nazi regime. His episcopal motto was Nec laudibus, nec timore – 'neither by praises nor by fear,' which summed up his ministry throughout Germany's Nazi period. The motto was inspired by the liturgy for episcopal consecration.
Bishop von Galen wrote in his first pastoral letter that “Neither the praises of men nor fear of men shall move us. Rather, our glory will be to promote the praise of God, and our steadfast effort will be to walk always in a holy fear of God.” During his entire episcopacy the bishop spoke up against the Nazis’ euthanasia program and racial theories, and defended human rights and the cause of justice. Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in 2005. The church leaders would do well to read Daniel Utrecht’s book on von Galen titled The Lion of Münster: the Bishop who Roared Against the Nazis.