‘The shepherds should live with the smell of the sheep…. This is what I am asking you – be shepherds with the smell of sheep.’ Thus spoke Pope Francis addressing priests at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday on March 28, 2013. The Pope put it more bluntly in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel): “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.” Covid 19 has given an opportunity for the Church to prove that it is with the poor and for the poor. It has offered an opening for the Church to proclaim that it continues to be the salt of the earth without losing its saltiness.
The livelihood of the people is going to hit hard in the post-Covid era. It is heartening to see how various wings of the Church have come together to lend a helping hand to the affected people. For example, Caritas India, along with its close to 200 partner organisations based in dioceses, could reach out to over 5 million people across the country in one way or other. We have seen Church institutions rolling up their sleeves and coming to the forefront offering hospitals, schools, hostels, retreat houses, pastoral centres, etc. to accommodate people in quarantine. The Chief Minister of Kerala himself, in one of the press conferences, warmly acknowledged such helps. To cite another example, from among hundreds of initiatives by Church organs, a congregation of sisters in Ranchi opened up a few shelter homes wherein hundreds of famished migrants were taken care of.
But the challenge is going to be bigger in the post-Covid days. It has to be on a wider scale involving huge resources. There is going to be a litany of problems, big and small, staring at the people who are left high and dry. There will be a major mismatch between scarce resources and innumerable tasks at hand. To cope with this herculean task, the Church has to rework its priorities. Several prelates in the past have thrown light on what should be the new focus of the Church. Cardinal George Alencherry has eloquently argued against constructing big churches and indulging in pompous shows during festivals. “The Church should avoid every type of extravaganza. The Church is poor and it belongs to the poor,” he said in a recent interview to a newspaper. Similar sentiments have been expressed by many bishops too.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), in a recent press release, has acknowledged the crucial need to extend succour to people during and after the lockdown. It foresees a big role for the Church in rebuilding life of those who have fallen in bad times due to Covid impact. The forthcoming conference of the KCBC is reportedly going to take a close look at the gargantuan task in hand. The Church in India too needs to go in for hard decisions to overcome hardships of her people. A meaningful socio-development strategy has to be worked out by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. It might have to say a firm ‘no’ to uncalled-for construction activities; it will have to put its foot down on pointless pageantry during festivals and wasteful celebrations by various wings of the Church. Or else the shepherd will be separated from the sheep without the ‘smell’ the Pope refers to.
(Published on 25th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 22)