I was delighted and encouraged to read the report in Matters India that Pope Francis called Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, on 3rd June who joined a demonstration against racial discrimination to pray for George Floyd, an African- American killed by a police man in Minneapolis. Pope Francis wanted to congratulate Bishop on his prophetic action to express solidarity with those who were protesting. Along with a group of priests of his diocese Bishop Seitz knelt for nine minutes of silent prayer in Memory of Floyd. Indeed it was a prophetic act of solidarity by a Catholic Bishop.
Church leaders of different denominations showed prophetic courage to criticise President Donald Trump for making provocative statements against protesters. They also criticised him for misusing the church for a photo session holding the Bible. President Trump doesn’t practice peace, forgiveness and sensitivity taught by the Bible. This was symbolically seen when he held the Bible upside down.
Pope Francis also called Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, the president of the US Bishops’ Conference to encourage the prophetic stand the Church leadership in the US has taken. Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Minneapolis also communicated the good wishes and prayers of Pope to the people who suffer injustice and discrimination.
When I was reading this report of the prophetic stand of Pope Francis and many US Church leaders I was thinking of the Church in India. In natural calamities like cyclone, earthquake and tsunami the Church is prompt in reaching out with relief to the suffering. However I had been watching the response of the Church in situations where human rights are violated and innocent people are killed in communal riots. Immediately after Hindutva forces pulled down the mosque in Ayodhya on 6th December 1992 there was communal violence all over India. Hundreds and thousands of men, women and children were massacred all over India. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination thousands of Sikhs were murdered. The Church in India was silent and indifferent on such occasions. Not even a statement of condemnation of violence was issued from the part of the Church. No pastoral letters were issued asking the clergy, religious and laity to work for peace and reconciliation. In I993 there was serial bomb blasts in Bombay city killing hundreds and injuring many more. Again the Church remained silent. Over 2000 men, women and children were brutally murdered in Gujarat violence in 2002. Still the Church in India was indifferent. The logic which made them to keep silence must have been, ‘the problem is between Hindus and Muslims or Sikhs. Why should we interfere and get into trouble? ’.
Almost every day we come to know how small girls and women are raped and murdered. We witness how the fringe groups of cow vigilante and mob mercilessly lynch Muslims, dalits and tribals. Many such atrocities are taking place all over India. Why doesn’t the Church speak up against these atrocities and human right violations? Why do the innumerable social workers and lawyers in the Church keep silence?
Even when the Hindutva forces led by Sangh Parivar burnt down and vandalized more than 390 church institutions, forced more than 50,000 people to flee for life and many were killed the Church in India as usual was silent . There was little sign of solidarity among the Christians at the national level. There were a few isolated protests which were attended by a small number of people. The priests and religious in other parts of the country continued their routine chores. There was no serious consultation at the national level to prepare new strategies and action plans to deal with the situation. Some were doing the routine visits to government offices, having regular photo sessions and socialising with ministers and bureaucrats.
Apart from Kandhamal violence attacks are taking place on the Church institutions, assaults on priests and religious regularly. Yet there is no serious effort from the Church leadership or from other Church organisations at the national and local level to make a review of the situation and prepare strategies and action plans to make the mission of the Church relevant in the fast changing socio-political scenario. The Church in India is like an Ostrich putting its head in the sand and remain complacent without knowing the dangers at hand.
What motivates Pope Francis for his proactive and trendsetting actions and statements is his call consciousness to be “a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:4). This consciousness of being called to be a “prophet to the nations” prompted Bishop Seitz to join the demonstration against racial discrimination. This same call consciousness of being prophetic prompted other Church leaders in the US to express solidarity with those who were demonstrating. This prophetic spirit made them to admonish the mighty president Donal Trump. They were following the prophetic tradition of John the Baptist who challenged King Herod of his immorality. They were following the example of Jesus who dared to lambast the Jewish hierarchy of their hypocrisy.
When millions of migrant workers were walking hundreds of kilometres to reach home during the lockdown days and several of them died on the roads and railways tracks the Church leadership remained silent. Some of them again got into the routine charity of distributing food and felt complacent. There was neither any prophetic statement expressing solidarity nor intervention with the government for innovative proposals from the Church leadership. Apart from the routine distribution of food the Church failed to make any prophetic action such as providing buses to those who are walking or opening the big institutions for them to rest. Hundreds of buses were lying in many school campus and they could have been pressed into action. The Church leadership and members were busy with their routine rituals and retreats through TV and YouTube channels.
Prophetic actions will emerge only when one is contemplative. Contemplation on the life and teachings of Christ and applying them to the present context is the need of the hour.
The Church in India can reinvent and make relevant again only when the bishops, priests and religious start reflecting on their call and vision as prophet to the nations, salt of the earth, light of the world and follow the leadership model of the Good Shepherd.
I wish and pray that the Church leadership in India follow the prophetic model of Pope Francis and US Bishops. Will the Church leaders, priests and religious wake up and explore the possibilities of “putting new wine in new wineskins”. This is THE WAY OF CHRIST by which the Church can be renewed and make its mission relevant.
(Published on 15th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 25)