Gifts Speak Volumes

Cedric Prakash Cedric Prakash
08 Nov 2021

On 31 October, I had the privilege of presiding over a virtual Memorial Mass for a relative Andrew Alvares, who died in Dubai a few days earlier. At the conclusion of the Eucharist when tributes were being paid to Andrew, Leon (the son-in-law of Andrew) said that his son Elijah had has a special gift for his beloved “Andrew papa” (as he lovingly called his grandfather). It was a drawing -a typical masterpiece by a five-year old: all scribbly and scrawl- but pregnant with meaning! 

Elijah tried to explain his art to an audience which perhaps had transcended innocence, spontaneity and simplicity. He did so with such child-like imagination and eloquence saying “I drew a heart which is for Andrew papa, who is now in his house and a racing car is going towards him near the sun! Gibberish?? Not at all! His Andrew papa would certainly have reached down from heaven saying this is the best tribute I have received, a precious gift, which I will now show the Holy Trinity, the Saints and angels here in heaven!

Like Elijah’s gift to his Andrew papa – gifts are special to all!  The ‘dramatis personae’ where a gift is concerned includes the giver, the receiver and per se the ‘gift’ itself! 

 In most times it is not the material value of the gift that matters, but the thought behind the gift, the parable or the story behind the gift and of course who gives the gift! Don’t we all treasure the most seemingly ‘worthless’ gift: drawing of a child, a pressed leaf or even a special stone from a beach?!

Jesus reminds us about the widow’s mite and the woman who washes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and anoints them with perfume. There is the example of the Good Samaritan who gives of himself to the person battered and bruised.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Pope Francis in the Vatican on 30 October there was also an exchange of gifts. Vatican News reports, “The Indian Prime Minister gifted the Pope a silver candlestick and a book on the commitment to the environment. The Pope reciprocated with a bronze plaque with the inscription “The desert will become a garden”, volumes of papal documents, his message for World Day of Peace and the document on Human Fraternity, signed on February 4 of 2019 in Abu Dhabi by the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar”.

The official communiqué from the Holy See Press Office following the visit was rather terse “Today, 30 October, the Holy Father Francis received in audience, in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the Prime Minister of the Republic of India, Mr. Narendra Modi”. Then a couple of sentences more, referring to the meeting in the Secretariat of State where there was a ‘brief conversation’ about the ‘cordial relations’ between the Holy See and India. 

Interestingly, when US President Biden met Pope Francis the previous day the Holy See communiqué was more detailed “During the course of the cordial discussions, the Parties focused on the joint commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the healthcare situation and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the theme of refugees and assistance to migrants. Reference was also made to the protection of human rights, including freedom of religion and conscience”. Perhaps not too much weightage should be given to these communiqués even if they are strikingly different!

The four gifts which Pope Francis gave PM Modi however, speak volumes!

The first, the pièce de resistance, is a bronze casting, opencast in parts 19 cm in diameter, manually treated with a polychrome veneer. It is done by the celebrated Italian artist Daniela Fusco. The words inscribed on the plaque state, “To the Honourable Narendra Modi Prime Minister of India 30 October 2021

The work is meant to represent the words of the Prophet Isaiah “the wilderness will become a fruitful field” (Is 32: 15) The dry, thorny branch that blossoms and bears fruit symbolizes the passage from selfishness to sharing, from war to peace; it is a parable of the change that takes place when men and women open their hearts to the authentic values of growth and social harmony. The tondo is not perfect, but missing some parts, as a sign of the commitment demanded of everyone.”

An impartial reading of the above says it all! It is a way of proceeding, a direction which we must take if we believe in change. The missing parts of the tondo signify the heavy responsibility entrusted to all, particularly those in authority, if one has to move from selfishness to sharing, from war to peace! A parable of change takes place only when one’s heart is open to the authentic values of growth and social harmony. Does that ring a bell? Does one have the courage to look into the stark realities that grip India today?

The words from the Prophet Isaiah (32:15) are powerfully directional; the statement needs to be studied with the entire Chapter 32. These include “a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice (#2).Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen.(#3)The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.(#4).No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected(#5) For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the LORD; the hungry they leave empty and from the thirsty they withhold water(#6)Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just.(#7). Familiar words indeed! Prophet Isaiah born in 765 BC took a stand against the powerful, unjust, fascist rulers of his time and on behalf of the poor and needy, the exploited and excluded. Jesus’ Messianic Proclamation, is from the Prophet Isaiah. 

He challenges the women to be less complacent “to rise up and listen” (#9). And goes on to add, “the LORD’s justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness lives in the fertile field. (#16) The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. (#17). In presenting the PM with this very meaningful gift – Pope Francis is clearly making a strong statement and in fact giving the people of India a new hope. One has to be totally naive or an absolute moron to think differently!

The Second gift was Pope Francis’ Message for the 54th World Day of Peace (1 January 2021) Pope Francis is never one to mince words. His annual peace messages are never the wishy-washy type. He strikes at what is endemic in society and demands that these issues are addressed if one needs sustainable peace.  In his opening para he strikes the right note, “Sad to say, we have also seen a surge in various forms of nationalism, racism and xenophobia, and wars and conflicts that bring only death and destruction in their wake. These and other events that marked humanity’s path this past year have taught us how important it is to care for one another and for creation in our efforts to build a more fraternal society. That is why I have chosen as the title of this year’s Message, A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace. A culture of care as a way to combat the culture of indifference, waste and confrontation so prevalent in our time.”

He defends human rights saying “The very concept of the person, which originated and developed in Christianity, fosters the pursuit of a fully human development. Person always signifies relationship, not individualism; it affirms inclusion, not exclusion, unique and inviolable dignity, not exploitation”. Each human person is an end in himself or herself, and never simply a means to be valued only for his or her usefulness. Persons are created to live together in families, communities and societies, where all are equal in dignity. Human rights derive from this dignity, as do human duties, like the responsibility to welcome and assist the poor, the sick, the excluded, every one of our “neighbours, near or far in space and time”. 

His message provides a roadmap , a compass  pointing to a common path to those in authority, “At a time dominated by a culture of waste, faced with growing inequalities both within and between nations, I urge government leaders and those of international organizations, business leaders, scientists, communicators and educators, to take up these principles as a “compass” capable of pointing out a common direction and ensuring “a more humane future”] in the process of globalization. This will enable us to esteem the value and dignity of every person, to act together in solidarity for the common good, and to bring relief to those suffering from poverty, disease, slavery, armed conflicts, and discrimination. I ask everyone to take this compass in hand and to become a prophetic witness of the culture of care, working to overcome the many existing social inequalities. This can only come about through a widespread and meaningful involvement on the part of women, in the family and in every social, political and institutional sphere”

The third gift is the Document on ‘Human Fraternity: for World Peace and Living Together’ which is a pathbreaking treatise jointly signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar on 4 Feb 2019. The document as is obvious in the title says three very clear things: we need world peace; in order to achieve it we must shed exclusiveness, hate and violence; we must begin now! The document has a gripping introduction, ‘In the Name of…’ a litany which cannot be put aside. Almighty God is first invoked and later on includes,
“In the name of human fraternity that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal;

In the name of this fraternity torn apart by policies of extremism and division, by systems of unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women;

In the name of justice and mercy, the foundations of prosperity and the cornerstone of faith” 

The Document has to be read, reflected upon and acted upon.  There is not a word or statement which is unnecessary. It contextualises the reality of today and sets forth challenges which need to be addressed head- on. “This Declaration, setting out from a profound consideration of our contemporary reality, valuing its successes and in solidarity with its suffering, disasters and calamities, believes firmly that among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and a prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles.”

There is absolute clarity in statements like, “We likewise affirm that major political crises, situations of injustice and lack of equitable distribution of natural resources – which only a rich minority benefit from, to the detriment of the majority of the peoples of the earth – have generated, and continue to generate, vast numbers of poor, infirm and deceased persons. This leads to catastrophic crises that various countries have fallen victim to despite their natural resources and the resourcefulness of young people which characterize these nations. In the face of such crises that result in the deaths of millions of children – wasted away from poverty and hunger – there is an unacceptable silence on the international level.

Many in India (including some Catholics) will surely wince at these words, “We resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women in order to make them act in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion. This is done for the purpose of achieving objectives that are political, economic, worldly and short-sighted. We thus call upon all concerned to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression. We ask this on the basis of our common belief in God who did not create men and women to be killed or to fight one another, nor to be tortured or humiliated in their lives and circumstances.” Denigrating an entire religion, using obnoxious terms like ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotic jihad’, spewing hate is anathema!

Ultimately the document takes a stand for freedom of religion, pluralism, diversity and justice. “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives…. Justice based on mercy is the path to follow in order to achieve a dignified life to which every human being has a right.”

This Document, Pope Francis says was inspirational for his Encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ where he says, “The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights that no one may violate – no individual, group, class, nation or state. Not even the majority of the social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority”. (# 273). ‘Fratelli Tutti’, the other incisive Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’: on the care of our common home, the Apostolic Exhortation ‘Querida Amazonia’ and several other papal documents comprised the fourth gift of ‘volumes!’ 

Pope Francis is undoubtedly the most respected and admired leader in the world today. When he speaks, he touches the grim realities of today! His gifts to PM Modi provide a clear roadmap for governance based on justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. It is highly unlikely that Modi will read what was given, there are however, his advisors who can do so and give him a summary of them. It is therefore incumbent on the Church in India, particularly the hierarchy and the clergy, to first study these precious gifts and then let everyone know how concerned Pope Francis is about the people of India. Like little Elijah’s drawing for his papa in heaven, Pope Francis’ gifts are not cosmetics but gifts that speak volumes!

Khalil Gibran says it all in the ‘Prophet’

And you receivers—and you are all receivers—assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.
     Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;
     For to be overmindful of your debt, is to doubt his generosity who has the freehearted earth for mother, and God for father.

(*Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer.  Contact:  cedricprakash@gmail.com  )

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