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CBCI: Carnival or Come Down? Dr. James Kottoor

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Field Hospital Casuality Room?

 CBCI: Carnival or Come Down?

           Bright & brittle rainbow colours of  Palai centred casualty  room  calls for vertical & horizontal dialogue to decrease dissent & increase consensus to prevent a divided house going to pieces. Giant steps, not baby steps, of leadership a la Francis needed to unleash untold potentials for good in Kerala Church.

Dr. James Kottoor

The week long 31st Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) which met with a lot of fan fare is over. Palai, in Kerala where 187 Bishops congregated was in the spot light. Called the Vatican of India by many, nay the New Jerusalem by some(K.M. Mani) from where heralds of the Gospel troop  out to  four corners of the glob, became the focal point of attention to draw inspiration from and   to absorb the nectar of Biblical wisdom Bishops were expected to  be churning out.

If Palai, a single diocese could boast of 27 Bishops,  456 priests, 599 sisters, 438 missionary diocesan priests, 1,296,  religious priests,147 Religious Brothers, 8,452 missionary Sisters, according to reports in Deepika daily, can any one be faulted for calling it India’s Vatican or  New Jerusalem?  So for a good number of the Bishops CBCI meet was a home coming while for the rest, a visit or picnic to the home land of their co-workers. Only a true missionary is incapable of boasting because when he/she has done all that one has been commissioned to do he/she calls himself/herself a useless servant in His hands.

Context of CBCI Meet

But the one question that has been tormenting  my heart, thinking of Palai my native town,  was this: Will the meet there  be an unparalleled Carnival or an astounding come down to ground realities, heralding the healing  ways of the Lord? The images that deluged my mind to blurt out such a question were the following:  1. The categorical statement of Pope Francis: “Carnival Time is over!”  Followed by his high thinking and too simple living. 2. If Catholic church today is envisioned as a field hospital by its top physician Fancis, doing Red Cross work, Palai meet  would  be his  improvised causality ward  on wheels of the Indies treating the wounded and saving the dying by an expert  team of 187 capable  of even midnight surgeries under a torch light. 3. Jesus’ own command to Zacheus: “Come down from the tree top as I have to sup with you today.”  4. Jesus’ own descent to the depths of degradation (self-empting) to a cattle shed as healer par excellence.

5.  Francis’s  own repeated refrain: “Get out,  get  out  of the church of  sacristy to go to the periphery,”  not to visit and come back to  air conditioned comforts of a Rectory  or Bishop’s  palace, but to live amidst the  crime prone drug addicts who live in dirty, congested slums and  cherries(Favelas).  6. Jesus’ own answer to a questioning generation: “I have spoken to you from house tops, nothing in secret, ask those who heard me” (transparency, not secrecy in all dealings). 7. Francis’s unequivocal statement: “Thinking with the Church doesn’t mean thinking with Bishops” but with the entire Church citizens among whom hierarchical divisions of importance have no place.

8. The image of Francis, like the Prodigal Father, eagerly waiting to hear the voices of wounded Church Citizens on the pews around the world reporting poll results on Challenges Family faces today, which will be taken up at its first marathon Church Synod in Rome in 2014 October and again at the final 2015 October Synod. 9. His statement that even infallibility (not mentioned these days) is vested  only  in this consensus of all faithful vying with one another  to serve, not dominate,  one  another fraternally as equal citizens in the “Thy Kingdom here on earth”  spoken of in Our Father. 10. Francis’s statement: ‘I don’t want to be surrounded by “Yes” men. Critics do greater service, than yes-men. 11. It would be wrong to imagine that Indian bishops are less  exercised with these unsettling thoughts than me a small fry.  One must  therefore expect  the unexpected Nectar to emerge from this Palazhi churning in Palai, I sighed in relief.

Then comes the news from reliable sources the final statement of Bishops released for public consumption.  Part of it reads as follow: “We, the 187 member-bishops of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), came together at the Alphonsian Pastoral Institute, Palai in Kerala, the place sanctified by St. Alphonsa, from February 5 -12, 2014, for the 31st Plenary Assembly....


  “5.iii. Ensuring for our lay faithful their rightful place: Recognizing the God-given talents and potentialities of the lay faithful, we will, in the first place, listen more to their voice. Hence, we commit ourselves to establish Pastoral Councils in every diocese…”

Laity’s Rightful Place

        The statement is about what they plan to do in future (we will…. etc). Haven’t the Indian Bishops been listening so far? Haven’t they even established pastoral councils ordered by Vatican II 60 yeas ago? To their credit I must say they are fully honest in admitting this unlike the presumptuous statement of this CBCI’s theme: “Reformed Church (in the past) reforming Society” as if it is only the society, not the Church in dire need of reform. As far as “listening” is concerned, the collective months-long futile efforts of a group of Church citizens in Ernakulam, to get  a vertical dialogue started, widely  publicized in Almayasabdam, (website of Catholic Reformation Society) is proof of hierarchy’s firm intent to block all such efforts by closing their ears to all voices from below and to go ahead with their usual talking down to people, if and when they please. In this  how different are they from  all political parties people detest, for being long on promises and short on delivery?

        Vatican II happened some 60 years ago. But what about the reigning  Pope Francis who appeared on the scene last year and let loose a hornet’s nest? Yes his pastoral, not doctrinal, words and deeds, like “field hospital”,  save the “dying”, don’t waste time checking “cholesterol”  etc.,   became the stinging bees emerging from the hive.  The whole world, not merely Christians in most countries, were and are stung to the quick by these swirling bees. Nay they are causing drastic changes in many countries. If they have not caused even pin pricks on our bishops, they must be having Rhinoceros hides. Won’t they? Just take the case of survey on “Challenges family faces today” --   premarital sex, contraception, gays, divorce, cohabitation before marriage – which Pope ordered last October and many countries have already sent in results, but it is not even announced in India!

When they say “We the 187 member-bishops of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India” and ignore or callously exclude  the 99% of the  church made up of priests, religious and laity, aren’t they flaunting themselves, knowingly or unknowingly as the sole depositories of   power, authority  and know-how which they don’t have, as stated by  the Pope? Our traditional political parties have been doing this for the last 60 years -- promising the electorate soaps to get elected and ignoring them once  elected. It has caused the scandalous spurt in all sorts of corruption which has per force produced the rise of an Aam Aadmi party shaking up the whole political system in India.  How is it that Francis who appeared on the horizon far ahead of AAP as  champion of change identifying with the poor for the poor and as giant killer of a culture of comfort and posh living   has failed so miserably to make an impact on our Indian Bishops even after seeing fast changes for the better AAP is causing in all other wayward political parties  in secular society?

          What actually transpired during the one full week of CBCI deliberations, no one knows. It was all shrouded in total secrecy, scattering to the winds the command of Jesus for transparency, “I have spoken from house tops”... etc. They rather followed the example of Nicodemus who furtively met Jesus under cover of darkness. Of course all CBCI meetings of the past were not closed door sessions as I can vouch for it. This scribe for example was a regular invitee to report such assemblies when he was Editor of New Leader in Chennai. A write up on such historical happenings could be of benefit to highlight the role of the so-called Catholic press in India today. 

Police Protection for CBCI?

            Another striking feature that marked out this  Palai meet  as something singular, was the elaborate police protection sought and got from the Kerala state government. Collusion or collaboration between church and state, is the question debated. It could have been also been for a smooth Red Cross operation in a war zone. But I can’t think of any CBCI meet in India conducted under such elaborate police protection in my 79 years of life. One  justification that came to my mind was the reported news that some bishop in Kerala is actually travelling in bullet proof car. So to pre-empt  such suspected threats,  police security for bishops was made mandatory from start to finish, arrival point to departure, but especially for all varieties of public display of India’s Church royalties in their glittering royal regalia and fanciful or clownish head gears at functions like Civic Reception given to Bishops who are power wielders in  Church; for pilgrimage to the tomb of the First Saint Alphonsa at Bharanaganam, and journeys or outdoor picnics to lesser shrines.

            The media, visual and print, were splashed with their marching or group photos and reports of adulations lavished especially by the  political class.  Only one could hardly find anything about the spiritual issues they deliberated as moral leaders.  At the end, all are left in wonder what danger or security threat these messengers of peace had in mind. Compare it to Pope Francis’s trip to Brazil and his frequent running about in Vatican and outside without any police escort and that in any ordinary car, not a bullet proof one either. At least Cardinal Alancherry was seen once in a paper report with the picture of the Auto he was travelling in. That could be proof that the aam aadmi culture after all is beginning to trickle down among SMC hierarchy.

Church Citizens Demonstrate

         Finally  Palai meet turned out to  be a candid camera on big screen on  how too many Church Citizens in the Kerala were feeling quite uncomfortable, alienated, excluded and not listened to in their own Church. These are symptoms of unrest, resentment and even revolt in the Kerala church which now seems to have too many warring factions based on contentious issues like, Liturgy, Rite, church administration of parishes, schools, colleges, hospitals etc.

        The gap between Clergy and sections of vocal laity seems to be widening.  The latter   now describe themselves as Church Citizens on a par with any in the hierarchical ladder as the present pope wants them to be. Hasn’t  he for instance, ditched all careerists clambering to climb to the top rungs of the hierarchical ladder? These groups protest against their exclusion from decision making roles  in the Church. Given below date-wise are just four instances of faithful confronting the CBCI, seeking answers.

            1. On Feb. 2nd already ahead of the CBCI meet, Joint Christian Council, a venture of various independent Kerala Christian organizations, presided by Sri. Lalan Tharakan met in Ernakulam and declared that the Palai CBCI without  proportionate participation of priests, religious and laity was null and void even according to Canon Law and much more according to the teaching and example of Pope Francis.

.            2.On  Feb.5th the inaugural day of the CBCI   ‘Dalit Catholic Federation of India’ (DCFI) of  over 120  men and women conducted a march with mike and placards demanding  KCBC(Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference) and CBCI to  keep their promise to  give 39% reservation in school admission and jobs to  Dalit Christians in Catholic Educational institutions.  Their mikes were switched off and procession stopped at Kadappatoor temple, one km from CBCI site by two bus loads of   armed state police.

               3. On Feb.7th a Knanaya Prayer Rally of over 500 men and women with placards, but silent and prayerful,  from Central Town Chapel was conducted to give a memorandum to Bishops to oust Kottayam diocese for practicing Endogamy. Copies of the memorandum had already been sent by post to all bishops in India, quite in advance. This procession also was stopped at Kadappatoor Temple by armed police.

              4.On Feb.8&9 a two day seminar by Catholic Citizens group (registered as Catholic Laymen’s association  in 1998) with 320 members – over 100 participated -- under the leadership of  Adv. M.L. George, met at High Court Junction, Ernakulam  in a Panthal, burned in public the present Canon Law,  drafted a new one for SMC and conduced a repeat of the Koonan Kurisu declaration protesting against the rejection of St.Thomas Church traditions, domination of Clergy, suppressing the voice of the laity and their participation in the management of the Church.

              It is said, soldiers in battle  fields  must do and die, while generals in their  cosy comfort must reason: Why? Groups  like the ones mentioned above, wounded in the battle field are raising questions for the generals turned doctors in the causality  on wheels of the field hospital, to reason why and prescribe timelya lasting treatment, not any quick-fix.

               That indeed is the  silver lining on the dark horizon. It is  this vibrant and living hope that is soothing, that we shall surely overcome all hurdles by the Lord’s Grace, that vertical dialogue on all pestering ailments would soon be started and  right remedy applied for  speedy recovery of all patients  in Syromalabar  Church  and Church in India.

The writer can be contacted at: jkottoor@asianetindia.com

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