CBCI Meets Past and Present: Peddlers of Secrecy or Transparency?



 CBCI meets of Chennai, Calcutta and the historic Church in India Seminar of Bangalore were unforgettable models of transparency and openness at their very best.

Dr. James Kottoor

       Why was there so much secrecy on the internals bordering on deadening silence and so much transparency bordering on exhibitionism on the externals at the CBCI (Catholic Bishops Conference of India) meet just over in Palai? This was the substance of several letters I received. This is just a response.

 Yes last DBCI was silent  and short on substance, on what it deliberated upon and loud and long on semblance, on externals,  what it exhibited for marketing the brand name CBCI in  public perception to a secular world,  especially to politicians,  corporates  and power brokers outside the Christian fold. Why? May be the Church in Palai is still living in the Constantinean era. For a detailed answer, one should approach the organizers themselves. But things were not so even in the distant past. There were CBCI meetings with total transparency on its internal workings and deliberations with absolutely no external exhibitionism.  Here are just two CBCI meets which this writer reported daily from within.

CBCI Chennai Meet

It was in the l970ies. I happened to be the Editor of New Leader (NL), now a125 years old English weekly from Chennai. It was  just two years or so since I took over. The  biennial  CBCI meet  was scheduled to be held  at  the Sacred Heart  Seminary, Poonamallee,  Chennai.  Absolutely no additional royal facilities were constructed for the purpose.  Bishops were happily accommodated in the then available Spartan rooms. the seminary provided. They must have been given a thorough washing.

What came as a surprise was the invitation to me from the part of the organizers to cover the meeting. In substance the invitation said: “Since you are now  editor on the spot, with a journalism degree from US and running it, why don’t you take charge of covering the daily sessions?”  That came as a terrible shock to me because first of all it was a break from the past. Officially no journalists were allowed into CBCI so far as I knew. Secondly  in spite of all my study  and practical training in US with  3 Catholic weeklies for 3 months each after the degree,  I was shivering in my boots for  lack of confidence.

 I have always been a terrible coward to take up big responsibilities but would go the  whole hog  and take all ricks once the job is thrust upon me. So I put up a bold face and said “Yes” instead of “No” to the invitation.  My editorial staff consisted of just two, myself and a youngster to help me for lay out and proof reading. The editor did all the writing with the by line: “By Our correspondent,” or “Staff Writer” to avoid repeat of my name every where.  So I went to the conference site armed with paper, pens and a camera hanging on shoulder because the editor was also the photographer.

Encounter with Censorship

    First I had to meet the secretary in Charge of the CBCI meet to take  detailed instructions. Most unexpected was the initial instruction: “Before publishing any report you must submit it to me for clearance,” he told me. “My God,” I exclaimed and asserted in no unequivocal terms, “you can look for someone else, not me because pre-censorship is anathema according to the ethics of Journalism.  So let us not waste time talking on this issue” I told him point blank. It made him red faced, as he had reposed so much faith in me as a pliable journalist to be ordered about. But he wanted an explanation for this unheard of stand on my part.

 So I told him: “you send some one to become a medical doctor. On return you ask him to conduct an emergency surgery on a sinking patient but insist that he makes the cuts as you direct. What will happen? The operation will be successful from your point of view but the patient will collapse.”  As this heated discussion was on and I was about to depart, suddenly Archbishop Eugene D’Souza of Bhopal passing by joined in. What is the problem James, he asked me as he was already familiar with the quality of the content of the NL.  Both sides explained their positions to the Archbishop and like Solomon of old he in substance asked the Secretary in Charge:”Why did you invite James to report? Was it not because you found him to be competent to do the job?  Are you or any one else more competent?  If not why don’t you allow him to do the job, without interfering in his professional work which is against all principles of “Subsidiarity”   enunciated by the Council?” Collegiality, co-responsibility and subsidiarity were the three principles championed by Cardinal Suenens of Belgium at the Council and got enormous acceptance. He even wrote a book titled: Co responsibility in the Church.

Press Freedom Vindicated

 The secretary has been wise enough to see the point and he, though very reluctantly kept his mouth shut and allowed me to function independently, although my diffidence and cowardice wanted me to escape from the scene. So I had free access to all general body sessions and group meetings and discussions and could freely interview any one, which I did, young and energetic and duty conscious, as I was. I was also very happy to meet young and energetic  bishop Powathil  of Chanasserry, after  he was elected,  Chairman of the Youth Commission together with another bishop from the North as his assistant. To give him due exposure, also because he happened to be from Kerala my home state, I took photos of him and gave a write up in the NL. I did it also for other important CBCI commissions.

One of the general features of discussions among bishops in the general body and in groups was this. Bishops from the North were generally more open, liberal and outspoken in expressing their views. Bishops from the south, especially from Kerala were rather conservative and less loquacious, since all discussions were done in English. I on my part  went about reporting what each one said especially on popular or controversial topics, naming the speaker even when what he said was greeted with roaring applause or shouted down with laughter.  I reported even the number of votes cast   for or against on various topics. When such items were published in the NL, it brought bouquets and brick bats   for or against me, something I had to take as part of reporting without fear or favour.

NL Readers in Ecstacy

As for the readers of NL, they were in ecstasy to experience such transparency for the first time in the internal workings of the CBCI. For them it was like letting them into a Conclave electing a new Pope. Some of course were furious with me for reporting certain silly or stupid views they wanted to get approved. In their eyes I became the bête noir, others loved what I reported. 


Ever since I used to be a regular invitee to CBCI meets or national Seminars held in Bangalore, Delhi or Calcutta.  The most important was the Church in India Seminar in Bangalore in which a large number of lay people took part and the controversial Encyclical, Humanae Vitae (on Birth Control) by Pope Paul VI became the hot potato and the explosive topic. On it the Church in India stood sharply divided, then. So it is even today, a topic on which the views of ordinary Church citizens are sought in the survey ordered by Pope Francis last October, though  not even announced or circulated publically here in India by our respectable bishops, expected to follow the example of Jesus who said:”I spoke from house tops, not in secret, ask those who heard me.”

Calcutta CBCI Meet

Just one more instance. This time the CBCI meet was held in Calcutta. The theme of the topic as I remember was collegiality and co-responsibility, propounded in the Council. For this meeting I made it a point to give wide publicity among the readers of NL, which by then was the most  popular national Catholic publication. It was at that time that  Cardinal Suenens of Belgium a close friend of Pope Paul VI (he  dragged Suenens also to the balcony for his first appearance after  election, which I witnessed from St.Peter’s Square), gave a very critical interview to La Croix(French Daily)  and propounded the principles of Collegiality etc.  I got hold of the entire interview in English from the National Catholic Reporter, Kansas, USA and published it in NL ahead of Calcutta meet. It got me literally into hot water with my own bishop who almost sacked me, since the Cardinal was critical of the misuse of Papal authority, without mincing words; strong on positions taken but sweet in the manner he expressed them. (Fortis in Re, suaviter in modo). 

  In addition I sent out an SOS call to all readers of NL under the title: SPEAK TO YOUR PASTORS THROUGH YOUR PAPER. It meant to send in what they, especially the laity had to say to their bishops for consideration at the CBCI meet in Calcutta. Letters came like flood. All of them were printed below the above heading in two full pages of the then Tabloid weekly. On the front page was given a cartoon titled: “Oh Calcutta” to refer to the meet in Calcutta. Originally it was the name of a sexy Calcutta movie. The cartoon depicted all  bishops floating up in heaven above in a circle grappling with the subject and a few laypeople on ground pulling down the bunch of bishops as though they were a Kite, and shouting, “Please come down”. It meant to give out the message: Let not your discussions be up in the clouds but down to earth. These copies were posted to all bishops ahead of Calcutta meet.

Calcutta Encounters

Of course I was there a day ahead of the meet. The first one to meet me was Archbishop Piccachy (later Cardinal) who was a great   admirer, patron and supporter of NL. Several times he wrote sending bulk subscriptions as encouragement for “the high standard of Catholic Journalism” in NL. Speaking in the company of few others he thanked me profusely for the enormous publicity NL gave to Calcutta meet compared to the Herald, Calcutta’s own weekly. Referring to its editor he said in substance: “My own editor was sickly and washed but you made up for everything. Your weekly NL is truly a family paper which must be promoted by all. This is not just my view but of a very perceptive person, my Vicar General Henry Desouza. Only prickly thing in the paper is your hard hitting cartoons, but I pray and hope everything will go well with the NL.”  His  concluding words,  I realised later, was a hidden reference to my Archdiocesan plan to shift me from the Editorship  of which I had no inkling whatsoever,  because twice I had given written resignation to my Archbishop, a very prayerful man, when serious differences of views emerged. He brushed them aside saying: “Don’t take seriously whenever I as a father figure happen to shout in anger.”

On Cartoons I told Archbishop Piccachy with a broad smile: “You bishops are not used to cartooning and do not understand the essence of cartoon, which is exaggeration loud and clear. Is not the nose Indira Gandhi depicted ten or more times bigger than it is?”  And he laughed in response.

NL Exhibited in Public

Then came the eye-opener when Mgr. Henry D’Souza, the then Vicar General (Later Archbishop of Calcutta, now retired, still with fond memories of me) gave the sermon at the introductory Mass to the Conference. He came to the podium with a copy of NL in hand and read aloud the heading: “Speak to your Pastors through Your Paper,” and added “This is what the faithful in India have put down through two full pages of their letters.”  He then continued his sermon. This was followed by a week long conference sessions, in general body in the morning and in various Commission groups during the day, which kept me on pins and needs taking down notes and action photos.

At nights I used to be sitting alone typing away reports. One night Fr. Patrick D’Souza, (now retired bishop from Varanasi) who was the all in all active secretary of great Fr. Balaguer who was Vicar General of Cardinal Gracias and man in charge of the historic Church in India Bangalore Seminar – both extremely friendly to me as I was working under them to give top publicity to the seminar – came to me and said bluntly: “James you must make up with your Bishop.”  I retorted saying: “What nonsense are you telling, enthroning ghosts where there are none?” Except for some verbal disagreements in discussion there was absolutely nothing between us. And there was none. When some disagreements arose, what I used to do was writing my point of view lucidly and put in the Archbishop’s letter box instead of discussing with him. After reading them he always used to tell me: “Yes, you can do it,” and never failed to add: “Don’t write such nice and nasty letters any more.” Once he made me sit right in front of him to discuss a serious issue in the NL and said to start with: “The biggest mistake I did was to appoint as editor such a young fellow like you,” and my spontaneous prompt reply was: “You must correct it instantly,” and his spontaneous reply: “What will people say?” and laughed. That was how we were dealing with each other while living together in the Archbishops because, there was at that time NL didn’t have an office of its own. When Fr. Patrick was made bishop I wrote an editorial praising him and concluded: “We lost a good priest!” Reading this, he could be chuckling in his old age.

NL Transferred to B’lore

On my return to Chennai after the Calcutta meet,  waiting on my table was a letter from my Archbishop telling the NL was being transferred to Bangalore under Fr. Herman D’Souza the then director of Propagation of Faith which I had to digest very coolly and wrote my longest editorial ever: Editor Resigns, and finished it on July 3rd, the feast of the doubting, questioning Apostle Thomas, which some one described as the editor’s “Swan Song”. That is how I added to my vocabulary that new telling phrase: “Swan Song.”

 A similar instance happened between me and the great Cardinal visionary Joseph Pareccatil of Ernakulam who was the top champion of Indenisation of the Liturgy and I his promoter and publicity man as editor of NL. Coming face to face at the Church in India Seminar he too told me with a very broad smile: “You are too young to be the editor of NL” I smiled back and asked? “Is it wrong to be young?” After becoming Cardinal his first stop over en route back home was at Chennai at the Archbishop’s House, Mylapore.  My Archbishop Arulappa who was  very ascetic in personal life, never used to put on his air conditioned room. But for the sake of the Cardinal he activated the air conditioner, moved out of that room and gave it to the Cardinal to stay cool for the night. Being a resident in another room, I took the opportunity to be the first one to interview the cardinal and publish it in NL. To some of my questions the Cardinal sitting with Fr. Ernat his secretary would ask him: “Can I say like that to James’s tricky question?” The Cardinal was such a simple, humble and plain speaking person, as I knew him and NL gave him full backing for his indenisation efforts which were all put in cold storage and thrown into the dust bin by his successors bent on Chaldaisation.

Freedom of the Press

 This is just give you a few passing glimpses of cordiality and transparency which used to exist in olden times between bishops, the press and the public.  Why all such things have vanished from the Indian Church?   Why church publications today have become caged parrots, like the CBI in politics? Today even weeklies of which I had been editor or associate editor or an invitee to become Associate editor, as was the case with  the English edition of Sathyadeepam, refuse to publish any of my own articles or publish only after editing to suit their views? This is neither transparency nor freedom of the press to which our church men give lip service.

These so called church media never give space for the laity to express their views openly. What happens then?  Their pent up feeling, anger and disgust and frustration come out as foul-smelling outbursts as it happens in the case of a pressure cooker and its safety value.  These safety valves of today are the independent  social media like websites (Almayasabdam), Soul & Vision, Face book and Twitter, which the church men, however powerful they are, cannot control. In this bargain who are the losers? No doubt the churches and churchmen  themselves, because if they were to  give free access in their sacred publications to  critics and flatterers alike, critics would have been much more restrained,polite and dignified in the use of their language. None would usually be carried away by the urge to use abusive language. Now what happens is  critics go with a vengeance in their social media against all ill-legitimate actions of authorities in the Church who refuse even to acknowledge their honest pleas and letters. Will they ever learn? Time alone will tell.

         This was one of the points I raised in my discussion with Cardinal Alancherry, very cordial and friendly  in his personal dealings, and included in the list of questions submitted on last Dec.13th. Under “Vexing issues in SMC” submitted to bishops one Para read: “Muzzling Freedom of expression among laity has resulted in the explosion of Free Websites like Almayasabdam, Indian Thought, Syromalabar FAITH & VOICE blogs and many others where malpractices of church men are exposed and ridiculed. Solution: Follow Pope’s example of giving interviews even to atheist editors, and open up Church publications like Satyadeepam to make it a mirror of public opinion in the Church, not a mouthpiece of bishops. Or else you make your own mouth piece and laity will make their own and the two will never meet.”

      Yes, solders in the battle field must do and die while generals in their cosy comfort must reason: Why? May it as it may, human life is a battle field and each one of us have to shed blood to become martyrs. Remember the saying: “You can never be canonized unless you are condemned first.” So rejoice and be happy to get condemned. All the condemned shall make a glorious come back, especially if you hate being put up on a pedestal in the Church while alive. At least one thing is clear: The bishop’s synod in Palai could have been much more transparent in its internal workings and deliberations.  Also take comfort in the thought that a hundred times more people read Social Media than the ones who read church media. No news is news if it is not new. To know what is new go to social media, not to the “caged parrot” called Church Media.


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