Dongar Singh served us as cook for five years. Though he studied only till the VIII class in a village school, he often used to make wise statements spontaneously. While discussing the tendency of Indians to imitate western fashion blindly he remarked, “Hum unka nakal karte hain; lekin unka akal ka nakal nahim karte” (we imitate them; but we do not imitate their intelligence). When we make a serious analysis of the various ways we are conditioned by Americans and Europeans, we will have no difficulty in agreeing with Dongar Singh’s observation.
I remembered the statement of Dongar Singh, when I visited the Cathedral of Christ the Light at Oakland in America. The former Cathedral dedicated to St. Francis de Sales in 1886 was so damaged in an earthquake in 1989 that repair was impossible. It was razed in 1993. Bishop John S. Cummins who was very progressive in his vision and spirituality decided not to construct another Cathedral till 2000. He wanted to experiment without building a new one. Later, when the consultation process started to build a new cathedral, he insisted to build it on the same old spot which was closer to the poor and the marginalized. There were suggestions to build in a posh locality with more space. The Bishop was of the opinion that the Cathedral should be in the midst of poor people.
Many special features of the cathedral inspired me. Firstly, the old name was changed to ‘Christ the Light’ to suit the new context and vision. Though the Diocese could afford to build a posh Cathedral, it was built in total simplicity without compromising the utility, creativity and practical aspects. The architecture was such that sufficient natural light falls into the church, sufficiently. The designer used natural elements of wood and light and ancient construction elements of glass and concrete. I was wonderstruck to see that the entire flooring of the church including the sanctuary was made of simple cement, as we could see in the houses of the poor people in India. No granite or marble was used in any part of the church. There is no sign of luxury inside or outside the church.
The large glass door at the main entrance connects the church with world outside. Open to the city, it welcomes all. One can see the nearby Lake Merritt and city buildings from the sanctuary. The Cathedral also welcomes the civic community to mark events that are significant for all. It is given for the use of Protestant denominations and other groups. I wondered at the futile fancy of a certain section of the hierarchy and clergy pressuring the ordinary Catholics to shell out their hard-earned money to construct exclusive church monuments in a foreign land, in the name of preserving tradition. The Cathedral welcomed diverse communities. Holy Mass is offered in seventeen languages. When such a fellowship exists in almost all churches, why should we spend millions of dollars, such a wasteful expense, for the construction of these new-rite-churches? It is mere exploitation of religious and linguistic sentiments of people. Many pay part of their hard-earned money for fear of social isolation.
While standing and watching the church my thoughts went to India where we are obsessed with construction of church buildings. In our obsession to construct monuments of stone, bricks and cement, we neglect and often scandalize both Christians and people of other faiths. In Kerala, we find cut-throat competition for constructing churches.
When Edappally church in Ernakulam–Angamaly Archdiocese was blessed there was much criticism about the wasteful expenses. It was reported that over 50 crore rupees were spent to construct the church. Much money was spent for interior decorations. On the occasion of the consecration of the church, Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro- Malabar church had criticised such expensive church constructions. Despite his exhortation the competition in church building is going on in Kerala.
The latest scandal is the newly built church in Ramapuram in Palai diocese. It was reported that approximately 150 crore rupees were spent for the construction of the church. Priests incite the faithful to consider it a sacred act and make them to contribute. Apart from the local, funds were collected from abroad. It is reported that Ramapuram church is built in an area of 75000 sq ft. It is built in three stories. The height of the church is 235 feet. It is 120 long and 90 feet wide. It has the capacity for seating 4000 people. Expensive wood is used for doors and windows. Glass paintings of all Indian saints are installed.
The excuse of making such church is that it will be declared a Basilica when the servant of God Kunjachan will be beatified. Those who build new churches aim to construct bigger than the existing churches. Now a church which is being constructed in Changanacherry Archdiocese is expected to be larger than all the churches constructed not only in Kerala but in the whole of India.
It is a pity that the priests and a section of lay people are led by false pride as the Jewish people who took pride in constructing Jerusalem temple only to be destroyed later. Don’t the ‘builders and constructors’ of these huge churches know how the large churches in Europe are empty and have become historical monuments of the dying Church? In what way are we different from the VHP and RSS who exhibit aggressive religiosity in constructing Ram temple and Akshardham temples?
The fancy of constructing multi crore churches only exhibit the spiritual bankruptcy of the church leaders. The Bishops and priests should give more importance to build the church of ‘people of God’ by working for peace and reconciliation within the conflicting groups both inside and outside the Church. How can we criticise politicians and other religious groups when they waste money for constructing expensive statues of political leaders and gods when we ourselves indulge in constructing multi crore churches. Church leadership should concentrate on building people, equipping them to be the salt and light of the world. Instead of going with the crowd, Disciples of Christ should set new trends by following the way of Christ.
For Bishop Cummins, the cathedral was a symbol of unity and a place of spiritual nourishment for people of all faiths and denominations. Hence he even renamed the Cathedral as ‘The Cathedral of Christ The Light’. He wanted to be a beacon of hope and inspiration for humanity. The leaders in India do not realize that the mighty church structures, we construct all over the country, including in the remote regions where there are no Catholics, scandalize the hungry and the homeless. When I asked the Indian priest, Fr. George, who accompanied me to the church, “Why don’t our bishops and priests who come and see these things do not learn lessons from them”, his answer was simple: “Father Varghese, they do not want to learn anything from here”. How true was the observation of my cook from the village, “ hum unka nakal karte haim; lekin unka akal ka nakal nahim karte”.
(Published on 28th January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 05)