In his Gospel, St Luke narrates how Jesus having “advanced in wisdom and age and favour before God and man” (Lk 2:52) goes into the Synagogue on the Sabbath, opens the scroll and courageously proclaims his vision of the ‘Kingdom of God’ in the here and now ( today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing). It is no accident that the passage that Jesus reads is from the Prophet Isaiah; in doing so, his intention is clear: he internalizes and takes ownership of all that is prophetic in the Old Testament and challenges the people of his time and his disciples down the ages, to do likewise. Jesus does become the bridge: the way, the truth, the light and the life. His vivifying presence becomes tangible only when there is a realization of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Messianic Proclamation’:
of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4: 18-19)
This is the plan of action for his followers which is made amply clear in the Parable of the Last Judgement (Mt: 25:31-46) “Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”.
Throughout his public ministry, Jesus ‘took sides’ with the poor and the excluded; the vulnerable and the oppressed. He has strong words for powerful vested interests ‘who lay heavy burdens’ on the common folk. There is no doubt or debate on these incontrovertible facts! The ‘Magnificat’, which Mary sings when she goes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, is about God hearing the cries of the poor and lowly. John the Baptist when he prepares people for the coming of the Messiah insists that spirituality is intrinsically linked with social justice. The Acts of the Apostles, the Letter of St James are some significant scriptures in the New Testament, which focus on the responsibilities of a Christian.
Over the centuries, Christianity has never wavered from its core belief that one’s faith is manifested primarily in reaching out to others. The dictums of Jesus are clear “love your neighbour as yourself”; go sell all that you have, give the money to the poor then come follow me; not all who say ‘Lord’ , ‘Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven; and much more.
In 1959, when St. Pope John XXIII announced the Second Vatican Council, he very clearly emphasised that he wanted it to be a Pastoral Council, not necessarily creating new definitions in doctrine but an ‘ aggiornamento’ which was essentially an updating of what the Church is all about, in order to communicate more effectively the values of the kingdom with the men and women of the modern world. The key question which was therefore raised at the Vatican Council was ‘ what does it mean to be the Church of God in the modern world?’ The path-breaking Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the modern world ‘ Gaudium et Spes’ is a fitting response to what Pope John XXIII wanted as a sum and substance of a historic intervention.
In 1974, Pope Paul VI chose evangelization as the topic for the Synod of Bishops. In 1975, when he wrote his apostolic exhortation ‘ Evangelii Nuntiandi’ he unambiguously said our mission “would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man's concrete life, both personal and social. This is why involves an explicit message, adapted to the different situations constantly being realized, about the rights and duties of every human being, about family life without which personal growth and development is hardly possible, about life in society, about international life, peace, justice and development-a message especially energetic today about liberation”.
In November 2013, in his first Apostolic Exhortation ‘ Evangelii Gaudium’ Pope Francis says, “ an evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “ smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.”
He further goes on to emphasize some of the challenges of today’s world. He categorically calls every disciple of Jesus to say “no” to an economy of exclusion; “no” to the new idolatry of money; “no” to a financial system, which rules rather than serves; “no” to the inequality, which spawns violence. At the same time, he calls for greater inclusion of the poor in society, the need for religious freedom and above all, the need and importance to take a stand on anything that is wrong and unjust in society.
Pope Francis bluntly states, “ I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” … “The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction….The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.”
Pope Francis speaks plainly about the prophetic role we need to play today, “ Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure, which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle, which others have to make do as they can. Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.”
In his Encyclical Letter ‘Laudato Si’ (May 2015) Pope Francis goes a step further, “ In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.”
Church teaching is not merely unequivocal it makes it imperative for a true disciple of Jesus to do one’s best to help alleviate the poverty, sufferings and injustices that today has become the lot of millions of people all over.
On Pentecost Sunday (20 May 2018), Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao, of the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman sent out a Pastoral Letter “to the Priests, Religious, Lay Faithful and People of Goodwill”. A Pastoral letter is normally written by a bishop to his people to inform, to inspire, to challenge and to encourage them in their lives as Christians. It is a well-established culture in the Catholic Church. It is optional and the contents of these letters are essentially directives but in keeping with the overall teaching and mandate of the Catholic Church.
The Theme of Archbishop Ferrao’s letter is "He Has Anointed Me to Bring Good News to the Poor” (Lk. 4: 18). It is a well-structured letter; besides an Introduction and Conclusion, it has four main sections (i) (ii) (iii)
“But this yearning has remained largely unfulfilled. Economic development has brought about increasing inequities, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor with consequent tensions spilling over into violence. We see around us a betrayal of the poor and marginalized, the tribals, dalits and other backward classes, women and other groups who live in dehumanising and oppressive poverty. We witness rampant exploitation of children. There is disappointment with those in public life for whom ethical concerns matter little”.
“But the Church does not wish to rest on her laurels. She recommits herself to being a prophetic Church, taking a decisive stand in favour of the poor and marginalized ”“We envision an India with more attributes of the Kingdom of God such as justice and equity with its consequent fruits of love, peace and joy.”
Strangely enough, no one yelled and screamed at that time “the nation wants to know!” or an “international conspiracy” and so on and so forth. The CBCI Statement was far more direct and much sharper than the combined letters of the three Archbishops. There is no need to second-guess why the loud shouting is happening today.
The Church (hierarchy and laity) in India must not fight shy of the person and message of Christ and for all that he embodied. The life of Jesus was of the Crib and the Cross-and the fact that “ Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. In keeping with their 2012 Statement, the Bishops must accompany the millions of Indians in their yearning for a better India. They need to come aloud and clearly in support of the poor and marginalized, the excluded and the vulnerable; to speak out against every form of human rights violation and above all, to defend the sanctity of the Indian Constitution. Constitutional concerns are after all, Gospel concerns. One should never doubt that!
8 June 2018
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights activist; contact email@example.com)(Published on 11th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 24)