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Interview with Father Joe Mannath

Interview with Father Joe Mannath

Here is a nun, supported by several others of her own congregation, who has raised serious charges, including rape, against a bishop. What is the CRI stand on this?

Fr Joe Mannath: I do not know how the CRI (or anyone else for that matter) can take a stand on a complaint where we do not know the facts. Just because there is a complaint, can we conduct a “trial by media,” and assume that the accused person is guilty? Isn’t it the right of every citizen to be considered innocent, until proven guilty? I do not know the facts of the case—nor is either party under my authority, for me to investigate.

There is also the danger — all the greater for those involved in the media, as I too am — to go after what is sensational, and neglect more substantial issues affecting the lives of millions of our countrymen — migration, unorganized labour (92 per cent of India’s workers), human trafficking, prison ministry, AIDS patients and their children, the huge number of dropouts (more numerous than those who complete high school), desperate farmers committing suicide, innocent people who have been lynched. We, religious, need to have our eyes focussed on the “peripheries,” as Pope Francis reminds us repeatedly, and not get agitated only when something touches one of us.


Does the CRI believe that some sort of injustice has been done to some of the nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus? Has the apex body of religious congregations taken any initiative to help the aggrieved sisters?

JM: Your question seems to assume that some injustice has been done. The CRI is not the equivalent of a major superior who has authority over a local superior. We can take up an issue only if and when a complaint reaches us. Even in that case, we can only try fraternal mediation; we have no juridical authority over a religious order (or a diocese), just as the CBCI can only make recommendations to the bishops; it cannot order a bishop to do something.

I have not received any such complaint from the Missionaries of Jesus. There are over 400 (or nearly 600, depending on how we count) religious congregations working in India. It is impossible for the National CRI to know the situation of every religious order, nor do we have the authority to intervene.

Women religious are part and parcel of the Church hierarchy. But do they get that recognition?

JM: Sorry, Fr. Suresh. We need to be precise here. We, religious — you, me, or the sisters — are not part of the Church hierarchy. We fulfil another function in the church. The hierarchy has its role. Both are necessary in the church. In the Church, Francis of Assisi, Don Bosco or Mother Teresa played one kind of role. The Pope and bishops play a different role. We all have the same vocation, of course — to call to holiness, to be Christ here and how — but our roles in the institutional church differ.

Do you believe that bishops interfere in the working of women religious congregations? What is CRI role in ensuring independence of religious congregations as per the bye-laws of each one of them?

JM: Whether a bishop supports, or “interferes,” depends on many factors — on whether the religious order is of Pontifical or Diocesan right, and, as in all things human, on the particular persons involved. If there is too much control (“interference,” as you have called it), this can (and does) happen to both female and male religious orders, especially in property matters (since, often, the property originally belonged to the diocese).

The CRI is trying to set up “Peace and Reconciliation Committees” in the various regions, together with the dioceses of the region, so that we can settle matters amicably and justly without going to the courts unnecessarily.

At times, the issue is cultural rather than theological or legal. Indian culture does not, as a whole, respect women as equals. Unless we — women and men — get converted to the Gospel rather than follow the negative and inhuman aspects of our particular cultures — whether it be about gender, caste, tribe, rite, language or place of origin — we will be counter-witnesses. Going by my experience, most people I have known, including priests and religious, seem to identify emotionally (and at times vocally and in action) with one’s narrow “group” (the six kinds of narrowness mentioned just above) rather than walk through the world as Jesus did—seeing everyone as a child of God, and hence one’s own sister or brother. This prophetic witness is often missing. When we do meet such Christ-like people, it is a very refreshing experience, and it is such persons who build up God’s Kingdom — not those who run after power or money, whatever group we may be in.

I am a religious who was a formator in a diocesan seminary for eighteen years. My diocesan colleagues and former students — most of them priests and some of them bishops now — are as dear to me as my Salesian confreres. I do not see one group as good and the other as bad. There are inspiring, God-centred, selfish, power-hungry and mediocre persons in every group.

Does the CRI have any mechanism to independently verify complaints of religious congregations against Bishops?

JM: We are trying to set up the Committee I have mentioned earlier.

I am not happy with the way the question is worded. In the church, we are not competing or antagonistic groups who are “against” one another. We work for the same mission and we serve the same Lord. We do not join religious life to follow Francis or Don Bosco, but to follow Jesus Christ. The same is true for bishops and diocesan priests.

Good qualities and mistakes are found in all groups. We need to stand for truth and justice, whether the violation is by a bishop, or a religious superior or an individual belonging to any group. We need to take a stand, too, when there are human or financial violations in our own religious orders.

Very often, disagreements can be sorted out if we have good relationships, irrespective of which “group” they or we belong to. Credibility especially in leaders is often the key issue — to have women and men leaders who are trusted by all, irrespective of which side of the fence one is talking from. If such credibility is lacking, structural approaches by themselves will not yield good results.

What we are trying to do in setting up the “Peace and Reconciliation Committees,” is to have as its members credible members from the diocese and from religious who are trusted by all, so that an aggrieved person or group can take the issue to them with confidence.

If Nelson Mandela and other great human beings can help to heal a nation after decades of cruelty, injustice and deprivation (“The country needs healing, not revenge,” as this wonderful human being said after being jailed for most of his life), can’t we, with all our beautiful theories and long and expensive training, handle our much smaller problems in the spirit of the Gospel?

Religious congregations, especially women religious, groomed by bishops, are mushrooming in the country. Is it a healthy development? Or is there any need for the Church hierarchy to intervene and have some control over it?    

JM: Mushrooming? No, by any means. Most women’s congregations are becoming smaller. Some are already very small. The older congregations have a large percentage of senior sisters. (As the joke goes, at vocation camps, there are often more vocation promoters than candidates!)

The hierarchy does have control over this. A new religious order needs diocesan and then pontifical approval. No group can simply say, “We are a religious order.” I would agree with what Don Bosco told a priest who was thinking of founding a religious order, and consulted Don Bosco for advice. This is what the saint told him, “Do you have clear signs from God that He wants you to do it? Otherwise, don’t.”

Without such clear signs, and credible leaders whose life of holiness, sacrifice and simplicity inspire idealistic young people, we would simply be playing with the lives of people. We have no such right. Nor can we ask young people to become religious just to get some work done. For doing most of the works we are engaged in, we do not need religious life or faith in Jesus. Common sense is enough. But it is a different matter if I am gripped by Jesus and the Gospel way of life and feel deep within my heart — after careful discernment — that this is the path God has planned for me, where my heart will find both passion and rest. Without prayerful discernment and a sincere attempt to be Christ-like — this goes especially for leaders — we are merely social workers living under the same roof. We are not the “joyful and prophetic witnesses” that religious are supposed to be.

(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)