The month of August and September 2019 witnessed a spurt in the attack on Christian institutions and filing false cases against priests and nuns, especially in the State of Jharkhand. On September 3, 2019 some 500 people, mostly suspected activists of the rightwing Hindutva groups, vandalized a junior college of Jesuits at Sahibganj in Jharkhand. A priest and a nurse of Jesuit-run De Nobili School in Koradih, Dhanbad district in Jharkhand were arrested in the second week of September under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offence Act on a case filed by a parent, accusing them of sexually abusing his nine year old daughter. On September 7, the Jharkhand police arrested two Catholic priests, Fr. Arun Vincent and Fr. Benoy John, and a catechist, Munna Hansda, of Rajdaha mission, accusing them of practising forced conversion. There have been many unreported instances of harassment of Christian institutions and the personnel involved in them.
Ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014 there has been unprecedented increase in the attacks on the minorities and their institutions. Hate Crime Watch, a collaborative database by the Indian organization FactChecker, documented 254 reported incidents of crimes targeting religious minorities between January 2009 and October 2018, in which at least 91 persons were killed and 579 were injured. About 90% of these attacks were reported after BJP came to power in May 2014. Many innocent persons, including 4 Christians in Jharkhand, were killed by the cow vigilantes. While Muslims are killed under the pretext of cow protection, the strategy of the right wing groups has been to discredit and vilify the Christian missionaries by making false accusations and filing bogus cases against them. The massive mandate the BJP got in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections has emboldened the extremist groups to increase their attacks on the minorities.
The Christian community, especially the priests and the Religious in North India, are living in a highly insecure atmosphere. How to face this extraordinary situation is a big question before many priests and religious. Fr. Sunny Jacob S J, Secretary, Jesuit Education Association of South Asia, shared through a Whatsaap message 30 very practical tips to be adopted in order to face the hostile situation. He has concluded his message with the clarion call: “Time has changed. We need to be truly Catholic, new in our approach. Gone are those days where we did what we did. Now is the time to change, to be innovative, creative, careful, and prudent. Remember, 'you cannot run old schools in new buildings'. Change, change and change is the call of our time”. Fr. Cedric Prakash S.J. in his article, “Preparedness and Response” published in the Indian Currents, September 23-30, 2019 issue, has given 83 practical tips under 8 headings. The core message of this article is also the same: change the way you are living and functioning.
The practical tips proposed by the two Jesuit priests are excellent. Many of these tips might have evolved from their own life experience. Most of the tips given by these two enlightened Jesuits are found in a book written by Fr. Varghese Alengaden titled, “Tips for Principals”. Since 1993 Universal Solidarity Movement (USM), Indore under the leadership of Fr. Varghese Alengaden has been sharing these suggestions and tips through writings, talks and retreats. The Religious, priests and bishops were asked to adopt “new wineskin approach”, for facing the challenges created by the Hindutva forces. The USM continues its efforts to motivate the bishops, priests and the Religious to adopt new approach in response to the Hindutva tsunami by organizing Christo Centric Leadership Retreat.
Although the 30 and 84 tips given by the two eminent priests appear to be simple, practising them may not be easy. A fundamental change in the mindset not only of the heads of the institutions but also in the bishops, priests and nuns is a must. It requires transformation at four levels or aspects: from religiosity to spirituality, from a devotee of Jesus to a disciple of Jesus, from being exclusive to inclusive and from ownership to stewardship. These four aspects of change are to be effected from the time of formation of the priests and nuns. The present formation pattern of the Religious and priests in India is basically a colonial model, not at all suitable to the Church in an Asian country like India.
The most important change required is a transition from religiosity to spirituality. Influence of fundamentalism on religions boosts religiosity. It is observed that fundamentalism in one religion generates fundamentalism in other religions too. Growth of Hindu fundamentalism in India has in many ways contributed to the growth of fundamentalist practices in Islam and Christianity. The fundamentalists in general are obsessed with religiosity expressed in the construction of gigantic worship centres, erecting of huge statues, organizing mega religious gatherings and processions, reviving ancient customs, practices and rituals. In fact, one can notice a kind of competition among the religions in publically exhibiting their religiosity. Sometimes the public exhibition of religiosity leads to communal riots.
After the Second Vatican Council the Church in India became vibrant through participation in the liberative struggles of the poor and the marginalized, openness to other Christian denominations and religions through dialogue and ecumenism, and incuturation by adopting the cultural elements from other religions. The attitude towards other religions was one of openness, acceptance, appreciation and celebration of differences. It appears that during the last two decades a U turn has taken place in the Church in India. Many priests and Religious are going back to the Old Testament time, the pre-Second Vatican Council era. Fundamentalist preachers are misguiding the faithful, and women religious in particular are the victims of the growth of religious fundamentalism.
Recently a young man, son of a close friend of mine, shared with me his experience of participating in a retreat. During the retreat the priest told young people: “Bharatanatyam is worshipping Hindu God, Nataraja; hence it is sinful to the Christians to perform Bharatanatyam dance. In the same way practice of yoga, use of nilavilakku, celebration of Hindu festivals, including Onam, are forbidden to the Christians. Girls should use only saree or chudidar in the church and they should cover their heads. Each couple should produce at least five children and they should give one to the Church”. Only 50 out of the 150 youth remained in the Church at the end of the retreat. Many young people left the church as a protest against the nonsense spoken by the priest. Since majority of the young people of this group were highly educated and enlightened, they did not swallow what the priest told them.
Another preacher while giving retreat to a group of sisters told them that aarati is a Hindu custom and it is sinful to adopt it in the Christian worship. The sisters used to do aarati before the Blessed Sacrament and on other occasions. The preacher also told them that reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council were experiments and they proved to be failures. Hence there is a need for going back to the pre-Second Vatican practices. As an impact of the retreat the provincial superior gave an order that the sisters should not use aarati. The practice of using coloured churidar was discontinued and the members were ordered to use the uniform colour approved by the authorities. Imposing uniformity is part and parcel of religious fundamentalism.
Preaching about Jesus has become an obsession for the fundamentalist preachers. Living the values of Jesus is only secondary. For them, there are mainly two types of sins, one related to worship of alien gods and the other related to sex. Injustices, giving bribe to get permissions, not paying right wages to the workers etc are not included in the list of the sins of these preachers. They insist on doing penance not only for one’s sins, but also for the sins of their forefathers. They create unnecessary guilt feeling in the people and kill all kinds of creativity and critical thinking. Blind faith and superstitions are promoted by these preachers.
What is promoted by these misguided preachers is the Old Testament religiosity which Jesus had totally rejected. As we understand from the Gospels, Jesus refused to practice many meaningless rituals and prayers. He violated the laws which were not promoting life. He went to the temple to teach people. He went to the mountains or lonely places to pray. He denounced the inhuman and exploitative religious practices. His cleansing of the temple was a strong reaction to the commercialization of religion.
What Jesus practiced and what he taught his disciples was spirituality based on the ethical and human values. His spirituality is summarized in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has said that a tree is known by its fruits. In the same way, a spiritual person can be identified by the fruits he/she produces. A spiritual person focuses on the practice of values whereas a religious person is ritualistic. A person of spirituality is prophetic, liberative, creative, dynamic, sensitive, compassionate, authentic, transparent, participatory, accountable and pluralistic. He/she is able to unite people through inclusiveness whereas a person of religiosity divides people because of his/her exclusive approach. A spiritual person develops his/her own identity whereas a person of religiosity often blindly copies others and imposes uniformity.
Only a person of spirituality will be able to practice the 30 tips proposed by Fr. Sunny Jacob. For example, he has proposed respect for all religions. This respect can be expressed by organizing inter-religious prayer in an institution where students of different religions study and by exhibiting quotes from different religions pertaining to universal values like love, forgiveness, compassion etc. A person of religiosity will never do it. On the other hand, he or she may compel students of other faiths to participate in Christian prayers. It is being done in some places. It is a violation of child rights.
A shift from a devotee of Jesus to follower of Jesus is the second important transformation needed. Jesus chose his disciples to continue his mission by following his way. He did not choose the disciples to be his worshippers. The focus of a disciple of Jesus should be on internalizing the vision and mission of Jesus, developing all resources God has given to him/her to the maximum and utilizing them for building the Kingdom of God. Prayer becomes contemplation for a disciple of Jesus to discern the will of God and to draw inspiration and insight from the life of Jesus and the courage to do the will of God. Jesus did not organize mega prayer sessions in which thousands of people participated. Jesus’ prayer was at lonely places and it was an encounter with his Father.
If a disciple of Jesus is to be capable of continuing the mission of Jesus, he or she has to be a person of character and competence. Competence is a combination of Knowledge and skills. Implementation of many suggestions proposed by Fr. Sunny Jacob and Cedric require character and competence. Often arrogance of the heads of institutions leads to conflict with various stakeholders. Hence humility and respect for the dignity of human persons should be the two prominent qualities the heads of Institutions should have. Being a devotee of Jesus will not be sufficient to implement the suggestions. A desire to learn continuously through reading newspapers, magazines and books, excellent communication, both speaking and writing, public relations skills, leadership and team building skills are required if the priests and nuns have to fulfil their roles in the troubled times.
Fr. Sunny Jacob and Fr. Cedric Prakash emphasized the need for becoming aware of what is happening in the country and the world. While conducting training programmes for priests and nuns I used to ask “How many of you read newspapers everyday without fail?” Always the number was less than ten percent. Those who read editorials and articles can be counted on fingers. Large number of nuns does not know the full form of RSS and the meaning of Sangh Parivar.
Some congregations have the practice of conducting examinations periodically based on their constitution. In some cases it is more serious than the University examinations. But nothing is told to the members about the Indian constitution, the very foundation of fundamental rights and minority rights. Conducting examinations and retreats based on the constitutions of the congregations will not make the members competent to deal with the challenges posed by the advocates of the Hindu nationalism.
The third significant change required is shift from exclusive approach to inclusive approach. The staff members of Christian institutions and organizations are to be treated as partners and team members and not mere workers. It is to be started from the community of priests and nuns. The domestic staffs are to be invited to join meals and other relevant community acts. In the context of a school the staffs are to be included in the planning and evaluation of the programmes and activities of the school. Participatory administration requires training and working with experienced persons. It may not come automatically to many persons.
The fourth change needed is a transition from ownership to stewardship. The priests, nuns and bishops who are in charge of the institutions are not the owners. They are to be conscious of the fact that they are only custodians or stewards to manage the institutions with diligence and care. People of God are the real owners. The stewards are to be responsible and accountable to the people and God. If this attitude is imbibed by the bishops, priests and nuns, remarkable changes will take place in their behaviour and relationship with the people.
“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”, said Winston Churchill. Jesus taught his disciples to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. Without change perfection is impossible. But this change has to start with the change in oneself. “Change in society is of secondary importance; that will come about naturally, inevitably when you as a human being bring about the change in yourself” wrote J Krishnamurthy. Religious fundamentalism is the greatest enemy of change. To be liberated from the demon of religious fundamentalism is the immediate requirement to face the opposition and harassment from the Hindutva forces.
(Published on 30th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 40)