A constant theme in the speeches and homilies of Pope Francis is an appeal to the leaders of the Church to become “shepherds with the smell of the sheep”. According to the Pope the priests “who do not go out of themselves” by being mediators between God and men can “gradually become intermediaries or managers.”
Jesus described himself as “Good Shepherd” who goes ahead of the sheep, who is concerned about the care and protection of the sheep and who is ready to lay down his life for the sheep. What Jesus expects from the priests and bishops of today is to become good shepherds to their people. Pope Francis has proved to be a Good Shepherd by his own life witness. Unfortunately many bishops and priests refuse to learn from the example of Pope Francis. They still live in the imperial era of the Church. Often their behaviour and actions give the impression that they are masters and owners rather than shepherds and servants. They think that not only the wealth and infrastructure of the Church but also the people as their property. Recently I personally experienced the arrogance and pride of a young priest. He is almost 40 years junior to me.
In order to respect the person concerned I am keeping confidential the name of the priest and the name of the parish. On Thursday 9th January 2019 I was in a church in Kerala for saying Mass. It was only a quasi parish and there is a priest in charge of that particular church under the parish priest of the mother church. On Thursdays there is no Mass in that church. The priest in charge was informed on Wednesday, 8th January that Fr. Jacob would like to say Mass on Thursday. He said that he would not make any announcement in the church; but Fr. Jacob could say Mass. He did not give any further instruction. As directed by the priest in charge, I said Mass in the morning on 9th January. A good number of people were present for the Mass because somebody took the effort to communicate the message about the Mass through phone calls.
By 9.00 a.m. on 9th January I got a phone call from the priest in charge. He told me that I was expected to say only private Mass and not for the public in the Church. He also warned me that he would complain to the bishop if I say Mass in the church in future on Thursdays for the public. I was shocked to hear a warning from a young priest. I did not make any effort to inform the people about the Mass and I was not very particular that large number of people should attend my Mass. There are a few old people in the vicinity of the church, who are not able to walk long distance and go to the mother church. When I say Mass on Thursdays these senior citizens are able to attend Mass and they feel good about it, as they are attuned to daily Mass.
After three minutes I got another phone call, asking me to go the parish priest of the mother church and explain to him what happened. The priest in charge was asking me indirectly to apologize to the parish priest for saying Mass for the public. As I was getting ready to go to another place I put the phone down. I did not give him any answer. In fact I was appalled at the arrogance of the priest. I was wondering about his attitude, the tone and the language he used. This was my first experience in my 41 years of priestly life, a brother priest speaking to me rudely.
This was not the first time I said Mass in that particular church. During the last forty years whenever I went home I used to say Mass in that Church including on Thursday, the day on which there is no regular Mass in that church. The former parish priests used to make announcement on the previous day about the Mass and a good number of people used to attend the Mass. They used to appreciate me and thank me for my service. This is the first time that the priest in charge refused to announce on the previous day and objected to the people participating in the Mass on a Thursday.
I reflected over this incident. I asked myself why the priests, particularly the young ones, are becoming arrogant, insensitive and even inhuman. First of all, lack of participatory decision making process. Although consultative bodies are put in place at the parish and the diocesan levels, neither the parish priest nor the bishop is bound by the advice of these bodies. About twenty years ago I was one of the consulters in a diocese. On a particular issue all consulters objected to a proposal by the bishop, as it was not viable and feasible. But the bishop took a decision that was contrary to the unanimous opinion of his consulters. The next day I resigned as a consulter.
Secondly, the faithful are trained to maintain a culture of silence under the guise of the virtue of obedience. Questioning the authorities is considered as something unbecoming or even sin. As a result the priests impose on the people their fanciful or even unjust decisions. In the Western countries the people are ignoring the Church and leaving it instead of raising questions. Many churches are being closed down in many European countries because of the steep decline in the number of the faithful who practice Christianity. This is going to happen also in India, particularly Kerala. Gradually people will ignore the authoritarian, arrogant and unintelligent priests.
Thirdly, there is a huge gap between the words and deeds of the leaders. Often the leadership in the Church acts contrary to what it preaches to the people. The Catholic faithful are taught from the early childhood that Holy Mass is the centre of Christian life and people should participate in the Mass daily as far as possible. I have seen many faithful, especially the senior citizens, are very particular to attend the Mass daily. My mother used to attend Mass daily without fail till she became bedridden. On the one hand the leadership proclaims the overriding significance of the Mass and the spiritual benefits of attending daily Mass. On the other hand the leadership restricts people from attending Mass on whimsical grounds, as it happened in my case on January 9, 2019. On Sundays many Religious Houses are forbidden to have Mass for the people of the neighbourhood. As a result a good number of senior citizens are denied the opportunity to participate in Sunday Mass. Often a question arises in the minds of the people. Is it because of the concern for building up the parish community or worry about the Sunday collection that motivates the authorities to deny Mass in the Religious Houses for people of the neighbourhood, especially the aged and the sick?
Mass becomes meaningful only in the context of a community. The institution of Eucharist took place in the community of disciples. Reading and listening to the word of God and “breaking the bread” were the essential elements of the early Christian community. Eucharist was a source of inspiration and strength to the new spiritual movement started by Jesus and continued by the early Christian communities. Private Mass is in a way a contradiction to the very essence of the Eucharist. Mass becomes a ritual in the absence of a community. Hence denying access to the Mass while it is being celebrated in a place is an anomaly. The priest who warned me for saying Mass with the faithful, may perhaps needs more reflection and study on the meaning and relevance of the Eucharist.
The Second Vatican Council was a watershed in the history of the Catholic Church. One of the significant outcomes of the Second Vatican Council was liberation of the Church from legalism and ritualism. Inculturation and cultural adaptations in the life and liturgy of the members of the Catholic Church, especially in the multi-cultural and multi-religious societies, was a significant achievement of the Second Vatican Council. The Church in India had initiated many experiments in this regard. Unfortunately, one can see at present a U turn in the Church in this regard. The overzealous and fundamentalist preachers are responsible to some extent for dragging the Indian Church back to legalism and ritualism. Many young priests are the victims of the religious fundamentalism that is slowly emerging in the Church in India. Any fundamentalism is basically arrogant and inhuman. The Church in India will have to pay heavily for nurturing the fundamentalists.
At a plenary assembly of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy held in June 2017, Cardinal Donald Wuerl said Pope Francis offers a vision for priests as shepherds on the move who encounter and welcome the members of their flock where they are and invite them to know and love Jesus. He said that the pope’s vision for priesthood can be seen in one of the major themes of his pontificate, “the emphasis on going out to others to accompany them in their life’s journey, and being in close proximity to them.” The failure of many priests to read and reflect on what Pope Francis is saying to the priests could be one of the reasons for them to become arrogant and insensitive.
The priests must first learn to listen to the people entrusted to them. The young priests especially should have the patience and wisdom to listen to the experienced people of their parish community instead of imposing their views and laws on the people. They must have the humility to accept their mistakes if they want to become “shepherds with the smell of the sheep”.
(Published on 21st January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 04)