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Something Fishy!

Something Fishy!

As a northerner foodie I prefer meat to fish. I like it fried crisp, whereas those in the south may prefer a curry. Since my wife is more the southern type, whenever she prepares mackerel (aila in Malayalam or bangra in Konkani), she fries the torso crisp and makes a gelatinous curry with the heads. So both are happy.

Why this talk of fish? It is common knowledge that fish begins to rot from the head. In contrast, it gets its power to swim from its tail. This can be juxtaposed on many societies or organizations. The rot usually starts from the top, even though power is derived from the bottom. Let me put it slightly differently. The head has the authority, but the tail has the power, or gives legitimacy to the head; as the electorate empowers the elected leader. If there is no power in the tail then it will be a tale of slow death.

In many ways I see this happening in the Catholic Church. We have a powerful authoritarian head – the hierarchy and clergy. In contrast the tail, the laity, is limp and lifeless. In the long run this is not a healthy equation. The costs are high and the losses big. We have seen this happening already in Europe, and to a slightly lesser degree in North America; where churches are empty, barring a few pious old people.

Pope Francis has repeatedly referred to clericalism being a scourge in the church. It is the concentration of all authority, pelf and privilege in the head. This renders the tail end, the laity, inert and passive.

Jesus himself was a carpenter by profession. But with his many references to other trades like farming, horticulture, animal husbandry and fishing, he comes across as a well-rounded personality. The gospels are silent on his family life, but I daresay that Mother Mary was a good cook, and the family enjoyed their meals together. This would have played on Jesus’ mind when he chose the setting of a meal for instituting the Eucharist. He was transforming and transcending normal human activity. Let’s leave trans-substantiation out of it for now. 

Perhaps his preferred diet was also fish, because that is what he prepared for his disciples on the lakeshore after the Resurrection (cf Jn 21:9-13). He often referred to fish as food (cf Mat 7:10, 14:17, 15:36, and Lk 24:42). The Dictionary of the Bible by Rev J McKenzie SJ tells us that there were 26 species of fish in the Sea of Galilee. One of them is the Red Tilapia, called Peter’s Fish (now also available in India), because it is believed to be the fish that Peter netted at Jesus’ command (cf Lk 5:1-11). There is another species that Jesus may have been familiar with – Bream. This flatfish carries its young in its mouth, hence could possibly have been the one to which Jesus alluded when he said to pay their taxes with the shekel (coin) found in the mouth of the fish (cf Mat 17:27).

The two recorded miracles of Jesus feeding thousands also have loaves and fish. Perhaps Jesus’ fondness for fish also led him to choose fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James and John, as his first disciples (cf Mat 4:18-22). Notice that he did not call his own carpenters, or even shepherds and farmers. Why this proclivity for fish?

He told them that henceforth he would make them fishers of men (cf Mat 4:19). This has been interpreted by overenthusiastic missionaries and evangelists as an open invitation to net as many as possible, by hook or by crook (pun intended).

Here is where I take a slightly divergent view. I draw inspiration from two Hindi words. Jal means water and Jaal means net. Jesus surely did not know Hindi, or its precursor, Sanskrit; even though one of his ancestors Sheba, the Hittite wife of David, was of Indo-European lineage. In today’s context I seek to re-interpret Jesus’ intent, when he told his disciples to be fishers of men.

Did he want them to take the fish out of the jal (water) or out of the jaal (net)? It is a challenging introspection. Does Jesus want us to live in our natural habitat, jal or water in the case of fish; or be caught in a vexatious net, the jaal? Psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors and inner healers are proliferating by the day. Why? Because their services are required by a vexatious populace, anxious about what the morrow brings, or what is happening in and around them today. I am therefore of the considered opinion that, at least in today’s complex context, Jesus wants us to leave the fish in the water (jal) and extricate them from the net (jaal). Some evangelists may want to pack me off to hell for making such an outrageous statement.

There is one more angle to the fish that anglers who dangle their bait before them, may not know. I confirmed with Rev Dr Subhash Anand, professor emeritus of the papal seminary Pune, that the early Christians used the fish as a symbol of Christ. It was in fact one of the earliest Christian symbols – not the cross, crucifix, lamb or dove. Why the fish?

The Greek word for fish is Ichthus. It was also the acronym in Greek for “Jesus Christ, Son of God”. Hence the persecuted early Christians, especially those hiding in the catacombs, would draw or paint a fish on the walls as an identification and recognition for fellow Christian believers. This secret symbol was alien to the minds of the persecutors. Today clandestine groups like the Freemasons use secret codes like particular handshakes, and Masonic tools, to identify each other.

I see some similarity between the early Christians and those of today. The Church is persecuted today, not so much by external forces, as it is inflicted by internal disease. Pope Francis has called the Roman Curia the leprosy of the church, and clericalism as its greatest scourge. This is manifest in the clerical sexual abuse crises, especially in the western churches. More than that, I see a credibility crisis in the universal church. Young people are loath to believe what the Church teaches. This is not so much because of its orthodoxy (of which they are scarcely aware), as by its orthopraxis (it simply does not practice what it preaches).

We know that Jesus was empathetic towards sex workers, alcoholics, tax collectors and even the woman caught in adultery. But he came down harshly on all forms of religious hypocrisy or outward show (cf Mat 6:16-18, 23:1-28). The church therefore needs to urgently address the credibility crisis. How?

There seem to be three options – Revolution, Reformation and Renewal. The French found the easiest way out through revolution. With the guillotine they decapitated (knocked off the heads) of the monarchy and hierarchy. Others, like Martin Luther, after banging their heads against the wall, chose to simply circumvent it, through the Reformation. During the Dark Ages St Francis of Assisi chose the third alternative – the path of Renewal, a radical return to core Gospel values. I see Pope Francis pursuing this third path. At the time of writing this he has called the Amazonian Synod, to address burning issues, including the burning of the Amazon rain forests.

Yet the pope’s detractors believe that he is fishing in troubled waters, pun again intended. For the cash rich ultra conservatives, who have mistaken European traditions for Christian faith, any talk of indigenisation or inculturation, married clergy and a greater role for women in the Church, is plain heretical. But I shall cast my lot, and my net, with Pope Francis, and his earnest desire for renewal of the Church.

Returning to the fish, the Church is described with Christ being the head and the community as the body. Christ the head has, over the course of centuries, been replaced by an all too authoritarian hierarchy, leaving the body, or the tail, lifeless. I will now assert that the head has begun to rot. Shakespeare may have found something rotten in Denmark, but I see that rot in the hierarchy and clergy. It is not so much by their acts of commission (like sexual abuse or financial impropriety), but more by their acts of omission – the betrayal of the vision of Vatican II, and the rejection of core Gospel values.

I may now be accused of being a fish out of water. But if I believe in Ichthus, Jesus the Lord, then I shall continue to wag my tail, wield my pen and use my tongue that James described a small but powerful instrument (Jas 3:5), for the renewal of the Catholic Church as envisioned by Vatican II and now being reasserted by Pope Francis. Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus (Rev 22:20).  

(The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum that is committed to the reform and renewal of the Catholic Church in India.)

(Published on 21st October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 43)