One of the seven social sins according to Mahatma Gandhi is “worship without sacrifice”. In the absence of sensitivity and compassion religion can become inhuman and even poisonous. The unsavoury drama that was played on the funeral of Varghese Mathew Pallikalethu of Kattachira St Mary's Church in Kayamkulam, Kerala shows how religion can degenerate into the abyss of inhumanity. Due to the fight between two factions of the Malankara Christians of the same parish: the Malankara Orthodox Church and Jacobite Syrian Church, the dead body of a 94 year old man was kept at his residence in a mobile mortuary for ten days.
The leaders of Orthodox Church were adamant that the funeral could not be officiated by a priest of the Jacobite Syrian Church. On the other hand, the other party insisted that the funeral ceremony should be led by the grandson of the deceased, Fr Georgy John of the Jacobite Syrian Church. The leaders of Malankara Orthodox faction did not allow Fr. John to enter the church in his cassock. Only with the intervention of the State Human Rights Commission and the district administration, the body could be interned on November 13 in the presence of about 200 policemen.
Kattachira incident is a shame for all Christians in India. Jesus Christ, whom all Christians claim to be their guru and saviour, gave his disciples only one commandment, the commandment of love. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The Kattachira incident is scandal to the public because the two Christian groups failed to practice the most important commandment of Jesus, the visible sign of a Christian.
One of the most important teachings of Jesus is forgiveness. Jesus prayed for his tormentors while hanging on the cross. Jesus has said unambiguously that without reconciliation no offering is acceptable to God. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Mt. 5:23-24) The two Christian sects could not settle their dispute in spite of various efforts, government mediation and even the final verdict of the Supreme Court of India. They failed to understand the meaning of following Jesus. What was enacted at St Mary's Church Kattachira was most inhuman and diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Those who denied burial to Varghese Mathew Pallikalethu do not deserve to be called Christians. Denial of burial to a dead person on any pretext cannot be justified; it is a human right violation. That is why the Kerala Human Right Commission intervened in this case.
Controversy regarding burial in the church had taken place in the past also in Kerala. In 1998 a Kerala court had asked Bishop Joseph Pallikaparampil of Palai and the parish priest of Kuravilangad parish to pay compensation to the heirs of V.K. Kurian, a politician, who died in 1996. The compensation was Rs 2,25,000/- plus 22,000 rupee for court expenses with 12 percent interest. Mr. Kurian was denied formal burial by the parish priest on the pretext that Kurian’s spiritual life was not good; he had not made annual confession for years and, therefore, he could not be given church burial according to Canon Law. Relatives and friends of the deceased buried him in the church cemetery without the last rites the day after he died. Later Kurian’s mother, wife and son filed a case, saying the Church authorities’ stance had caused them "mental agony and loss of reputation." In this case not following the rituals of the Catholic Church was the reason for denial of official Church burial. Insensitivity on the part of the Church authorities was evident in this case.
When a religion becomes institutionalized with rituals, dogmas and laws spirituality takes a back seat. Money and power make the leaders of religions arrogant and insensitive. Jesus had told unambiguously that the laws are meant for human being and not human beings for laws. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27). Blind application of a law or a custom and animosity towards Jacobite faction were the reasons for the denial of burial to Varghese Mathew. The authorities of Malankara Orthodox faction was ready to give place for the burial of Varghese Mathew, but it was opposed to a Syrian Jacobite priest leading the funeral ceremony in the official dress, even though the priest was the grandson of the deceased. This was nothing but blind adherence to law, totally neglecting the human sensibilities.
Blind application of law by the parish priests often lead to harassment of the faithful. In a particular parish, marriage of a couple was finalized by their families a year before the actual date of marriage. The girl was working in a foreign country and the couple wanted to go to that particular country immediately after the marriage. In view of completing the legal formalities and getting visa for the boy, the marriage was registered as per the civil law of the land one year ahead of the Church marriage. Just after the registration, the girl went back to the country where she was working.
About three months before the church marriage the father of the groom approached the parish priest to inform him about the date of the marriage and make the needed arrangements. In his innocence the father of the boy told the parish priest about the civil registration of the marriage. The parish priest was furious. Father of the boy told him that the boy and the girl did not live together and the registration was done for the sake completing the legal procedures for the couple to go abroad just after the marriage. But the parish priest was not convinced. He said that the civil registration of marriage before the Church marriage was a violation of the Canon Law and hence rectification was needed. The parish priest told him to meet the bishop and get his permission for the marriage.
Personally meeting a bishop in Kerala in the Bishop’s House is not an easy task. The father of the boy took appointment with the bishop and met the bishop with the letter from the parish priest. The bishop directed him to meet the Chancellor who questioned him for about half an hour about the details of the family of the girl. The Chancellor also gave him a sermon on the importance of obeying the laws of the Church. Finally he said that as soon as the girl comes for marriage she along with the boy should meet the bishop. The day the girl landed at the airport she was taken to the bishop’s house along with the boy. The bishop talked to both of them and permission was granted for the Church marriage. It was an ordeal for the two families to get the permission from the bishop while making preparations for the marriage. There are hundreds of examples for the blind application of laws by the authorities in the Church, totally ignoring the difficulties caused to the faithful.
As per the Gospels what Jesus of Nazareth started was a movement based on a new set of values. These foundational values are enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount and the nature of this spiritual movement is reflected all through the Gospels. The early Christian communities evolved a life style based on the vision of Jesus and others were amazed at their mutual love. But when Christianity was accepted as the official religion of the Roman Empire the distortion of the spiritual movement began. This distortion reached its climax in the middle ages or dark ages. In spite of the various reforms and reformations the various Christian denominations have not succeeded to recapture the original spirit of the movement started by Jesus.
Instead of reinventing Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian denominations are busy with expanding their version of Christianity. In fact there is stiff competition among the Christian denominations to expand their respective kingdoms. In their race for expansion they neglect living the values of Jesus. Often money, power and rituals become their priorities. Some are fanatic about their traditions even to the neglect of the person of Jesus and his teaching. For them tradition is their God. There is only one way to save the Christian denominations and other religions also from becoming disasters and that way is restoring spirituality. Spirituality is the practice of the core values taught by the founders of religions. For a disciple of Jesus these values are found in a summary form in the Sermon on the Mount. The process of restoring spirituality requires emergence of prophets from each Christian community or sect. Most of the reforms and reformation took place in a religion when an individual or a group of individuals took initiative to challenge the unspiritual elements.
At the time of Jesus, Jewish religion was degenerated into exhibitionism, exploitation, oppression and commercialization. Jesus minced no words when he denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy and exploitation (Mt. 23: 1-39). He cleansed the Jerusalem temple by driving out the traders because the house of prayer was converted into “a den of robbers” by the priestly class (Mt. 11:18). Even today the religious leaders are responsible for misguiding the ordinary people and converting a simple issue like a burial into a huge controversy involving the state administration, the media and the police. Prophets have to emerge in each Christian community or denomination.
Prophets of the Old and New Testaments and the modern times were not accepted by the majority. But they spoke for justice, truth and humanity. They had the guts to question and criticize the leaders when they deviated from the path of truth, justice and humanity. They are not bothered about the consequences of their prophetic action. Hence most of the prophets, including Jesus Christ, were killed by those in authority or their henchmen. For a prophet one man or woman is the majority.(Published on 19th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 47)