By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*
Dear Catholic Bishops of India!
Greetings and good wishes to each one of you, as you gather together for your 34th biennial plenary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) at St John’s National Academy for Medical Sciences in Bengaluru. I am writing this letter (to each one of you) after much personal discernment and discussions with some, including those who have encouraged me to do so. It is not easy because I would like to be concise yet substantial; however, let me begin…
Dear Bishops, your meeting takes place at a time when the country is perhaps in the most critical phase of her history. It has never been so bad, on every possible front!
Democracy, so dear to us, is being destroyed; the letter and spirit of our Constitution are systematically denigrated; above all, the pluralistic and multi-cultural fabric of our nation is being eroded. That millions of our country men and women, all over, have been out on the streets protesting and demanding the revocation of Citizens Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NRC) speaks volumes of the abysmal depths we have been pushed into.
Dear Bishops, in the context of the reality of today, I have taken a look at the statements which emerged from some of your recent biennial plenary meetings:
In 2018, based on the theme “United in Diversity for a Mission of Mercy and Witness: ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ ” (Mt 28: 20) , your statement included:
“Any attempt to promote nationalism based on any one particular culture or religion is a dangerous position. It may lead to uniformity but never to genuine unity. Such misconceived efforts can only lead our nation on the path of self-annihilation. “Mono-culturalism has never been and can never be the right answer to the quest for peace, progress and development, especially in a country like ours that has a rich diversity of culture, language, region, race and religion. Violence always recoils upon the violent sooner or later, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26: 52).
“We deplore the rising incidence of atrocities against women, killings, caste rivalries and communal violence which includes attacks on Christian institutions and communities. Therefore, let us follow the path of true nationalism that can lead our motherland to true peace, harmony, progress and prosperity. Authentic nationalism respects the human dignity of every citizen, regardless of one’s economic status, culture, religion, region or language”.
Based on the theme, ‘Response of the Church in India to the present-day challenges’, your statement in 2016, said precious little. It was a brainstorming exercise with many generalised proposals (which few would take seriously) though your conclusion said:
“As authentic citizens of the country, we repose our confidence in the democratic values and the Constitution of India. Trusting in God’s grace, love and mercy, we march ahead to carry out our God-given mission, confident of the goodwill and support of our people everywhere. We appeal to all people of goodwill in India to join hands with us in solidarity to work for a better Church and a better society”.
Very interestingly, a couple of years earlier (in February 2014 and just before the General Elections that year) when you met in Palai Kerala on the theme, ‘Renewed Church for a Renewed Society – Responding to the Call of Vatican II’, your words were even more emphatic:“When we look at our country, we see corruption plaguing every sphere of society. In such a scenario, Church institutions must be an example of transparency and probity. Another phenomenon is that of internal migration which, while opening opportunities to people, has torn the cultural and religious moorings that sustained them.
“Globalization too has brought in its wake problems like prolonged working hours which have disrupted family life. We witness the trend to fundamentalism which seeks to dilute the secular character of our nation. Against this trend, we stand by the values upheld by the Indian Constitution and appeal to governments to respect these values.
“The experience of God will lead us to involvement in and solidarity with the marginalized and the exploited, those suffering from disabilities, those living in the peripheries of economic, cultural and social spheres.
“We will speak out against all forms of injustice meted out to them and we will defend their rights. We listened to the call of Pope Francis urging us to ‘work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 188). We want the Church to be truly a Church of the Poor.”
In 2012, at your 30th Meet in February 2012 at Bangalore on the theme ‘The Church’s Role for a Better India’, your meaningful message was addressed “to all people of goodwill”, and included:
“We sensed in our hearts our country’s yearning for a Better India. Our country has been noted for its deep spirituality, its saints and sages, its rich diversity of cultures and religions. People yearn for the ideal enshrined in the Preamble of the Constitution of India of a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic which will secure for its citizens Justice, social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.
“But this yearning has remained largely unfulfilled. Economic development has brought about increasing inequities, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor with consequent tensions spilling over into violence. We see around us a betrayal of the poor and marginalized, the tribals, dalits and other backward classes, women and other groups who live in dehumanising and oppressive poverty. We witness rampant exploitation of children.
“There is disappointment with those in public life for whom ethical concerns matter little. The Church does not wish to rest on her laurels. She recommits herself to being a prophetic Church, taking a decisive stand in favour of the poor and marginalized “We envision an India with more attributes of the Kingdom of God such as justice and equity with its consequent fruits of love, peace and joy.”
Dear Bishops, could I humbly request you, to revisit your own words and statements? Why is it that you were so articulate and forthright in 2012 and 2014 and well, rather muted and very general in 2016 and 2018? What about the follow up? And the mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating- whether these statements (particularly those of 2012 and 2014) are mainstreamed and tangibly become the DNA of that Prophetic Church you are committed to be?
Dear Bishops, the theme of your current meeting ‘dialogue’, is certainly laudable. But first we need to ask: “Dialogue with whom and for what?” Dialogue is always in the context of mutual respect and equity; it can never take place in a vacuum or if one party feels superior to the other or for that matter, is rigid not being able to accept another point of view.
Why is it that you were so articulate and forthright in 2012 and 2014 and well, rather muted and very general in 2016 and 2018?
For example, if one is having a dialogue on the ‘Constitution’, are both parties willing to accept that the basic framework of the Constitution, the sanctity, the values and particularly the democratic, secular and pluralistic fabric will all remain non-negotiables?
Are both parties willing to accept that Article 19 (Freedom of Speech and Expression) and Article 25 (Freedom of Conscience and to freely preach, practise and propagate one’s religion) guaranteed in the Constitution, are fundamental to a vibrant democracy?
Yes, ‘dialogue’ is important, but not if one is expected to toe the line or to follow unacceptable diktats. Throughout his public life, Jesus ‘took sides’ with the poor and the excluded; the vulnerable and the oppressed. He listened and responded to their cries. He has strong words for powerful vested interests who ‘lay heavy burdens’ on the common people. He refused to dialogue with the scribes and pharisees, the Pilates and Herods (for that matter even with the devil) of his time!
Dear Bishops, millions of our sisters and brothers in our country are crying out for a more humane, just and equitable society; they are crying because divisive, discriminatory, draconian law and policies are threatening their very citizenship; they are crying because they are being targeted because of their faith; they are crying because they are poor and vulnerable; they are crying because they are Dalits and Adivasis, women and children , unemployed youth and beleaguered farmers; they are crying because they want to be listened to, to be in dialogue with , to be accompanied!
Dear Bishops, so where do we stand as Church in India today? To put matters in perspective, some Bishops have come out in the open, joined protest rallies and have issued unequivocal strongly-worded statements asking for the repeal of the CAA and a stay on the NRC/NPR; several priests, religious and laity all over the country, have been responsible for organizing protests and/or have joined with other concerned citizens in protests, rallies , sit-ins etc. All this is heart-warming and certainly goes a long way in our witness to the person and message of Jesus in India today!
But dear Bishops – this is just a drop in the ocean; definitely not enough! We have to do much more unitedly and immediately. There are some things that hold us back, that prompt us to be more ‘diplomatic’ and ‘cautious’; that seem to legitimize a ‘silence’ for apparently a ‘greater good.’ These include Fear, Ignorance and Exclusiveness. All these are sinful! Jesus and his teaching are about exactly the opposite. Jesus says to us “fear no one; I am with you!”
When we have no courage to take a stand for justice and truth, because those who rule us may take away our possessions, privileges, power , position whatever – we are in fact sending a stronger message which is contra-witness: that our faith in Jesus is shallow, mere lip-service; that we really do not believe in him; that our treasures are with the rulers of this world!
Ignorance is never a value: Jesus himself warned us about our inability to “read the signs of the times.” Yes, many of us suffer from a serious CCM illness (Church/Convent Compound Mentality); our approach is hardly inclusive; we tend to ghettoize; often forgetting the Jesus-style to reach out to the lost, the least and the last!
When we stick our necks out, we may lose everything, we may be persecuted: we will be hounded and harassed and God knows what more. That is the core of our spirituality: the crib and the cross before the resurrection! But when we don’t stick our necks out -we will perhaps still lose everything, but also our own credibility and be a betrayal to the person and message of Jesus.
Yes, dear Bishops, you owe it to our faith, to the Gospel of Jesus, to the people of our country and above all, to the sanctity of our Constitution. There might not be another chance! In India, our Church is still very hierarchical and patriarchal: the laity and the people of India look up to you for a Christ-centred, selfless and servant leadership.
Please do not disappoint them or the future of the country. Speak out today against the unconstitutional CAA/NPR/NRC through a strong public statement (cfr. www.wethepeopleofindia.net; https://cjp.org.in/ ).Just as you did some years ago, come out onto the streets of Bengaluru NOW, in order to demonstrate your stand for the secular and pluralistic fabric of our country and Constitution! Many from Bengaluru will surely join you and millions more throughout the country and the world, will be made aware that “your light shines!”
Some Bishops have come out in the open, joined protests, issued statements asking for the repeal of CAA. But this is just a drop in the ocean
Dear Bishops, in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ Pope Francis says, “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.”
He bluntly adds:“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”
“Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure, which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle, which others have to make do as they can.
“Demands involving the distribution of wealth, concern for the poor and human rights cannot be suppressed under the guise of creating a consensus on paper or a transient peace for a contented minority. The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges. When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.”
Dear Bishops, on March 12, 1977, Jesuit Fr Rutilio Grande was killed by the regime of El Salvador. Presiding over the funeral Mass of his dear friend, Bishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero said, “The government should not consider a priest who takes a stand for social justice as a politician or a subversive element when he is fulfilling his mission in the politics of the common good;” brazenly adding, “Anyone who attacks one of my priests, attacks me. If they killed Rutilio for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”. Three years later on Sunday 23 March 1980, in a powerful homily, Romero minced no words as he castigated the Government and the military of his country:
“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfil an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin.
“The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”
He was assassinated the very next day!
Dear Bishops , I am not sure how many of you will see this letter of mine: it may perhaps get into your ‘spam’ (I am also aware that some of you may never open your email!); you may choose to ignore it( that is your right!); but some of you may even have the courage to read and reply! I will be delighted to receive a response from you: do challenge me and please correct me where I am wrong! I am still learning!Thanks, in anticipation. Since there is nothing personal and confidential about this letter, I will also be sharing it with others! I am deeply grateful to those of you who had the openness to invite me your Dioceses, in the context of what is happening in the country today.
Dear Bishops, I have written this (as I said earlier) after plenty of soul-searching and consultation. It has not been an easy exercise. I did not want to be too long; but I needed to substantiate my arguments – totally based on what you have said, what the Pope is saying, what Jesus expects us to be doing.
Above all, this letter has been written professing my unflinching loyalty to Jesus and his Church; and my sincere commitment to protect and promote the Constitution. My prayer and hope are, that it is accepted with the same openness and positivity with which it is written.
Finally, I cannot help recalling those immortal words of the German Pastor Martin Niemoller, “Then they came for me, and there was no one left, to speak out for me!” Craving your blessings and prayers and with an assurance of my prayers for you, dear Bishops,
Yours in Him
Cedric, February 12, 2020
*Letter written by Fr Cedric Prakash, Gujarat-based human rights and peace activist/writer, to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) at St John’s National Academy for Medical Sciences in Bengaluru on February 12