Thursday, June 26, 2008

Church in India: "Stunted"

This interview appeared in Spero News in April. I've been meaning to blog it for ages. It's an interview with an 81 year old Italian Jesuit who is returning to Italy after 58 years of service in India, most it teaching at a seminary, having trained nearly 1000 priests and some 11 Bishops. His main contention: there is a glut of priests in India, many of whom are obsessed with power and control, mistrustful of the laity, and disrespectful of the hard work of religious sisters. This has lead to a situation where the growth of Church is "stunted." It's a pretty outspoken piece (surprisingly so. Indians as a rule are horrified at the thought of airing such dirty laundry in public), from someone who clearly loves the Church in India, and has dedicated his life to the service of the country Some excerpts, and comments.
I am happy that I taught them. But I am not happy about their performance. One of the greatest tragedies in the Indian Church is the overpopulation of priests. Too many priests and too many institutions have stagnated the Church's growth. Many priests have forgotten their call as pastors and missioners, and reduced themselves to mere managers, directors and organizers.

They want to control everything. India has thousands of priests, but do they do justice to their priestly vocation? I tell you, the Indian Church has become another political organization, where everything is defined in terms of power.

The number of Church buildings and its institutions is growing, the number of dioceses is growing, and so is the number of bishops and priests. But we don't see a proportionate growth of the Church in India. A handful of foreign missioners (in the past) have brought more conversions than thousands of the Indian priests.
Ouch. But then, a little further on, he seems to contradicts himself
I did not mean the number game. I do not believe in increasing the number of baptized Christians. Evangelization for me is spreading the Good News of Jesus. The most effective way is through personal witnessing. Mother Teresa did not baptize any one, but she has evangelized millions.

There is tremendous scope for such an evangelization in India. We can spread Christ's kingdom by showing how we live, love, serve and forgive those who sin against us. Those who accept Jesus as their master are Christians even if they are not baptized.
While there is nothing wrong in reminding priests they serve One who came to serve, not be served, and certainly the primary task for all the baptized is to live a life that bears witness to the Gospel, the rest of this paragraph is, at best, incomplete. Again, I ask myself, why this abhorrence of baptism in the Indian Church? Does not accepting Jesus as master at some level involve a movement towards visible communion with His Body on earth? He is not talking about crypto-Christians who fear social and legal ostracization. He is renouncing the very idea of baptism. (I've expounded on this attitude that I've seen in Indian and Asian clergy before. Evidence once more that the Great Commission has been practically eviscerated in large parts of the Church in India.) However, I am quite sympathetic to the following:
The Church in India did not grow much because we hardly utilized the resources of our laity, did not even recognize them. I tell you, the Church will not grow unless we involve laity in evangelization. It will not grow if we continue to show our superiority over women.

It will not grow if we continue fighting for supremacy in the name of rites. It is so frustrating for me to see these struggles of power, male domination and personal survival.
And
What would you advise the Church in India as you leave the country?

Recognize the laity. Encourage them to build up Christian communities as communities of love, service, forgiveness, sharing and caring. Hand over the keys of our institutions and power to the laity or at least involve them in the management. Don't keep them out and watch their activities with suspicion.

If they go wrong, the Church will collapse. Maybe our institution will grow, popular devotions will grow, but faith will come down. And we will fail in converting others with our witness.

The Church is not for the laity; they are the Church. The greatest structure of the Church is its parish and not the diocese or archdiocese. Let the Indian Church begin to grow from parish communities and let laypeople take the lead.
A few comments:

-- Historically, it seems that the vocation of the laity seems to be recognized only when the number of vocations to the priesthood or religious life seems to be dwindling. This is tragic, and reflects a deep-seated misunderstanding of the complementary nature of the vocations of the ordained and the laity. And more often than not it continues to be a sign of that deeply rooted and insidious clericalism that understands the "ideal Christian" to be an ordained priest, and tries to clericalize the laity.

-- In its most perverse form, it even looks forward to an end to "clerical domination" and the end of the ordained ministry itself. At the risk of publicly criticizing my former confreres, I saw tons of evidence of this in my time with the Paulists: from a minimalization of the role of the priest during Mass, to a baldly stated prediction: "The Paulists will die out and their vocation will pass on to the laity," and little, if any, attention paid to promoting vocations to the Society among parishes under their care. In some places there was even hostility to the idea of promoting vocations to a church whose "institutional structures" were "inherently unjust." (Of course, in such situations, pointing out that this is what most Protestantism looks like, isn't really helpful.)

-- In my very limited experience of India (I have never been, as a Catholic, to the heartland of Goa or the South), parish life is focused on the Mass and popular devotions. Catechesis seems to be limited, and the quality or and participation at liturgy leaves a lot to be desired. Time and again, visiting Indian priests comment on the vitality of parish life in the US, and the involvement of the laity in the life of the parish. (My most recent visitor, in fact, was astounded to learn that the little parish here in Georgia did not have a convent attached to it.He had never come across a parish in India that did not have an adjoining convent!) Yet, even here, we are talking about the increased role of the laity within the structure of the parish, within the liturgy and so on. This is a good thing, for sure. But, if we remain focused only on this, we lose sight of the vocation of the laity to be formed to live the Gospel in the world.

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