Mrs Lida Jacob IAS (Retired)
What does Christmas mean to you? Who is Christ to you and what is in Christ that is most endearing and challenging?
Christmas to me is the eternal assurance of God that Jesus Christ His Son is the saviour and the hope of all mankind. Every year in December, this promise is renewed as we look forward to the celebrations that glorify God and offer peace to all. It is a time for looking inwards, to introspect and strengthen, my faith in the Almighty and my commitment to all who are in need of my care and concern. The heart-warming event of Christ’s birth rings in a new year, new hopes and dreams, along with a call to love and care without seeking personal benefit or recognition.
At a deeper level, I see Jesus as the centre of my life with whom I try to commune closely because He is the only one who knows me truly and fully, with all my weaknesses, failures, strengths and potential. I know that He will never let me down and that His loving care, comfort and guidance is ever present. Even though at times, I get so involved in my immediate work and activities that I forget to ask for His help and guidance, He is still with me, guiding my words and actions especially in the most crucial moments. So, what is it that is most endearing and challenging in my relationship with Christ? I would spontaneously say that it is His all-encompassing, loving and radiant presence in me, encouraging me even in my retirement stage to take up responsibilities to serve anew, to walk the extra mile or two, however difficult or complicated the road may be. Being Christian is always challenging because it requires me to be humane and Christ-like in my thoughts and actions, indeed, to be in many ways, more than I think I can ever be.
You have been in the Indian Administrative Services. How does your faith bear on your official life?
I joined government service in 1978. I firmly believe that my selection itself was an unfolding of God’s plan for me with a specific purpose – to be His representative in government service. I therefore made a promise to Him. This was a vow to, never ever, either knowingly or unknowingly, do anything that is unjust, wrong or immoral in my interface with the public I have been called to serve. Besides, as the daughter of a leading rubber planter who had experienced much harassment and injustice from government officials and agencies and had shared his anguish, I was well aware of my responsibility to show the best face of government to the ordinary citizen. My earnest prayer every morning was for God’s help to keep my pledge to Him. I sought the intercession of Mother Mary whom I trusted to ever be by my side I am grateful, humbled and yet uplifted by the fact that God has guided me to do my very best in all matters, great and small, all through my long and eventful career. I have tried to always be mindful of the fact that it is the taxpayer, poor and illiterate though she or he may be, who pays for my salary and perks. I therefore had to work hard to achieve the high benchmarks I had set for myself. The unstinting support and encouragement of my husband and children, the prayers and goodwill of our parents and siblings on both sides of our family have been my great blessing, strength and comfort all through.
In all the positions I have held, there have been difficult and perplexing situations for which there are no textbook solutions. One has then to use one’s knowledge, common sense, discretion and authority, very often within the shortest time-frame. As a woman officer at a time when our numbers in the higher echelons of power were low, one gets a lot of praise and recognition in the media and from the public for successes they do not generally expect women to achieve. Hence all these accolades were taken with a tinge of regret for their low expectations! Besides, to me it was the Lord’s work that I was carrying out.
An important truth that I had learnt during my career was that to walk in the footsteps of the Master, I had to have faith in the fatherhood of God and in the brotherhood of all mankind. Thus, my integrity was professed in my humanity. There were of course times when I had to take tough and unpopular decisions, but I have always tried to be as correct and thorough as possible. Keeping in mind the dictum that the law is for the citizens and not the other way around, I used the law and regulations to meet the needs of the people to the furthest extent possible, without of course breaking the law. The training in social responsibility and leadership that I had received from my participation in student movements like Girl Guides, Marian Sodality and AICUF have helped me tremendously.
There is an up-surge of communalism everywhere in the world and this communalism is much related to religions. How has this become a problem?
Narrow nationalism, totalitarianism, parochialism and communalism are on the rise in today’s world. India in particular, is witnessing an upsurge of these negative influences in the form of powerful movements backed by distorted history, intolerance and bigotry. The results of such systems are truly devastating and unjust as the poor are the hardest hit with even lesser access to basic needs.
Sadly enough, religion plays a pivotal role in the unbridled growth of communalism. It was not-so-long ago that we were taught to believe that the primary purpose of all religions is to seek the Truth and to mould human beings into good and noble persons. The Father of our nation loved to sing “Ishwar, Allah tere naam, sabko sanmathi dey Bhagawan.” But much of this has changed, and today religion is manifested as mind-sets, rituals and parochial approaches.
Hence, in many ways the problem lies in the growth of religiosity as against religion. It is the insidious and flagrant misuse of religious beliefs and spiritual authority to create a fundamentalist group of followers and rigid structures to win political and social gains for a few. We see this in the more and more elaborate and costly rituals and celebrations, construction of larger and even larger places of worship and institutions, all totally under the control of these religious leaders. We hear of ostracism, excommunication and fatwas against the non-conformists, and protests against these if any, are muted and sternly dealt with. Thus, there is a quantum rise in religiosity at the expense of the deep inner essence of religion, which is clearly eroding and weakening. In such a climate of spiritual dictatorship, the main sufferers are the religious and social minorities as also the powerless and the marginalised. Their cultures, social systems, even food habits and attire are questioned, right from the early education centres, schools and universities up to public spaces. The environment of fear, distrust and hatred thus created, provides fertile ground for the growth of radical and terrorist outfits.
In short, the erosion of the true essence of religion, the obnoxious inter-twining of money, power, politics and presumed social superiority, have promoted the present environment of communalism. India which is lauded for its unity in diversity, cannot afford to lose this priceless quality as its absence would be a sure recipe for chaos, violence and a sharp slide into social and economic backwardness.
We are also in a world where there is talk about globalization. What has globalized?
The world has become a global village. Trade and markets move more freely across borders and will become even freer in the short-term, often at the expense of traditional workers, farmers and craftsmen. Communication, travel, entertainment, learning and sharing of information, contacts, etc. have become easily accessible to large communities worldwide. It is now an open market where the fittest alone can survive, and the primary considerations here are commercial.
India is already experiencing the effects of globalization in the form of larger profits to the big and powerful and loss of jobs and opportunities to the struggling youth and lower income groups who are forced to compete with multi-nationals. Important issues like ethics in business and concern for the environment which should be the touchstone in commercial transactions, are too often ignored.
Another aspect of globalisation is the virtual world which allows the transmission of news and views through social media, that are inspiring or destructive, true or fake, across continents in seconds. Along with the perceptible advantages of this digital invasion are a host of negative factors that are reason for deep concern and apprehension. The effects of globalization, especially in the electronic media have brought about dramatic changes in the way we think and behave, making the generation gap today the widest it has ever been. The dividing lines between right and wrong, the permissible and the prohibited are so blurred that no simple guidelines can be prescribed. Most of these changes have come about at unbelievable speed to tradition- bound and conservative societies in most of the developing and Third World countries. Here, families, guardians, even governments and their systems have yet to grasp or fathom the exact nature and ambit of such developments in the virtual world including the dark web that promotes terrorism, trafficking and other nefarious activities. It is indeed a tough task to find practical and plausible methods to sift the real from the unreal and to offer the right guidance at the right time. Close engagement with the young of all ages by parents, teachers, experts in the field, mentors and other competent authorities along with dialogue and up-dating the level of interactions, are some methods to meet these challenges.
The Christian Church is very much vexed with internal problems. As a lay person what is the role of the laity in this crisis? How are women treated in the Church?
Christianity has had a long and chequered history. It was founded by God who became man, and was taken forward by ordinary men who had lived as fishermen and small time workers till their encounter with the Master. They followed Him and learned the New Law from Him for three years. The spectacular spread and growth of this new faith despite horrible punishments and persecutions from the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious hierarchy, can only be attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit. As can be expected, with growing numbers of followers, there arose dissensions and sharp differences of opinion between the several churches that were established in various parts of Asia Minor. There are records of many heresies and schisms, shameful scandals and gross misdemeanours in high places, but the Church has endured through the ages and still stands as the largest and most stable organization of human beings all through the past 21 centuries.
Designed by God and crafted by humans, the Church has been and will continue to be a beacon of hope in God’s providence and in the brotherhood of mankind. This is because the Church constitutes not just the high-ranking prelates and clergy in hierarchical ranks, but is defined in the main, in its people. This huge majority—women, men and children– form the base of the amazing structure that is the Catholic Church. It is for them that the clergy are called, trained and sent forth to minister to with the care, concern and dedication of a shepherd. Without this diverse yet harmonious multitude of the laity, ‘people of God’ as they are fondly termed, the Church would have no credibility or even existence. It is strange that some of the high-ranking personages and members of the clergy do not realise or accept this basic fact!
We, the lay persons, see the bishops and priests, as guides and caregivers in our spiritual journey towards the Almighty. We look up to them as models of Christ’s love and compassion and as mentors to whom one can always turn for help. By and large, majority of the clergy, being empowered and enriched by their dedicated priestly formation and zeal, are offering exemplary service to the people entrusted to their care. At the same time, there have been several instances of clerical abuse of authority and power, position and wealth that have caused great angst and anger all around. Cases of wanton betrayal of trust, child sexual abuse and violation of child rights, high-handedness in dealing with the powerless and the poor, extortion and demands in the name of construction of monumental churches, parish halls, institutions and the like have sadly sullied the once-shining image of the Catholic Church. If the laity today continue to attend Holy Mass and other religious services in large numbers, despite the wrong doings on the part of certain members in the clergy, it is to be understood as their unshakable faith in the intrinsic value and import of the Eucharistic service, and not as a condonation of perceived wrong -doing.
Absence of transparency and accountability in the management of Church properties and institutions is equally disturbing. Intolerance towards dissenting voices and legitimate questioning, creates ill-will and leads to allegations of corruption and malpractice that could be either real or imaginary.
It is time that the clerical hierarchy and the various religious congregations carry out a deep and incisive internal scrutiny of the level of their spiritual commitment to the Church and her children as also their integrity in the management of temporal assets entrusted to them. A comprehensive and value-based social audit of all Catholic institutions would serve to bring out the deficiencies and lapses that have crept in. Lapses and wrong doings if any, should be explained and amends made. This would require an openness and willingness to acknowledge failures and short-comings as also a genuine desire to exemplify Christian charity and compassion through our institutions.
The use of the best expertise available along with modern technology will help to ensure efficiency and transparency that will stand the test of any objective scrutiny. With the vast resource of talents, knowledge, experience, expertise and good will of the laity at their disposal, it is difficult to understand why our clergy and religious congregations do not utilize these advantages to best effect. The laity should be closely involved in the management of Church properties and institutions, throwing aside any distrust and suspicion. Discussions, sharing of views and opinions and accepting needed changes, are important here.
Increasing the role of the laity in more and more aspects of Church life is a growing demand and necessity. A proper selection of lay persons who should be given appropriate training, would bring in the sense of belonging that is sadly lacking in the laity that is not within the “inner circle” of the Church authorities. Parish priests should encourage competent persons and women more particularly, to serve in the various councils and committees, which will be possible only if they are assured of respect and acceptance. The utilisation of Church offerings should be transparent and inclined towards helping the less fortunate in society. Programmes that are attractive to the youth and which are formulated by them, would greatly enhance their participation in Church life. There should be effective forums for the laity at various levels to express opinions and grievances, which should be heard and redressed with respect and empathy.
It is imperative to demonstrate a sincere resolve to create a gender-just environment in the church, by enabling women including religious sisters, to take up larger and more visible roles in Church life.
How do you see the future of the Church in India?
To me, the future of the Church in India, lies in a sincere and genuine closing of ranks that would speak for the unity and universality of the Catholic Church. Its priests and religious should go out as of yore, to the margins of society, leaving their own comfort zones, just as Christ had sent His apostles, seek out the oppressed and the outcasts to share the love and compassion that Christianity is mainly about. This care and concern for the “other” is generally absent today, except in the case of those congregations whose charism lies in serving people in the margins of society.
The image of grossly self-opinionated, high-handed religious leaders, secure in a well-entrenched hierarchy flush with money, only serves to alienate them from the real believers. The tactic of these leaders to create chinks and cracks in the unity of the ordinary and genuine believers to form diverse and antagonistic groups despite sharing the same doctrines of faith, rituals and practices, should be exposed and defeated.
If the mission of Christianity is to ensure the freedom of humankind from the shackles of ignorance, inequalities and injustice through service and faith, then we have much more to do. In an India that has adequate numbers of educational and care institutions located in the more developed parts of the country, the Church should go into the backwoods in search of those in need of the basic essentials: food, health care, education and employment. Selfless service and dedicated action will speak louder than the most eloquent sermons on the Good News. Its relevance today would be in speaking out for those whose voices are not heard, taking up their causes and in using the laity and its resources in a truly Christian manner.