Fr. Mathew Chandrankunnel CMI
Director, Ecumenical Christian Centre,
For more than two decades I was organizing the Mayalalee Catholics as Parish Priest of the Syro-Malabar Church, as Director of Catholic Associations and now as Director of the Ecumenical Christian Centre in Bangalore has the wider reach of relating to most of the Churches such as CSI, CNI, Seventh Day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Salvation Army and the sprouting Pentecostal Churches as well. Also I went to study in Europe, University of Leuven, Belgium in 1992 and stayed till 1998 and had the opportunity to be working in German parishes and also in 2007 and 2009 I had the opportunity to be associate pastor in the Boston Holy Cross Cathedral, United States. So when the editor of Light of Truth asked me to answer the questions on the European and the American Churches or in general the Western Christianity and the possible future and trends of Christianity in Kerala and India, I found it as a fascinating as well as challenging. First of all I shall give you a mosaic of events, incidents and personal experiences that will enable to illustrate my conclusions which I draw from them.
When I was in Boston, one of the memorable event was the Chrism mass in the year 2007 held at the Boston Holy Cross Cathedral. Archbishop of Boston, Most Rev. Dr Jean Patrick Cardinal O’Malley was presiding as the main celebrant. There were more than 500 priests. All of them were white Caucasians while myself and another priest from Tamil Nadu were the only priests outside and I felt like we are just black pimples in a white body. As we were about to be in the procession, the leader came to us and said there are protestors outside. As we marched towards of the front door of the huge Cathedral, there were protestors with placards, shouting like “you child molesters, paedophiles, give us justice” etc. They were more than fifty, and vigorously shouting. They continued till the end of the mass. After the mass, the Cardinal met people inside the Cathedral and interacted with them for a long time. In 2009, there I was again for the Chrism mass and the protest has been fizzled out and the faces of the pastors were more peaceful and happy! As I was staying within the Holy Cross Cathedral, I heard the stories of this transformation and the tumultuous past from the Cardinal and the other priests who were staying there and especially from Fr Marc O’Connell, at that time the Chancellor and now the Auxiliary Bishop of Boston. According to him it was so difficult to even go out with the Roman Collar because it was absolutely sure that you would attract shouts of shame, booing and jeering. Boston Globe Newspaper published continuously accusing the pastors in Boston of molesting and paedophile activities and the former Cardinal Archbishop Law as suppressing and recycling of those priests. Somewhere sent to the prison, arrested by the police and convicted by the court and one was even killed in the prison because of the anger towards him by the convicts for molesting children.
As I had the opportunity to go deeper into this sad event, it was found that there was also a political angle to it. Cardinal Law’s behaviour was so arrogant, was so powerful and the media struck at him to make him break and bleed. Absolutely sure that there were many incidents of paedophile activities from the priests in the Archdiocese and Cardinal Law tried to save them by moving to different parishes and they went on with these activities though they were advised and strictly warned. As the protests became shriller and louder, Cardinal Law had to resign and Jean Patrick O’Malley was shifted from Fall River diocese as Archbishop of Boston. The whole Massachusetts, Vermont, main and the other states connected is knows as New England and the migrants were mostly Irish Catholics. Their staunch belief in the Catholic faith and prayer life constructed the huge Cathedrals in New York, Boston and other places and became a witness to the power and glory of the Catholic Faith. Gradually this turned to arrogance from the side of the pastors and bishops and the touch with the people had been lost and abuses became cumulative and tried to hush under the carpet. Then it erupted like a furious volcano shaking the Church and destroying the faith of the people and making the Church as shameful and an ignominious institution.
Cardinal O’Malley is a Franciscan Capuchin and always wears his habits and with a broad smile he approaches people. He sold the huge mansions of the Archdiocese and with that money settled the cases and instead of having a dominant role in administering the Archdiocese, became a facilitator. As I was living with His Eminence he shared with me his life experiences. When he was in Washington and taking care of the people who were drunken and fallen on the streets or people who were sick and poor who could not have a decent life, he would take carry them to the shelter in caring them. He has done it for more than 22 years. Whenever Mother Teresa came to US, she had chosen to live with Cardinal O’Malley. His Eminence told me that it was a blessing time with Mother Teresa. With his infectious smile, humorous and friendly approach he turned the tide and now Boston is rich in vocations and people are happy.
While I was studying, I was given a benefactor who would be funding my studies in the priestly formation. When I went to Europe, I had the opportunity to assist Pastor Kringe who had arranged a benefactor for me and hundreds of other brother priests. Pastor Kringe’s parish is a very small one in a mountain region near to Hagen in Germany. He was there for more than 30 years. In winter he would walk barefoot, he will write only on the one side of already used paper, through these and many other ingenious methods he was collecting money to support more priests. My own benefactors were not very rich, but they shared because of the pastor. The pastor’s life touched them and the people found that he was genuine and supported them with all their might like that of the widow’s donation. Almost 90% of the population was there for the mass and the parish activities. His fervour and life touched them and transformed them. If you go to many other parishes in Germany, you may find only the old ladies and a few elderly men and very few adults and children.
As I have been in other countries as pastor and experienced in other continents, but I must say that the faith is definitely rekindled by the priests and pastors. If they are found to be arrogant, unfriendly, unsupportive, people feel it and the land become a faith desert. If the pastor or the priest is prayerful, living with humility and simplicity and approachable then that parish will thrive. If arrogance and authority are governing the priests and the highrarchy, then definitely it’s going to be a disaster. It’s not the amount of theological vigour, excellence and nuances that are counted but the authenticity of the priest and his relationship with the parishners and sharing with their joys and sorrows are more important. Demolishing old Churches and building magnificent churches have become a fashion now. It’s the symbol of the glory, majesty and money power of the Church. Such glorious Churches, Cathedrals, Monasteries in the West are now vacant and now many of them are sold and transformed into malls, theatres and prayer halls for other religions. This can happen to our Churches as well in the near future. In Kerala interior villages, you can see the young people are from other states. All of our youngsters are migrated to other continents. And many of them when migrated to other situations and contexts never bother about the edicts made by the Church leadership. As the new philosophical systems introduced by philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Michael Foucault, Gadamer criticises the existing way of life and the arrogance of reason and authority and deny the existence of God and religion which is now whole heartedly supported by science and technology now. As the younger generation are now exposed to other forms of thoughts and contexts, the hold to their intellectual and moral consciousness could never be through authority and power. They want to experience and take decisions for themselves and when they fall its not criticisms and accusations they want to hear but hands that can uplift them. That’s where the role of Pope Francis comes into play. He is accepted by the majority of people except the conservatives, the arrogant liturgists and those who want to drag the Church into the middle ages. His broad smile, affectionate approach, genuine interest in the human person, discarding the paraphernalia, breaking the ring of cronies and sycophants, ready to remove the authoritarian prelates irrespective of whether they are in the curia or in distant dioceses, speaking directly to the hearts of the people rather than through the medium of theological dogmas… etc., rekindles the Church and give hope to the Church. He appoints both the men and women faithful to the Church leadership shows how the Church is holistic and not merely of the priests and bishops alone. The strengthening of the laity through theological education and bringing them to the main stream of Church life is very important for the transformation of the Church. Also worthy priests from the religious should also be appointed as bishops and then the fraternity of the Church will be stronger and healthy.
When, arrogance, power, might, authority are eliminated from the heads of the priests and the bishops and instead of them instilled in with simplicity, spirituality, openness, relationality, then I am sure the Church will have better future. The messianic political activities of a few priests could only divide and further weaken the Church and no transformation is going to happen. Using the inner forums and through dialogues of patience and affection can make changes rather than political strategies and public criticisms would only endanger the hope and faith in the institution. The ardent life of a priest and the just governance of the bishop based on charity, faith and hope will definitely help to survive the divisions and the calamities within the Churches. However, the Risen Lord who transformed the weak minded and ran-away disciples into soldiers of faith that enabled St Thomas to claim ‘My Lord and My God’ to transcend space and reach out to unknown horizons, the intellectual St Francis Xavier who renounced the path of knowledge and travelled towards that of wisdom and Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara who transformed the Kerala Church, will enable the Indian Church to encounter the contexts of fears future and meaningfulness.