Bp Sebastian Adayantharath
When you look back, how do you see seventeen years of your Episcopal life?
You had interviewed me seventeen years ago. Through it you had then brought out all my opinions and views about the Episcopal ministry. My motto then was to be broken and to be shared. I had some dreams about the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese and its functioning when I got back here after seventeen years. I am extremely glad that I was able in many ways to act according to it with a fresh vision in episcopal ministry. In the Vatican Council, Leonardo Boff and many theologians, including Karl Rahner, dreamed of a new kind of Church. One that is not only for the poor but of the poor. They had the foresight to realise that Mt 25 is the most critical part of the gospel. The Church as a mystical body of Christ should stand for the poor. I am happy to say that, in all these years, I was able to cut some new roads in that direction in my ministry, whereby I could attract many to look into the people’s life situations, especially of people on the street, people with HIV, people involved in prostitution and people on the margins like trans genders. Pope Francis calls them people on the periphery. Especially in the context of the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, I was able to start a process of dialogue to cut some new paths. Our Church is in constant dialogue with these people on the periphery, as we got involved in the Moolampally issue where people were uprooted for constructing the Container Road. We have been able to move the Church, especially some of the young priests, sisters and the lay people towards that goal.
You have been successful in establishing relations with people as well as in finding new ways to reach out to everyone. Your spontaneous relation with people of all religions and castes is remarkable. Did that sometimes create problems for you?
Never! As a bishop I begin to relate with all kinds of people who face various kinds of difficulties in their lives: some of them have economic difficulties, some of them have problems of marginalization, and some have problems of married life and of family relationships. So, when you get involved in finding a solution to those problems, it takes a lot of your time and sometimes you find it very hard to manage the rest of your responsibilities, because people approach you with a lot of expectations. As a bishop, you are able to solve or resolve some of the difficult situations in their life. Sometimes it is extremely hard, and there are also times when you are not able to do anything and have to give up in the middle. So, sometimes people go back disappointed. This kind of ministry is in itself extremely burdensome. But the relationships it knits have been quiet warm and wonderful, and I felt good about that. People too felt good about that. But beyond that, being in a parish community where we work along with the priests and Sisters and in touch with the people demands a sort of kenosis, an emptying of ourselves and walking into people’s lives and becoming a part of their lives.
In your seventeen years’ episcopate, there were two conflicts; one was the Njarakkal issue and second was the recent financial crisis involving the Major Archbishop. How do you relate these two happenings?
Both were extremely painful situations. While we do have a lot of respect and love for religious Sisters and we love them, when the parish community takes an entirely contradictory stand, you find yourself at a loss. In the land sale issue also, we had the archbishop on one side, the priests and the laity on the otherside. You are caught in between the two, struggling hard to calm down the situation. To understand what is the truth and to shore up the responsibility of standing for it sometimes becomes extremely burdensome.
They must have been very hard, painful and humiliating situations. Accusations of every sort were hurled at you. Some Catholics themselves took the lead for that. How did you take it?
I have great faith in Jesus Christ. I used to dwell on these words of St Paul: ‘I have been called not only to believe in Jesus but also I am lucky to suffer for Him.’ I journeyed through the whole process strengthened by that thought. One of the persons who really attracted me was Fredrick Bonhoeffer. He used to say that whenever you take a stand you have to pay a price for that. I deeply began to believe that, whenever you take a stand, whether for the good or for the bad, you will be accused and you will be ridiculed and you will be spoken evilly against and sometimes the same will happen to your family, friends and to your relatives. It sometimes became extremely unbearable. But even in the midst of all these, when I go to a parish community, I see people’s love and affection. I found that the priestly life is extremely meaningful and joyful in the midst of all these things that were happening.
How did you take this immense suffering in your life? Does it have any meaning?
When I was going through extremely difficult situations, usually I called my sister who is a religious nun in Bijnor and shared my painful experiences with her. She told me about a simple sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the place where she lives and works. She is totally innocent and looks beautiful. She had been raped by six or seven people and thrown into a river. She suffered that for no fault of hers. My sister said, this is the reality of the world in which we live, where Jesus loved and died. She went on to say that such painful things happen because there is so much of evil that is going on around. You must somehow take that into yourself and transform it into a kind of life-giving power. In that way, you join yourself to the paschal mysteries of Jesus.
This time around the Syro-Malabar Church had an extraordinary Synod. How different for you was this Synod from the many others you participated in earlier?
There were three things that I noticed: one is that there was a lot of openness from the part of the Synod’s bishops, because they tried to understand the issues deeply. First of all, they said that the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly is extremely important for them. They began to admit that if some troubles happen there, there must be some valid reason for it, which is agitating the priests and the people. Secondly, the bishops were ready to make an effort to bring in harmony. Almost forty agendas came up for discussion in the Synod. But they said, let us concentrate on one issue so that we can bring peace and some kind of harmony in the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. Thirdly, they said that the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly desires to have a bishop in the leadership who will take decisions for them and manage that big diocese. The Synod took a decision on that and talked to Rome and got it approved before the Synod concluded.
Do you think that the Synod believes in journeying together? Do they really believe in the language of dialogue and mutual understanding? Do you think that faith is deeply inherent in the Synod?
The Syro-Malabar Synod is only twenty-seven years old. It is still in its infancy. All the impression we got from inside and outside is that we need to grow in synodality. Synodality means willing to listen to each other, even the youngest or the weakest member in the Synod. I am happy to let you know that somehow that kind of a process has got started. But there is still a long way to go.
In a talk to the permanent Synod of Ukraine Church, Pope Francis referred to the suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane. In conclusion he said: “The disciples were sleeping and the crowed came to arrest Him with weapons and sticks and then it was Peter who drew the sword and faced them. That means, when you sleep while you should be praying, you will end up taking the sword. Do you think the Church is succumbing to this temptation?”
When I was in Canada a famous theologian I talked to said, the society in which we live has a strong influence on the Church and it is up to the Church to decide to take the gospel-way or the world-way. On a human level, people always choose the way of success in society, not of the gospel. In the gospel, somehow you feel God sometimes is in defeat or in failure. As a human person and even as a Church, as a human Church, sometimes we don’t want to face this failure. So we fall in for the society’s ways. As the Pope asked us, the Synod tried to understand the gospel way through prayer and by listening to the people. Our Synod was open and willing to listen to various people while it was in session. Their views were integrated into the process of policy decision. In my experience of the past seventeen years, from the time of Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil to Cardinal George Alencherry, I can say that our Synod is slowly growing towards its intended goal.
In the process of linguistic dialogue, theologically a very important factor is the Holy Spirit or the interiority. If the Holy Spirit is no more founded or rooted in interiority, you have cunning rationality taking place. Do you think it is a serious issue for the Church and its assemblies?
It could be so. Unless we become people of the Spirit, and are willing to follow Jesus who seemed to be a failure for the world, unless we follow the path of grace, the Church becomes panicky sometimes. A decision taken under such a situation can become destructive for the lives of the people, because it was the result of trying to solve a problem purely by thinking rationally. But the Mother Church is constantly reminding us, especially through Pope Francis, to follow the way of interiority. In the Indian context, this has become critically important, because we are known for a spirituality where we journey inside, where we find God within ourselves and consider another person as a living sacrament. Gandhi said, any decision or any policy should be formed in a way that is helpful to lift up the yoke that is on the shoulders of the poor. That’s why we read in the gospel of St Luke that Jesus has come to give life and life in abundance. So, the Synods or the KCBC or CBCI, or any Church body for that matter, must take the people into consideration in the policy making process. In interiority we should seek what the Spirit is telling us. “Thy Kingdom Come” or “Listen to the Spirit” is very important in the policy making process of the Church.
What are your aspirations for your new diocese?
It is a diocese that has both city parishes and village parishes. There are a lot of youth in the diocese, as it includes Bangalore city, and they need a different kinds of youth ministry, very different from the traditional youth ministry which we had in the parishes. I also believe there are families in the city which are struggling to make both ends to meet. We need to have a kind of pastoral care for families that are in a situation that is entirely different from that of Kerala. Their job, their time, their children and their aspirations all are different. Our parishes have a reach that in a way is able exert influence on the families. They need to make their lives more meaningful. Satisfaction in life in a big city is different.
How do you describe your new diocese now?
It is an extremely beautiful diocese. The natural beauty of some parts of the diocese can be compared to Kerala of twenty-five years ago. Farmers and the children enjoying themselves, shepherding and everything of that sort is there. You also have the new world of a suffering metro city. I will have to somehow shift the frame of mind back and forth to those situations, working closely with the priests who are working in the villages while encouraging the priests who are in the city. They do a lot of hard work on weekends to reach out to all the families. I am with them as a companion. Together we will journey to be a sort of a salt or leaven for the diocese. I am a friend, I am a servant and I am somehow the icon of the crucified one. We will be co-travellers, none in front or behind, but journeying side by side towards a common goal.
How many Catholics are there in the diocese?
We have almost a hundred thousand in the city of Bangalore and some six thousand in Mandya area.
How many priests do you have?
We have around 45 priests from various religious communities working in the city and we have 14 incardinated priests for the diocese of Mandya.
What about the religious?
The religious are doing a tremendous work in the diocese, like the MST Fathers and the CMI Fathers who have been working there for almost forty years. Following Liberation Theology, they have switched from starting new institutions to tilling the soil, building up human resources and helping people with whatever they have. We are deeply, deeply grateful to those religious communities for what they have done.
The Archbishop of Bangalore is your classmate. How do you think of walking hand-in-hand with him?
Archbishop Machado is a wonderful man. The situation in the Bangalore archdiocese is somehow calming down and many of the bishops I met in Karnataka are willing to work with the Syro-Malabar community, because they understand how challenging the daunting task of keeping the faith alive, especially among the youth is. We will do our best together, whether it is Latin or Syro-Malankara or Syro-Malabar. I dream of a concerted and collaborative ministry, which is a wonderful joy for me.