For Indian Jesuit, the Church has the right to a voice in society
Following Pope Francis, Fr Cedric Prakash hopes the Church in India will be "bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets”. Hindu nationalists criticise the bishops' views about the country's politics. The hullabaloo by fundamentalists has only one explanation, they “are either too afraid or too ashamed of the reality."
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – One of the major issues now affecting India’s Catholic Church is whether it should speak out in the country’s political debates, especially ahead of next year’s elections and in light of recent criticism against the country’s Catholic bishops who spoke out on the matter.
Fr Cedric Prakash, an Indian priest in charge of the Jesuit Refugee Service's communication in the Middle East, has decided to address the issue. Noting that in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote, “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", he notes that undoubtedly the Church cannot be a silent spectator of what is going on in society.
In a letter to AsiaNews, the Jesuit cites the controversies unleashed by Hindu nationalists against three archbishops: Mgr Thomas Macwan of Gandhinagar, Mgr Anil JT Couto from Delhi, and Mgr Filipe Neri Ferrao of Goa. The first was criticised for expressing "legitimate concerns and asking for prayers" ahead of the December 2017 elections in Gujarat. Mgr Couto was attacked for asking for prayers and fasting ahead of the 2019 elections. Finally, a pastoral letter of Mgr Ferrao, although centred on poverty to alleviate, was seen mainly as a critique of Narendra Modi's government.
Fr Prakash notes that previous documents, released during official meetings of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), dealt with far more delicate issues than any pastoral letter by the archbishops.
In the final report of the 30th CBCI General Assembly in 2012, Church leaders said that “our hearts year[. . .] for a better India". They go on to list the missed goals of the Indian Constitution: "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.”
The failure to achieve these goals has increased "inequities, [creating] an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor with consequent tensions spilling over into violence.”
The 2014 assembly, writes Prakash, dealt with even more important issues. On that occasion, the bishops highlighted "the trend to fundamentalism which seeks to dilute the secular character of our nation."
For this reason, the CBCI insisted on the need to become more involved in favour of the "marginalised and the exploited, those suffering from disabilities, those living in the peripheries of the economic, cultural and social sphere". Indeed, they "want the Church to be truly a Church of the poor".
For the clergyman, both statements are "highly critical of the Government of the day; highlighting the ills that plagued society and above all, challenging the Government to ensure that the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of India are guaranteed to every citizen of the country."
“Strangely enough, no rabid TV anchor yelled and screamed at that time ‘the nation wants to know!’ or of an ‘international conspiracy’. There was no media, which took umbrage at what the Bishops were saying, there were no fascists and fundamentalists who went to town saying that it was ‘Vatican interference’. There were no self-appointed Christian ‘voices ‘who demanded ‘evidence” or substantiation to the Bishops statements or insisting that ‘the Bishops should not dabble in politics’.”
Here Fr Prakash is referring to the loaded accusations made by Surendra Jain, the joint general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu ultra-nationalist group, who, last week, said that the Indian Churches are “conspir[ing] with the Vatican to destabilise the current elected government” of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Indeed, Jain openly spoke of “a conspiracy to install governments that can be employed by the Vatican".
For Fr Prakash, "The only plausible reasons for the ‘hullabaloo’ is that these pseudo-nationalists are either too afraid or too ashamed of the reality." In light of this, all Catholics should follow the “imperative of a true disciple of Jesus [which is to] do all one can to help alleviate poverty, suffering and injustice”.