The Church as Communion of Faith
Saint Charles Seminary
Nagpur 440 006, M.S.
February 19, 1998
My dear Fathers, Brothers, Sisters, and Faithful,
December 22, 1997, was the forty-first anniversary of my sacerdotal ordination. Nineteen days before that was the thirty-third anniversary of my episcopal ordination. On both those days, I thought long and hard about a statement I once heard from Bishop Saupin of happy memory. He said, "Do we need a bishop or a dancing bear?" Bishop Saupin suggested that in his experience bishops are meant for bhashan, bhojan, and utghathan, in other words, for a speech, a dinner, and an inauguration, and not much more.
I must admit that in many cases Bishop Saupin's experience has been my own. Many people expect and, indeed, want me to be a dancing bear and not a person who must exercise the office of successor of the Apostles. So long as I am not taking myself or them seriously, I am fine. When I wanted to advance the cause of the Reign of God, and urge others to do the same, in other words, to take seriously what Jesus is all about, I felt uneasily irrelevant and marginalised as bishop.
Now in the light of my anniversaries, and as I come to the end of my tenure with you as Ordinary of the Archdiocese of Nagpur, it seems to me a fitting time in my last letter to offer to you what I believe would make episcopal office in the Archdiocese of Nagpur what it is intended to be and needs to be if any bishop is to fulfill his authentic role among you. Whatever else that role is, it is surely not to be a dancing bear, to wait attendance and be merely ceremonial.
I also want to leave you with my suggestions for improvements for our work in the archdiocese. After more than twenty-one years living with you and working among you, it seems fitting to me that I present you with that testament. It is not a "new" testament. You have heard me on these topics before, but the ideas bear repeating. My thoughts are given you with much love and like all authentic loving, they are freely given, freely to be received.
The Office of Bishop
I owe these thoughts to Dr. Eamon Duffy, an historian from Cambridge. It is true that in the long run of history bishops have been a motley crew. There have been (and are) clever, stupid, effective, inept, alert, lazy bishops. In their teaching and ministry, their gifts and their foibles have been and are all too apparent. But what is the episcopacy in the last analysis? The Church is built on its bishops, not because the Apostles were spiritual geniuses or inspired leaders but because in the providence of God, Jesus chose to work in and through human beings and a special set of disciples whom we call Apostles. The bishops are the successors of these special disciples. The Apostles' value to the world, and the bishops' value today, lies in their ordinariness and their weakness as much as in their gifts, just as it did with Jesus' special colleagues.
It is shocking to know that many bishops could be and are cowards. Many ran away in times of persecution in ancient times and some still do today. Some did even worse than absent themselves from difficult situations. They betrayed the truth. Some handed over the scriptures or revealed the names of Christians in their communities to the persecutors. The betrayals today are undoubtedly more subtle but they still go on. These scandalous behaviours often caused great crises and divisions in the Church. They still do. The obvious fact is that the apostolic witness has been handed on to sinful women and men like ourselves. It is not to be found in an impeccable morality or a secret teaching. It is to be found in the unity of a shared meal and in the coming together of hearing the Word of God and giving proof of that unity through mutual service. That is why Catholics symbolise their unity around a person rather than by basing it on a theology.
The person around whom Catholics gather is Jesus Christ. Bishops act in the name of Jesus. People, of course, have a right to assume that their bishops are men of faith, hope, and love. People have the right to hope that their bishops live up as well as they can to the demands of the gospel. People have the right to expect their bishops to be very wise and above all to be holy. But sometimes their bishop isn't all that his people want him to be and sometimes his people, especially his intimate associates, priests and consecrated religious, are not all that a bishop wants or needs them to be. Usually the bishop isn't all that he himself wants to be. It is not without reason that when he mentions himself in the canon of the mass, the bishop is expected to refer to himself as "me, your unworthy servant". This is not some kind of mock humility. In the final analysis the individual credibility or lack thereof of a given bishop, as important as that is, isn't what matters most. Catholics are asked to reverence, respect, and obey the bishops not because they are nice men or clever persons, zealous or even holy, but because they are ministers of God. And if we do not do that then, given the structure of our Church, we must ask with Peter, "To whom else shall we go, Lord?" Our total leadership is at stake. That is why we do no service to the gospel by pretending that bishops are supermen, that they never commit sins or make mistakes. They are men like other men, with likes and dislikes, prejudices and presuppositions, virtues and vices, all of which shape for good or ill their actions and policies. Despite all this, the episcopacy is a commitment to effect real community here and now, very local. This community will support and sustain the bishop in his mission and it will also make demands on him which may not always seem reasonable or just. This community will support and sustain each other and every member of the human family and the bishop may make demands on the community which may not always seem reasonable or just.
The leadership of bishops is a God-given function, Catholics maintain. The gifts and talents of the men who hold office in all their particularities and peculiarities, are part of God's plan for the Church. If the particular experience and outlook of bishops are one of the ways in which God graces the Church, they can also be one of the trials of the Church.
Such is the historical perspective of the episcopacy, a sober and realistic view of the essential role of bishops in the Church. They are the necessary structure put in place by Jesus who chose the first batch of his special co-workers after much prayer and reflection. By the second century of the history of the Church, when it became clear that the Parousia was going to be delayed far longer than ever anticipated, the role of bishops became even more important. The early Church began to teach that it was around the bishop that the community was to gather. Gathered with the bishop the community enjoyed a palpable experience of the Jesus Way of Life. We know that these bishops led perhaps one hundred families, not the huge metropolitan areas for which most bishops are responsible today. The early bishops led by example and service. They helped the community to get done what it believed it was called to in the Spirit of Jesus. The bishop is entrusted by the laying on of hands with the concern for the total mission in a diocese in and through communion with the People of God.
The bottom line is that just as Jesus needed the Apostles and disciples to get done what he wanted to do, so, too, a bishop cannot get done without his co-workers what he needs to and wants to do, and in the Catholic tradition, the people need the bishop as much as he needs them. I am reminded at this point of a story told about a bishop who after his ordination was greeted by a priest friend of his who shook his hand and said, "Congratulations, Excellency. You will never again have a bad meal, and you will never again hear the truth." A bishop cannot lead well unless he hears the truth. How many times people tell bishops not what they need to hear to make good decisions, but what the persons think the bishop wants to hear. This is probably the best example of the dancing bear syndrome, viz., tell him what pleases him, give him a taste of honey so that he doesn't act up or act out behaviours that we don't want of him. How detri-mental that is to the bishop himself and to his decision-making process. Perhaps that is why some sociologists now tell us that people, including those in religious institutions, get the leaders they deserve?
What Makes a Diocese Tick
What then makes a diocese tick? Is the diocese a political, cultural, historical, ethnic entity? We need a definition of diocese so that we do not forget it is foremost a faith community. A diocese is a community of communities. It is established by faith, maintained through faith, and grows through faith, hope, and love, in each other, and in all others. We are familiar with family relationships. No doubt in the family the blood ties dominate. Blood is thicker than water. An African bishop said about his Church members, and this has relevance to what I will say later on, "The blood of the tribe is thicker than the water of Baptism." The Church praises the family and calls the family a domestic Church. The domestic Church is not merely the family of natural ties. The domestic Church is a family of faith, constituted by the discipleship of Jesus. Jesus calls disciples to follow him. His discipleship demanded and demands a radical following which put natural family ties to the test. Becoming Christ's disciples involves "hating" one's father and mother, brothers and sisters. This sounds unnecessarily severe, harsh, and drastic but our scriptures call us to that. Jesus enjoyed a happy family life. Jesus praised the family as something God had ordered from the very beginning of time. Why else was he present at Cana at the beginning of a new family? Jesus knew that the well-being and pros-perity of society rested on the health and soundness of family life. Jesus also knew that all good things including family can become a source of idolatry. Fathers and mothers can worship their children to the point of blindness even at times leading to bloodshed. Fathers, mothers, children can worship the family name, its reputation, its prestige, and honour, its property so much so that they displace God with the family, and dishonour truth and justice. G. K. Ches-terton's well known statement about one's country may be adapted to say: "We may give your family money and blood but it is hardest to give her truth." C. S. Lewis said in this same regard, "We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe to God, and then they become demons."
The temptation for the family, and indeed for individuals, is to be closed in and become self-sufficient, forgetting others outside of their ken. but Jesus gave a clear call to his disciples to go beyond family ties. He chose an occasion that was unambiguous. His mother was seeking him from the crowd. When someone recognized Mary, that person cried out, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that suckled you." Jesus looked around and said, "Who is my mother, my brother, and my sister?" Jesus chose not to praise his mother because she gave him physical life, but Jesus chose to praise Mary because she heard the Word of God and kept it. A new relationship was born -- not of blood, not of the will of men and women -- but of the will of God. Jesus insists that anyone who does the will of God is brother, sister, and mother to him. Therefore, natural family ties do not automatically proclaim the Reign of God. It is the family of faith, constituted by discipleship, that proclaims the Reign of God.
The diocese, then, is a portion of the People of God, where the disciples, Jesus' faithful, are incorporated into the Body of Christ. This Body possesses the Spirit of Christ. The visible structure, then, is the means of salvation in and through Christ, and all are joined to Christ in it. The episcopate is responsible for this structure, linked with the historical Jesus by apostolic succession, and linked to the glorified Christ by ordination.
This twofold bond with Christ guarantees the Church's faith. The Church is nothing if it is not a communion of faith. This is the faith we profess and proclaim. A personal commitment is an imperative, not a passive, noncommittal, a nam ke vaste membership. St. Paul in the letter to the Romans, Chapter 1, Verse 5, speaks of "obedience of faith among all". In Acts 6:7, the priests who became disciples were "obedient to the faith". This significant theological aphorism underscores our relationship to the bishop, an obedience of faith. If there is no such faith, there is no such obedience. Where there is no obedience there is no communion. It may be an administrative convenience, but it is not ecclesial. Pope Paul VI says emphatically, "...evangelization is for no one an individual and isolated act. It is one that is deeply ecclesial. The preacher, catechist, or pastor acts not in virtue of mission which he attributes to himself, but in union with the mission of the Church. "No evangelizer is the absolute master of his evangelizing action, with a discretionary power to carry it out in accordance with individualistic criteria and perspectives; he acts in communion with the Church and pastors." (Evangelii Nuntiandi No. 60)
Break this faith and we endanger the Body of Christ. No matter how successful and relevant our ministry, it counts for little in the eyes of God if it is not in communion with the Church and her pastors. Strengthen that faith, and we enrich the Body of Christ. The Body grows and expands. This faith is deepened in the diocese when the Good News is proclaimed to all people at every level of life and endeavour. This faith is deepened in the diocese when:
- the faith is expressed in the integral human development of every person, man, woman, and child, and the whole person through a concern for justice and peace;
- the faith appreciates all that is truly good and beautiful in other religious persuasions, especially those of our neighbours and people of good will;
- the faith seeks closer union and cooperation with other Christian brothers and sisters;
- the faith is systematically formed through an on-going catechesis covering every section of the people of God;
- the faith is inculturated in the life and genius of the people;
- the faith celebrates with dignity and through an active participation the mystery of salvation and liberation in Christ;
- this faith joins hands with the people of our planet earth to preserve its eco-system;
- all the sections of the faithful support one another and are committed to a common mission and vision, when they accept that their participation is an agonising search and that there are no ready-made answers, when they accept the pain and suffering of the struggle to discover the truth with love and in obedience to faith.
This then is what a diocese is all about and what a bishop is all about and what our Church is all about. Nothing less than this is the Body of Christ.
Before I leave this section, I need to spend just a few moments on what I mean by the obedience and respect we owe the bishops. I am not talking about blind obedience nor am I talking about uncritical adulation, an especially insidious idolatry of the person of the bishop. Both are disastrous for a bishop who wants to be part of ushering in the Reign of God. Disciples of Jesus cannot do either and live the authentic Way of Jesus. We are all called to speak the truth in love. Our bishops, indeed all religious authorities, must know what we think and why. We are called to sororal and fraternal in-formation and even correction when that is required. When we have spoken the truth in love to our bishops, when we have in-formed them to the best of our ability, then we are asked to work with them and support their decisions. We are asked to give them the benefit of the doubt, knowing that sometimes they may have information which they cannot share with us. To do so might be to break a confidence or to be guilty of detraction or even slander. The bishops must act on all the knowledge they have from others as well as that with which we have provided them. Respecting the bishop means looking again at what they have decided, individually and corporately, and why they have made those decisions, for this is the Latin meaning of that word, viz., respicere, to look again. Obedience comes from ob audire, which means to hear again. In other words, it means using our minds, hearts, and spirits in giving the bishops "the plus sign", the benefit of the doubt, as those of us over sixty learned in our spiritual upbringing. It means, therefore, to believe in the good will of the bishop as much as we believe in our own. Only when we all cease to think of ourselves as victims and take responsibility for what we ourselves do or do not choose to do, will we have the community of faith which is the authentic diocese, the living cell of Jesus' Body.
What to Do
What is the present situation? There are now in the archdiocese 20,000 Catholics, some 205 parishes, missions, pastoral centres, dispensaries, educational institutes, homes for the aged, orphans and destitute persons, mother and child welfare centres, including a women's institute, a non-residential school for the mentally and physically disadvantaged, and a learning centre, which represent our efforts to evangelise 9 million people in six civil districts covering 55,000 square kilometres. There are extensive areas where there is no Catholic presence and no evangelisation whatsoever.
All apostolates in the diocese complement each other, and must not compete with each other. Studies in integral human development indicate that those activities rooted in a religious conviction or having some transcendental dimension are the most success-ful. The gospels give this dimension. The needs, wants, and aspirations of the persons on the margins of human society are rarely if ever met without sensitivity toward them and active work with them on the part of at least some members of the leadership classes involved. Our archdiocesan structure provides us with the ideal means for dialogue and collaboration at all levels for the building up of the Reign of God among all our peoples. In all of our undertakings personally and corporately, it is essential that we constantly ask ourselves if what we do will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of persons. Persons of every caste, creed, and community are ours to care for and be concerned about.
There are four main pastoral and apostolic areas of work in the archdiocese; the parish apostolate, the educational apostolate, the apostolate of consecrated religious, the apostolate of village communities.
The Parish Apostolate
There is no doubt that it is truly alive and generally well. Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, Youth Day, Family Day are now celebrated annually in all parishes and are the primary focus for adult catechesis. Lay participation in the preparation and celebration of sacraments is on the increase. The inculturation of the liturgy in India as approved in 1969 is now in place. Parish councils are working well. Sunday Schools are supplemented with Youth Camps at all levels. Social justice issues for all are being monitored by neighbourhood groups for prayer and action. Interreligious dialogue at the grass roots level is commonplace. The major present need in parishes is to expand the concept that every believer is "in/on mission" -- at home, at work, in every life situation. Mission must no longer be seen as primarily the work of priests and consecrated religious. And what is this mission? To think as Jesus thought, to teach as Jesus taught, especially by example, and to do as Jesus did to the point of giving our lives to end anything and everything that oppresses human dignity and the human spirit.
To do this our parish liturgies need to be de-centralised, for liturgy is where we enact dramatically the Jesus Way of Life, re-present it, and re-commit ourselves to live it. Living occurs in neighbourhoods and celebrations of life's "sacred moments", viz., sacraments, need to be right there in neighbourhoods and not occur in isolation from them. When this cannot be done, the entire neighbourhood must be invited to the Church.
Further, leaders of neighbourhood basic human communities should form the bulk of the parish council and be rotated regularly on a two-three year cycle. The parish priest must become more and more comfortable with the work of animator of his people, recognizing and applauding the infinite variety of gifts of laity and consecrated religious. He must never dictate but seek consensus in the parish council. He must also do all that he can to enhance marriage preparation among his people. This can be done best with the assistance of happily married couples.
The primary personal continuing educational goal for all priests of the archdiocese but especially for parish priests should be the acquiring of skills in social analysis and in understanding contemporary mission as integral human development.
The Educational Apostolate
All our schools are well appreciated for their academic excellence, discipline, controlled learning atmosphere, and cohesion. Staffs are dedicated and students are positive about the schools. Dramatic and musical presentations are excellent. Some schools have peer tuition programs in place. All are working to celebrate meaningfully Indian holidays and festivals thereby encouraging harmony and understanding to emphasize what citizens have in common rather than what separates them. Students do well in sports competitions. Nearly all students pass matriculation examinations and many do so with distinction. Increasing attention is being given to students who are financially deprived and to those with learning disabilities. Some principals are actively involved in faith formation in the schools and all have made time available for teachers to enhance their skills in teaching religious studies, catechetics, and values education.
Even better results would accrue and dialogue at all levels would be enhanced if in every school there were a counsellor appointed. This counsellor would not be a member of the administration but respected by them.
Values education needs to be undertaken immediately as seriously as is faith formation so that as Indians we may uncover and support what common values we share at the personal, inter-personal, and national level. More creative learning methods must be encouraged. There should be less emphasis on rote learning and more on cooperative learning and computer assisted education. The Nagpur Learning Centre has been established to supplement learning at all levels from pre-literacy through masters' programmes. Educationists ought to avail themselves of the huge numbers of teacher texts and international educational materials on student-centred learning on deposit at the Centre. Audio-visuals ought to be used widely so that learning becomes relevant to students and not simply something to be endured.
Greater inter-school collaboration and sharing is needed. All learning disabilities of any sort should be dealt with primarily in the home school especially through peer tuitions. School drop-outs of any age and students who learn differently than the methods offered in traditional classrooms should be encouraged to use the Nagpur Learning Centre for supplementary assistance. Any persons who will be assisted to find employment by having English language skills should be referred to the Centre as well.
Finally, the first concern of every headmaster and headmistress must be an open-door policy. It would be excellent if they made time also to be "roamers" in corridors, class rooms, staff rooms, being available informally to parents, students, teachers, custodial staff, for that special kind of "on the spot" management that only their persons can provide. Educationists at all levels would do well to study the principles of MBWA, management by walking around. Learning everywhere takes place best when the person in charge of the environment facilitates it rather than demands it.
The Apostolate of Consecrated Religious
Many consecrated religious speak of much fulfillment in their work. They support diocesan projects and do vital work in our seminary and in chaplaincies. The care given in homes for the aged, the chronically ill and handicapped, for mothers and children, orphans, in dispensaries, and as domestic service in our institutions is intelligent, loving, and gracious.
But there are three factors at the moment which seem to militate against closer collaboration in arch-diocesan projects on the part of consecrated religious, both men and women. They are:
- the charism of their particular congregation is vital to them and comes first with them and the over-all apostolate of the diocese does not;
- they are "birds of passage" and are often transferred from place to place and therefore their primary allegiance is to the congregation, and the commitment to a particular locality and its people is often aseptic and neutral;
- there is much concern on the part of vowed religious with the communitarian life of their own institutes but fostering communion among persons outside of their institutes is not a priority.
For example, congregations committed to education in a formal school setting are desperately needed now to put their educational expertise to work in non-formal education such as conscientization and awareness programmes. Sisters usually in hospitals and dispensaries are needed to visit neighbourhoods to prescribe herbal remedies and promote preventative health care. Retired sisters, especially teachers, have untold opportunities for work in adult literacy programs, including the National Open Schools and the Indira Gandhi Open University programmes. There is a wealth of opportunity for them and for others to volunteer at the Nagpur Learning Centre, especially to work with women since only 11% of India's women are now literate.
Finally, and vitally important is that assign-ments to a diocese need to be for a minimum of six years, preferably twelve. It must become the hallmark of congregations that they exist for the Church and not themselves and that the Church exists for the authentic human existence of all. They must also become convinced that it is the Ordinary who is charged with the ultimate responsibility of facilitating this mission.
The Apostolate of Village Communities
Persons serving in them are positive about these experiences, especially the simple life style. All are now part and parcel of village life. Extensive surveys of health problems have been completed and medical help from local authorities is being obtained. All the work done by archdiocesan personnel teaches the people to undertake organised action on their own behalf. Children are being taught personal hygiene which is resulting in the eradication of common skin diseases. Youth and women are being organised. State nurses and teachers are being supported and encouraged by the teams and many are now taking an uncommon interest in their duties, not.simply biding time until a better appointment. Parents are constantly being made aware of the need for the education of their children. Agricultural systems are being improved as personnel work with villagers sharing their know-how. Prayer in common is occurring more and more frequently.
The major needs now in this apostolate are that we establish more such communities and that vol-unteers come to see this apostolate as their life's work. Periodic times of renewal for workers in different settings are essential but in reality these persons are our new foreign missionaries bringing the Good News of Jesus in their persons and perhaps eventually in their proclamations, to those who do not know him or the Reign of God which he proclaimed. Three-year appointments to this work do more harm than good, to villagers and to volunteers alike. Prolonged absences from the villages even for training purposes also cause much confusion among tribal peoples. Women's communities need to have a minimum of four to five members in them for continuity and instruction, with at least three present at any given time.
Divergent thinking among teams and team members is to be valued rather than frowned upon and personal gifts and charisms must be applauded. Functional and personal relationships must never be confused. Here, as with our other animators, it is essential to remember that people are the executors of any plan.
This is my analysis of what I feel needs to be done to make of the Archdiocese of Nagpur a vital cell in the Body of Christ. As I mention at the outset of these recommendations they are freely given, freely to be received. They may not be what members of the various apostolates want to hear, but, in truth, I believe they are what they need to hear.
I have suggested above what I see are the strengths of our archdiocese and what needs to be done to make a good situation a better one. I think it is only fair at this point that I examine my own service to the archdiocese since I was installed as Ordinary on September 15, 1975. A few years ago in my pastoral visits to you and later in the pastoral visits of the vicars, I asked that you identify what you saw as the positive things about your present mission, and then I asked you not simply to criticize your apostolates but to suggest improvements for everything that causes you concern. This is creative thinking and taking responsibility rather than blaming others for what we are not individually or corporately. While the leadership of the diocese now passes to another, perhaps what I have learned personally from my leadership of you will be of use to him. So I begin with what I am happy about in terms of my service, and make suggestions that I believe would have improved my leadership.
I have been available to you. My open-door policy has made me accessible to priests and consecrated religious through whom I sought to effect formation and re-formation of our laity in the spirit of Vatican Council II. I believe that this open-door policy has put most of you at ease in your necessary deliberations of a personal and professional nature. I am especially happy that I asked you to call me Bishop Bhai which says in just two words what I believe I am for, a brother working with you shoulder to shoulder, beside you in your individual and corporate journeys.
When failing health necessitated my doing so, I asked for an auxiliary to better serve you with his assistance. When even this assistance still left me falling behind in what I believed should be my service and availability to you, I submitted my resignation as Archbishop of Nagpur. I am at great peace over this decision. I believe that it is the time to give over the leadership to one in better physical health, and perhaps better health of mind and spirit. I am happy in my work at St. Charles Seminary and hope that perhaps there I can help to raise up another gen-eration of "people's priests" which was my commitment at my sacerdotal ordination and in which I still believe.
If I had it all to do over again, there would be some changes I would make. I would spend more time among you in protracted visits to your missions. I would meet during such visits with you and the laity with whom you work and hope that we could mutually train and equip each other in that process about how to make the Reign of God a reality among us. I have learned that the spirit of Vatican II is that the clergy and the laity mutually train and equip each other, or there is no real renewal. I would want Archbishop's House to be located wherever my feet were at a given moment.
If I had it to do over I would wish that at moments my zeal could have been expressed more patiently and in an apparently less agitated fashion. If my impatience on occasion has offended you in any way, I ask for your forgiveness, for I am indeed one of those imperfect men about whom I wrote at the outset of these pages. In a special way I thank those of you, my true friends, who did not back down, no matter what my sometimes inappropriate response, from speaking the truth in love to me.
In addition to your forgiveness, I ask your prayers for this new phase of my life and yours. There have been far more joys in my service as archbishop than there have been sorrows, although I would be less than honest if I did not admit that there were sorrows. My hope and prayer is that you will be able to say of me that I have provided you with far more joys than sorrows in my leadership of you in the past.
Yours fraternally in Christ,
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur